WITH morale low in south-west Queensland, people have been looking towards the agricultural white paper to deliver a visionary statement for rural and regional Queensland.
And it hasn’t, according to the Mayor of the Paroo Shire Council, Lindsay Godfrey.
“There are some good parts to it, but I thought what was missing was a certain message of hope and an understanding of the position of rural and remote Australia,” he said.
There was nothing visionary – like the Snowy Mountain Scheme, the Sydney Harbour Bridge or Dr Bradfield’s plans for developing the north – all created after the depression.
“We’ve spoken to every minister from top to bottom about this but it is very hard to get through the visionary argument,” Cr Godfrey said.
“There are whole areas in the paper that are positive – the black spots, the increased money in research funding - but they don’t fall into a national vision for making agriculture sustainable.”
Agriculture had been crippled with a steady increase in costs since the oil shocks of the 1970s, and there were very few people left in the rural and remote sector.
“Every year we have costs, like registrations and electricity, going up faster than commodity prices and something has to give.”
In Cr Godfrey’s fire brigade area, which covers more than 400,000 hectares, there are now only two families when 20 years ago there were 30.
“We have had all these macro factors – terms of trade, exchange rate, interest rates, that we look at academically, but it is right into the agriculture world where these policies hit hard.”
The lack of vision could only be rectified by a political will and broader thinking.
The white paper’s focus on infrastructure is on dams, but the south-west region would like to explore the feasibility of tunnelling water for the Murray Darling.
There needed to be this big-thinking rather than looking at buying back water or restricting water," Cr Godfrey said.
One solution, which the south-west councils had been lobbying for, was a national rural finance board to attract investment and then use this to fund infrastructure projects, exceptional droughts and succession.
“There are an enormous number of investors looking to Australia as a safe haven to invest – not so much for returns but for safety.
“The current financial system can’t fund these capital projects, as the cost-benefit analysis means they have to have their money back in 10 years, and they won’t.
“These are long-term projects and these are nation building.”
The fund could then be used for cluster fences, the Great Artesian Basin Sustainability Initiative, and natural disasters, like exceptional droughts.
“We are challenging governments of all persuasions to look more broadly at the nation and the options that are available.”
A start, Cr Godrey said, would be for them to visit the Snowy Mountain Scheme, as he did over Christmas.
Meanwhile, the South West RED welcomed the initiatives of the ag white paper, saying it highlighted the importance of agriculture to the Australian economy.
Member of the South West Regional Economic Development group and Quilpie Mayor, Cr Stuart McKenzie, said with robust markets already in place for cattle and sheep, it was vital good agricultural policy was also in place to support industry growth.
“Besides the weather variable, sheep and cattle are a good industry to be in – the strong markets are there and should stay, given the Asian demand.
“But agriculture needs the support of good infrastructure and this includes water, roads and rail.”
Cr Mackenzie said while he acknowledged rail was not part of the white paper, all rail decisions going forward needed to be in harmony with the white paper to get real agricultural advancement.
“I think also, it is good the black spot program is being boosted – and there is much more to be done in this space," he said.
“Regional Queensland needs and deserves better telecommunications to succeed in today’s economy.
“It might be okay to put policy down on paper; I want to see it in action and to see our regional communities thrive again under these initiatives.
“This will need greater cooperation between all levels of government.
“The concessional loans extension is a good move and we welcome the acknowledgement there needs to be more flexibility in agricultural finance."
Cr Mackenzie concluded saying South West RED thinks overall the paper is a good start but there is an obvious need for more long-term visionary planning, like a national rural finance board to fund big infrastructure projects and look at ways to protect agriculture through succession farming.
"We think the populous nature of governments today probably restrict either side from making long-term commitments, which is why we need to look at independent boards for long-term decision making."