It’s been another tough year for people running businesses in western Queensland despite buoyant commodity prices, thanks to a drought that won’t go away.
Preliminary results from the Western Queensland Drought Appeal’s 2016-17 survey have given weight to anecdotal stories of the decline in economic activity and resulting population shrinkage in towns throughout the west.
Presented publicly for feedback in Longreach recently, it showed that from 2011 to 2016, some 1500 people left the central west, bringing the population of the whole region down to around 10,000.
Around 700 jobs were lost in the same timeframe, equivalent to a loss of $100 million, and the number of primary school-aged children in the region has halved since 2008.
Western Queensland Drought Appeal chairman, David Phelps, said the next few weeks and months would be crucial in determining what the picture looked like in 2018.
“People are desperately hoping this summer will bring rain,” he said. “People are hanging in there but if there’s no rain, I just don’t know if they can do it for another 12 months.”
His committee made another distribution of debit cards across the west and north west prior to Christmas, which meant that almost all the $880,000 raised by the group had now been given out.
“If the drought does continue in the new year, we’ll have to renew the push for help,” he said, adding that generous donations still trickled in from sources such as companies in the west who were close to the pain of drought, and from service clubs outside the region.
“People understand the drought is still there but not at the same level of a year ago,” he said.
The shires with the lowest socio-economic status were Diamantina, Boulia, Winton and Barcoo. Longreach fared better even though it had a significant welfare base.
The survey’s preliminary findings informed a communique made to politicians during the state election campaign, highlighting what its research uncovered as priorities to rescue affected communities and build their resilience.
Key among them were investing in western Queensland and rebuilding services removed, particularly public services.
“That’s from the point of view not only of boosting the amount of money in communities but to give the public here a better service,” David said.
He said the survey showed it was also important to invest in activities that built private enterprise.
“Business people cherish their communities and care for their staff,” he said.
“They’ve foregone paying themselves and eaten into their superannuation to keep their staff, but in some cases they still haven’t been able to keep people on.
“But they’re the first to realise that keeping people employed helps their town overall.”
On a more positive note, David said a government productivity report had shown the central west, the Longreach region in particular, was above average in adaptability scores.
“When the circumstances are tough, they’ve had the ability to make changes and not be stuck in the ways of the past, so that shows they’re good places to invest in,” he said.