Western Queenslanders will have plenty of drought aid suggestions for Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, when he arrives in western Queensland on Tuesday on a "listening tour".
He will be visiting Blackall, Charleville and Boulia as part of a three-day tour of drought-stricken parts of eastern Australia that will also take in Dubbo, Trangie and Narromine in NSW, giving landholders and their communities an opportunity to share the challenges of facing up to a sixth year of drought.
Mr Turnbull will be accompanied on parts of the trip by deputy Prime Minister, Michael McCormack, Agriculture Minister, David Littleproud, Regional Development Minister, John McVeigh, and Rural Health Minister, Bridget McKenzie.
The announcement of the tour comes on the heels of a call by Senator Barry O’Sullivan for a fresh injection of employment-generating infrastructure funding, followed by fellow Senator Matt Canavan’s promise to table the Western Queensland Drought Appeal’s Beyond the Dust report with Cabinet, when he visited the Longreach Show last month.
Renewed access to the Farm Household Allowance, more money for cluster fences, and a new round of the Drought Communities Program are some of the ideas that will be put to Mr Turnbull and fellow ministers when Blackall-Tambo Regional Council mayor, Andrew Martin, gets his opportunity to speak for his communities.
‘Give us hope’
He wants the federal government to give them hope.
“If people can’t see to the other side of this, of course they’re going to be depressed,” he said. “We need the government to give them a bit of hope with some help.”
That help could be in the form of renewed access to the Farm Household Allowance, introduced in 2014 as a support payment to help recipients meet basic household needs, with a three-year eligibility period.
A year ago, Queensland Country Life reported that almost 35 per cent of FHA recipients, or 1634 people Australia-wide, were due to reach the end of their 1095-day entitlement limit.
“The Farm Household Allowance is the only pension I know of in the world that falls off a cliff in a time frame,” Cr Martin said. “The horror of that is felt right across communities – towns are in big trouble too.”
He said he would also speak positively for a fresh round of the Drought Communities Program, that would give councils an “untethered” amount to spend at their discretion to keep people in employment.
The Blackall-Tambo council spent their allocation on improvements at the saleyards, and upgrades for the town’s main tourist attraction, the Blackall Woolscour.
Money for roadworks, a rural reconstruction bank, and ongoing cluster fence funding are also on his speaking agenda.
“Cluster fences won’t save people in this drought but we need to think about long-term drought resilience,” he said.
“An agent has moved 15,000 sheep to the Longreach area – it shows people have seen the light.
“A lot of them can’t be part of the current schemes though – they might have neighbours who don’t want to join in, and there are linkages needed.”
A variety of suggestions for government support were made in the Western Queensland Drought Appeal’s 2016-17 survey recently released, including paying the rates of all in drought-declared shires.
In Queensland, that’s 22 shires and four part shires, or more than 57 per cent of the state.
The report revealed that 1500 people left Queensland’s central west between 2011 and 2016, that around 700 jobs were lost, equivalent to a loss of $100 million, and the number of primary school-aged children in the region has halved since 2008.
The Western Queensland Drought Appeal exhausted its $880,000 donated kitty at Christmas last year, making another distribution of debit cards across the west and north west.
Another priority of the drought survey is to see services, particularly public services, rebuilt.
It also wants to see the first home buyers’ grant extended to allow young people to buy older houses, noting that all the houses for sale in the west are existing, not new, and therefore don’t qualify.
Both Mr Canavan and Mr Littleproud have touted the $34m put towards tourism projects – $8m for the Waltzing Matilda Centre and $26.3m for the Qantas Founders Museum and the Australian Stockmans Hall of Fame – as ways the government has already helped diversify the economic base in Queensland’s west.
This week’s trip is being described as giving the federal government an opportunity to ensure it crafts a response, including working with the NSW and Queensland governments, that provides the best possible assistance for farmers facing hardship.
“This week, I want to ensure our farmers and communities in regional Australia know we are listening to them,” Mr Turnbull said.
“Millions of Australians enjoy fresh produce each and every day despite the hardship of our dedicated, enterprising and above all, tough farming community.
“This week I look forward to saying thank you, and asking what we can do to make life easier. “
Deputy Prime Minister, Michael McCormack, said the federal government was becoming increasingly concerned about the drought biting hard in parts of regional Australia.
“That’s why we are taking this step to go out and talk to the people in these communities on the ground and to hear their concerns first hand,” he said. “That will help the government to consider what type of additional support, if any, we may be able to provide.”