AGRICULTURE Minister Barnaby Joyce says Prime Minister Tony Abbott shares his enthusiasm for funding "shovel-ready projects" to stimulate economic activity in drought-stricken NSW and Queensland communities.
Last week Queensland LNP Senator Barry O’Sullivan demanded an emergency sub-committee of federal cabinet be established to help expedite the federal government’s response to severe and worsening drought conditions.
Applying pressure in the lead-up to next month’s federal budget, he has also called for a cash stimulus package to advance projects that support local businesses in those areas of north-west NSW and south-west Queensland.
Senator O’Sullivan suggested the cabinet sub-committee could comprise members whose portfolios are affected by the drought response, including treasury, trade, social services, agriculture and infrastructure.
He said the best way to administer the cash stimulus package was via local government agencies and Regional Development Australia committees.
Senator O’Sullivan also wrote to Mr Abbott underlining his concerns about the sustainability of those communities suffering extended drought, without income generation.
Mr Abbott visited Longreach in February last year to observe drought conditions first-hand with Mr Joyce where a $320 million support package was announced.
But Senator O’Sullivan said since then, 100 students had left the State school and were unlikely to return, given the dramatic downturn in business activity.
“This is not just a cry for help; it’s a scream for help,” he said.
“These are resilient people who are very slow to come to government and put their hand out.
“But now they’re saying ‘help us out until it rains and then we’ll take care of ourselves again’ - which I think is a very powerful request and it’s in the nation’s interest to respond.”
Announcement imminent, says Joyce
National Party MPs Mark Coulton and Bruce Scott are also working to gain funding for those projects to inject business activity into their electorates, which are suffering some of the worst impacts of the lingering drought.
They believe key prerequisites must be utilising local contractors and employees and also purchasing materials in those communities.
This week, Mr Joyce said he’d been talking to the Prime Minister for “some time” about drought measures and had also been in direct correspondence with Mr Abbott last week.
“I’m not going to start announcing what’s in the budget or what’s not but we are (working) at it,” he said.
“And might I give the Prime Minister credit where credit’s due. This is something that he’s fully a part of and he’s just as enthusiastic as I am to make sure that something’s delivered.”
Mr Joyce said his office had called all local councils in the drought affected areas of Queensland and NSW, “to make sure we bring forward projects which are pertinent to them”.
"My office has called all councils in Queensland and NSW, from Longreach to Ilfracombe, to Paroo, sections of the Murweh shire council around Charleville and Brewarrina, Walgett and Burke,” he said.
“We have to do it in such a way as to get some form of liquidity back into those communities.
“It’s not only helping the farmers on the land but also the townspeople because these people are also now without any form of substantive income.
“My correspondence with the Prime Minister is continuing on. I don’t want to announce the sort of numbers we’re talking about but we’re taking this very seriously and we will have something to announce.”
Mr Joyce said the projects would sit apart from the Coalition’s soon to be released Agricultural Competitiveness White Paper and would be “a one-off project”.
Mr Abbott recently repeated the sentiment of Senator O’Sullivan’s drought support plea made in the Coalition’s joint-party room meeting late last month about drought being a natural disaster.
“He (Senator O’Sullivan) said if there’s a flood, if there’s a fire, if there’s a storm, the emergency services come and they fix the problem as best they can, but with a drought it just gets worse and worse over months and years and eventually no one comes because there’s not much left,” Mr Abbott said in an interview with Alan Jones on 2GB Radio.
“It was a very poignant passionate plea and after that, I sat down with the most affected local member, Bruce Scott, the Member for Maranoa in Western Queensland and I said, ‘look, what can we do?’
“He and I agreed that we would work on some local projects that would be important signs of faith by our country in these parts of Australia and important demonstrations of the commitment that the rest of Australia has to these parts of our country.
“But… there is no easy answer.”