Senate debates

Wednesday, 11 September 2019

Statements by Senators

Riverina Electorate: Drought

1:50 pm

Photo of Deborah O'NeillDeborah O'Neill (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to put on the record some significant engagements I've had in the duty Senate seats which I have been allocated by the Labor Party, and to which I attend with considerable joy—not that I always see things there that give me joy, but it is a pleasure to meet with Australians to talk about what's happening in their community and articulate the needs and concerns of those communities.

One of the key areas that I went to was in the seat of Riverina, the seat that is held at the moment by the Deputy Leader of the Liberal-National coalition and the Leader of the National Party, Mr McCormack. Despite the drought—and I have been in other parts of New South Wales—I would say that there are still some rolling green hills in the seat of Riverina. They were quite a sight. Clearly there is a boundless natural beauty in an environment of which the whole of that community is very proud, and they are warm and very welcoming people.

I commenced my visit and inquiry of local people with a visit to the Riverina FEC, with members who gathered in Young, from Parkes, Cootamundra and Wagga Wagga Wagga, to let me know about the issues affecting them and the communities in which they live. I also stayed at the Empire Hotel to speak to local residents about issues that are of great concern. Unsurprisingly, many of the of the participants in those conversations expressed some considerable concern about the impact of the drought. While they are still, as I said, experiencing some greenness of the fields—and there is a bit of canola there—they are dependent on the broader economy in the western part of New South Wales into which they plug, and they are very concerned about the impact of failure by this government to strategically plan for drought. It's a failure which those in the other place have been discussing. I know that in my team, particularly this morning on the radio, the member for Hunter, Mr Fitzgibbon, pointed out the failure of this government over six or seven years to come up with a strategic plan to protect the people that they're supposed to be looking after in the regional parts of this country.

Locals tell me they're very alarmed at the state of provision of health care. They are subject to considerable burden because of the tyranny of distance, and they articulated great concern about the cost of having to drive to large regional centres to get health care and even to access GPs, such is the abject failure of this government in providing the most basic services to people in the bush. They're also very concerned about the action of the Liberal-National party at state level that forced amalgamations, and about a failure by this government to attend to the reality of a need for real jobs and proper stimulus of the economy where they live.

Just to show how out of touch some of the members who come to this place are, I would like to put on the record the concern I have about Wagga Wagga Airport, and how it reveals the tin ear of the local member, Mr McCormack. He is not backing his local community, but rather saying they don't need the sort of assistance that the community and I happen to think is very important.

Wagga Wagga City Council is one of only two per cent of regional councils who don't own their airport. Instead of owning their airport, as most of the other cities around this country do, they are slugged with a $300,000 cost every year by the Department of Defence. That $300,000 is money that's garnered from rates. It could be money that Wagga Wagga council could be spending on roads, guttering and public amenities for the local community. It is clear that the people of Wagga Wagga deserve a better deal from this government, and they certainly deserve much more advocacy and a better deal from their local member, who has been out there and looks like he thinks he can take it for granted. Callously ruling out support for the council owning the airport, Mr McCormack went on the record and said that this isn't a problem and it's not a problem for him. So Wagga Wagga should note that the Deputy Prime Minister of Australia, who one would think is in a position of considerable influence with this government, has chosen not to support his local community and instead to support the very, very well-endowed bank balance of the Department of Defence. That is abrogating your responsibility for your community.

I was also fortunate to tour two facilities that were operated by Catholic Social Services, the Edel Quinn Shelter and the Micah Hub. I was able to chat with some of the inspiring workers and volunteers who make it their business to help those most needy in their communities. I want to put on the record that both these institutions are supported by Catholic Social Services, and people of faith are expressing their faith in practical action by supporting people in that community. These volunteers and workers let me know that the Drought Community Support Initiative was ended in June. This was a payment that was granted to charities like those that I visited, and its purpose was to provide immediate assistance to farmers, farm workers, farm suppliers and contractors who are facing hardship arising from the impact of drought. Let me remind you that I heard from these workers that the Drought Community Support Initiative was ended in June. It was ended in June by the government with a member for Riverina who lives in Wagga Wagga not standing up for his community and not supporting the community and the councillors who don't want to be paying $300,000 to the Department of Defence. And that same minister has refused to sort out this problem with the drying up of funds for people who need support from drought.

We've been told by local farmers that while the green hills of the Wagga Wagga area and the seat of Riverina are still there, providing some visual comfort to those who drive through and some action in their economy, we do know that there was very little soil moisture and we were told that as little as two hot, dry weeks would leave those fields in Riverina looking like much of the rest of New South Wales. That is a fragile economy. It is a fragile community, and there is no-one from the National Party standing up for them to support them in their time of need.

I also want to put on the record that I visited the town of Gundagai. Many of you would know the old song about the dog on the tuckerbox and would have heard of its recent demise due to some vandals. I'm pleased to report that the dog is back on its tuckerbox, but everything else is not all well in the town of Gundagai. I met with residents and local government representatives, and I was joined on a street walk by Councillor Charlie Sheahan, who is a local and was able to give me a great insight into that town. I heard about the Gundagai Show and I spoke to small-business owners like Ron Moses of Moeys, who talked to me about the changing retail conditions in regional New South Wales and the value of being a traditional shopfront in an increasingly impersonal world.

I was also privileged to have a coffee with the owners of the historic Niagara Cafe. This is the longest continuously operating Greek cafe in Australia, and it contains a treasure-trove of Labor Party history. It was, in fact, the site of a momentous Curtin war cabinet meeting in 1942. Apparently the proprietor was awoken at 1 am by soldiers, and the family rose and cooked a hearty meal of steak and eggs while the cabinet made a decision at that cafe in the main street of Gundagai to pull the troops out of Europe and move them into the Pacific theatre to protect our homeland. I want to express my profound thanks to Tony, Denise and Tina Loukassis for opening their cafe for us, for the lovely coffee and biscuits and for the opportunity to breathe the history that infuses their business. I was also able to meet with the mayor, Abb McAlister, and Councillors Leigh Bowden and Penny Nicholson who, with Charlie Sheahan, gave me insights into that whole town. We know that the failure of the council amalgamations to deliver real benefits for the people of Gundagai and the cost inefficiencies caused by amalgamation are a real concern to this community, but they are lacking representation here by Mr McCormack, who should be doing a much better job for the people of the bush. (Time expired)