THE economy of western Queensland is rapidly collapsing and urgent help is needed to pull communities back from the brink.
So says Longreach accountant Bill Ringrose, partner in a business that extends from Hughenden to Blackall, a position that means he is able to take the pulse of the economic well-being of an extensive part of the state.
What he sees isn’t healthy. There are dramatic turnover declines of 50 to 60 per cent in once-thriving businesses, both out of town and along main streets.
“We’re seeing staff let go, which is the first thing people do to cut costs,” he said.
“Then there’s a knock-on effect. When there’s no option for work, families go and they don’t come back.”
Bill is also the president of the Longreach State School P&C and has watched enrolments decline from 339 three years ago to 225 this year.
“I know of others who are planning to leave so that number could go lower,” he said.
Rural businesses in many cases are absolutely depleted from feeding stock to keep them alive through a drought that began in 2013 and continues for many.
Bank accounts have been topped up by the subsequent sale of those animals but landholders know it’s temporary – once their paddocks are empty and there’s no grass, prospects of adding to those coffers are few and far between.
Discretionary spending has been the first casualty, followed by slashes to essential needs – grocery orders are down to the bare minimum and people are unwilling to run air-conditioning even when the temperature exceeds 40 degrees.
Last Wednesday a meeting was called in Longreach to coordinate the many well-intentioned drought relief efforts taking place, but it took on another life as well, to build on the support already being given.
Some 100 people attended the meeting called jointly by the Longreach Regional Council and the Longreach Rotary Club, including representatives of Aussie Helpers and Warwick’s Community Disaster Relief Van, each working separately in response to public calls for assistance.
The well-attended meeting indicated the concern there is to get the relief effort right and to channel concerns into the best avenues possible.
Rotary’s Dave Phelps said the two schools of thought complemented each other.
“One is about short-term relief and the other is about effective long-term help.
“I’m sure we will find a way to do both.”
The meeting gave many a chance to express their heartfelt feelings, amongst them grazier Rosemary Champion.
“Graziers have received a lot of help in the last few years and we’re extremely grateful,” she said.
“What people need now is cash flow. We don’t have any stock left. The rural crisis isn’t about hay, it’s about keeping businesses going.”
Eagle Street shopkeeper Deb Hogan has begun her own campaign to attract tourism dollars via social media, posting a picture called Stay a Night – Spend a Dollar, already shared more than 40,000 times.
She told the meeting that people had expressed the opinion that food hampers weren’t an appropriate form of drought relief, and asked if cash donations could go towards relieving the expense of paying rates.
Further suggestions included a television campaign to raise awareness, and funding for a coordinator to manage the drought effort.
A management group has since met and decided on two main prongs of action, to coordinate the money coming in, and to start an appeal for cash that can be turned into vouchers redeemable only in western towns.
Bill Ringrose said this was a very important part of the relief effort, to ensure local business was a beneficiary.
He is conscious that while the impetus was happening in Longreach, many other parts of the west were in need of similar help.
“We’ll meet again next week and look at how much further we take our ideas,” he said.
“We would like to make this work on a large scale.
“Above all, it’s critical that we move quickly.”
Calls for the federal government to declare drought-affected areas a natural disaster have been given the thumbs down by the inspector in charge of Longreach police, Mark Henderson.
In his role as the Longreach District disaster coordinator, Mr Henderson said it was his call, in consultation with his minister, to declare a natural disaster.
“In Queensland a declared disaster is only for 14 days in the first instance with the possibility of another 14 day extension.
“It doesn’t really cover a long-term event like drought,” he said.
According to the Disaster Management Act, a disaster is a serious disruption in a community, caused by an impact of an event that requires a significant coordinated response by the state and other entities to help the community recover.
A serious disruption is said to include the loss of human life or illness or injury, widespread or severe property loss, or widespread damage to the environment.
“You could say the environment and property is damaged, but it doesn’t fit the criteria – the timeframe is too short,” Mr Henderson said.
• A Facebook group has been set up to help manage donations – search for Western Queensland Drought Appeal