TO expedite the federal government’s response to worsening drought conditions in eastern Australia, an emergency sub-committee is needed, says Queensland LNP Senator Barry O’Sullivan.
Mr O’Sullivan has also called for a cash stimulus package to be approved that can advance “shovel-ready” projects that support local businesses in a specific tract of land in north-west NSW and south-west Queensland hit by an incremental natural disaster.
Senator O’Sullivan’s push for greater drought support measures was underpinned by a heartfelt statement and warning to colleagues, in the Coalition’s joint-party room meeting late last month.
In it, he urged other MPs and Senators to consider the social and economic impacts of the largest industry in their electorate shutting down including for ancillary businesses, school enrolments and other essential community services.
That message gained further momentum when Prime Minister Tony Abbott referred to Senator O’Sullivan’s “poignant passionate plea” in an interview on 2GB radio with high profile broadcaster Alan Jones last week.
“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.
“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.”
Call for stimulus package
Senator O’Sullivan is now looking for that plea to be backed-up by cabinet members during the current negotiations leading into the federal budget’s delivery in about five weeks.
This week, he told Fairfax Media drought-breaking rains had arrived in many parts of Queensland.
But a large tract of land in north-west NSW and south-west Queensland had missed out on spring and summer rains of 2014-15 and was destocked.
Even if rain arrived in the near future, it would be another 12-18 months before any significant income was generated in that region, which not only supported cattle producers, but flowed through to ancillary businesses, he said.
In calling for a stimulus package, Senator O’Sullivan has this week written to Mr Abbott underlining his concerns about the sustainability of those communities suffering from extended drought, without income generation.
Senator O’Sullivan said Mr Abbott visited Longreach, Queensland, in February last year to observe drought conditions first-hand with Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce, where a $320 million support package was announced.
But he said since then, 100 students had left the State school and are unlikely to return, given the dramatic downturn in business activity.
“I’ve asked the PM to set up an emergency sub-committee of cabinet so they can take depositions off Senators and MPs whose electorates are affected by this severe drought,” he said.
“I’m also calling for an immediate cash stimulus for this area.
“This has to go under the category of an immediate cash stimulus and is what Kevin Rudd and Labor argued for as a response during the GFC.
“This involves a combination of cataclysmic circumstances I’ve not seen before during all my time in the bush.
“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.”
Help via RDA channels
Senator O’Sullivan said the cabinet sub-committee would comprise relevant members whose portfolios are affected by the drought response – including treasury, trade, social services, agriculture and infrastructure.
He said the most immediate way to administer the cash stimulus package was via local government agencies and Regional Development Australia (RDA) committees.
Senator O’Sullivan said the basic requirements for any “shovel-ready” projects - to be advanced by RDA’s and local government - would be; making an immediate start; funds spent in a specific time frame; and use of local employees, contractors and materials.
He said until more work was done to develop details of his proposal, he wouldn’t know the stimulus package’s exact dollar figure - but stressed, “It won’t be earth shattering”.
“I’m sure I’ll be invited to have input into whatever we do but if we also get a senior cabinet sub-committee onto it there will certainly be action,” he said.
“If this had been cyclones, catastrophic bushfires or flooding the whole nation would have responded - but because it has been incremental natural disaster that’s come up slowly over a few years, people react differently.
“However, this is a death of a thousand dry cuts.
“We all know what impact it has had on the pastoral industry and the government has responded with the drought support packages and concessional loans that are out there.
“But I’ve made the point to the PM that this is not about pastoralists; this is about businesses and rural economies and small communities that are absolutely essential to the future of primary economies in the bush,” he said.
“Remember 66 per cent of our national cattle herd is in Queensland and the nation should also know we’re transitioning from a resources economy to an agricultural economy, which is another reason why these communities need our support.”