WESTERN Queensland is nearly empty of stock and facing a half-billion-dollar reduction in revenue this year alone.
The dire situation is threatening the foundations of the small towns dotted across the grey landscape, but its residents are not giving up without a fight.
The region’s main service town Longreach is getting ready to host hundreds of visitors who will be digging in their pockets for the national launch of the Western Queensland Drought Appeal.
Taking place on September 25-26, the weekend will include a concert by enduring rock legend and one of Australia’s most significant songwriters, Paul Kelly.
He’ll be joined by his nephew Dan Kelly and mate Troy Cassar-Daley on the steps of the ultimate monument to bush tenacity, the Australian Stockman’s Hall of Fame.
The following day a drought forum will look at what is needed to help the west get back on its feet, followed by the celebration of 125 years of horse racing at Longreach.
Among the crowd will be two 100-seat planeloads of guests from Brisbane paying for the chance to visit the region and its attractions, be entertained and help raise money at the same time.
The following Wednesday the Today Show will broadcast a similar message across Australia.
Drought appeal boss Dave Phelps said that even before the official appeal launch the group had banked $150,000 through service club donations, a social media presence and a similar weekend of racing and tourism at Ilfracombe in July.
Thanks to this, money has begun to flow to people in need. Mr Phelps said 200 prepaid debit cards had been sent out to everyone on properties in the wider Longreach region, as far north as Muttaburra.
“This means managers, not landlords far away,” he said.
“We’ve asked people if they don’t believe they need these, to return them or pass them on to someone who does.
“We are also asking people to spend them in local businesses.”
The drought appeal is aimed at stemming the flow of a massive loss of income that is putting the region’s self-employed graziers on the same level as Australia’s unemployed and people below the poverty line.
“We hope the launch will really put the appeal up on another level. We need cash. Whether people choose to donate to this or their local Salvos or Lions or Rotary, it’s still coming to the region in some format.
“We need to help people from the gulf right down to the border.”
Mr Phelp’s greatest wish is to see public perception and government policy changed as a result of the weekend’s media exposure.
“We need more fair dinkum government investment in the west, not staff for the sake of it, but for research, development and extension – things that will make a lasting difference.
“And we need support for local businesses who are left out of drought assistance schemes.”
A simple thing like a government ‘buy local’ policy could make all the difference, he said, citing government stationery contracts that were worth “two parts of bugger all” to urban chains but could stop doors from closing in western centres.
That’s a scenario that greatly disturbs drought appeal sponsor and Brisbane restaurateur John Kilroy, who has his own links with the bush.
His parents owned country at St George and Muttaburra but John moved to Brisbane “where there’s less drought”. He is the first to understand the importance of keeping services and businesses in small towns. “Once you lose them, they’re gone,” he said. “You won’t replace chemists and electricians and the like when they go.”
He is one of many corporate Australians putting their hands in their pockets to help people in the grip of drought.
Delicious finger food – Wagyu chuck, pork rolls and corned meat wrapped in steamed rice buns – will be flown west for the race meeting from Kilroy’s Brisbane restaurants, along with 300kg of AACo’s sweetest 18 to 24-month grainfed beef from the Barkly region.
AACo CEO Jason Strong said anyone making an effort for drought relief deserved AACo’s support. Mr Phelps thanked his committee for enlisting a groundswell of support for bush people badly in need.