Continuing Severe Drought in Queensland

Today I would like to speak about the continuing severe drought in many parts of Queensland, particularly Western Queensland.

Many senators would know that around 80 per cent of Queensland remains drought-declared, and while in recent weeks and months there has been some relieving rainfall in certain areas, there are certainly large parts of Queensland that have remained without significant rainfall for nearly four years now.

Many of these areas that have been drought declared have had three wet seasons—or three summers; it is a summer rainfall system in most of Queensland—without any significant rain. That has meant a degrading pasture situated in these areas. It has meant a substantial destocking of cattle and sheep from these areas. Also, over time, it has had a consequent flow-on impact on the towns, communities and small businesses that populate western and northern Queensland.

Just this week we heard that the Townsville abattoir will be closing early this year for Christmas because of the lack of cattle in the area. That is a direct result of this drought. That will impact 500-odd workers in the Townsville meatworks who will have lower pay over the Christmas period.

Last week I travelled to Quilpie, which is a town in Western Queensland, west of the major town of Roma. It remains stricken by drought, and, frustratingly, it has not been able to qualify for some drought funding.

Before I go into detail on Quilpie, I do want to give credit to the government for a range of measures of support that they have implemented in response to the drought. There have been additional concessional loans and grants for certain infrastructure investments for farmers and graziers affected by drought. Some of those have been incredibly popular—especially the water infrastructure money, which has been taken up in great degree. They have been a great help to the farming sector affected by drought.

Another thing that the Commonwealth government has done in the last few months is to implement the Drought Communities Program, a program targeted at helping the towns and communities and small businesses and not only the farming sector itself. I give credit for what is an innovative program—a unique program, in response to a uniquely severe drought. It is directed at trying to get businesses going again in these towns and communities; it is trying to give them some sustenance to ensure that businesses can survive through this drought so that they are there, ready to rebuild, once it rains. And it is only rain that will help us get back to what was there before, but this funding can help to do some of the work to make us a better future when that rain occurs. The funding is to fund shovel-ready projects in these communities, to provide employment and stimulus to local businesses. Seventeen shires have now been declared as eligible for funding in Australia, not just in Queensland; there are some in western New South Wales as well. Each council will be eligible for up to $1½ million to fund these shovel-ready projects.

Unfortunately, the Quilpie Shire Council has so far failed to receive declaration—notwithstanding that it is almost in the centre of the drought-affected area of Western Queensland. All shires surrounding Quilpie have been declared, but Quilpie itself has missed out, and I will go into a little detail about why it has.

The government has been deciding on funding by using rainfall data, which is perfectly reasonable. They have been using Bureau of Meteorology data to assess whether or not 20 per cent of a council's area has a one-in-20-year rainfall deficiency. Generally speaking, that works well, and I absolutely recognise that there needs to be a rules based approach to public funding. However, in the case of Quilpie there are a number of deficiencies in the data which have meant that they have, unreasonably and unfairly, in my view, missed out.

The data that is used for the Quilpie Shire Council relies on six Bureau of Meteorology stations and rainfall stations. There are more stations in the Quilpie Shire Council, but many of them do not have data or do not have sufficient data over the relevant period to use. One thing I have learned from my trip to Quilpie and from looking at this data is that the data being collected at the moment is not as good as it was back in the 1890s. Many of these sites have very good rainfall data for the late 19th century and right up until the late 20th century, but in the last 10 or 15 years there has been a marked drop-off in the quality, accuracy and consistency of the data collected. The locals put that down to consolidation and to bigger businesses coming in and taking less time to collect data for the bureau.

Be that as it may, we have the data and we have to work with it, and, because it relies on only six stations, it is not a complete record of what is happening in Quilpie, and it particularly fails to pick up some of the areas in the western part of the shire, which are some of the worst affected. This data, like all statistics, can mislead you if you rely on it too much. I have had a look at the data from the six sites. The sites have varying availability themselves, but some of the sites have sufficient data. What seems to have happened is that in February 2014 a storm event occurred in the Quilpie Shire Council's area, in many parts of Quilpie. It delivered around 100 millimetres of rain—around five inches in the old scale. That event alone has meant that Quilpie has not qualified—just one storm has meant that it has failed to meet the one-in-20-year rainfall deficiency on a number of these graphs. If you take it out they would actually meet the deficiency.

It may seem that the storm delivered rain and therefore they should not qualify. However, a storm like that coming through in a drought situation in fact does more damage than good. It destroys topsoil and it does not help pasture regenerate. It has meant that the situation in Quilpie, from a drought perspective, is just the same as its neighbouring councils, such as Murweh Shire Council.

I think we need to look beyond just the rainfall data. There is nothing specific in the guidelines for this program that make us use rainfall data only. There should be a rules based approach. But I believe in situations like this we need a multi-criteria approach and not an exclusive or dogmatic reliance on just one particular metric, which in this case is deficient, in my view.

With that in mind, over the past couple of weeks I, with my office, have conducted a survey of businesses in Quilpie. We have identified 69 businesses so far. We have received responses by phone from around 40 businesses and we also made a survey available on the internet. Around 90 per cent of those businesses have observed negative impacts because of the drought. It should be said that some businesses actually do have an uptick—a very small number—because of the de-stocking. Transport companies and stock and station agents often benefit from that, although they will face a downturn going forward, given the de-stocked pastures. Around two-thirds of the 90 per cent reported a major impact. While the average impact on turnover has seen 20 to 30 per cent reductions, many businesses also recorded a downturn of more than 50 per cent on their turnover.

Last week I went out to Quilpie, and I just want to read some of the comments that were relayed to me. One lady said, 'I recently attended the Channel Country Ladies Day. I was surprised to see a large number of women suffering depression, because of the drought. Also, many spoke of husbands and families suffering illnesses.' Another said, 'There are other issues, such as the loss of the sheep industry. But the drought has been a major impact. I am not sure why Quilpie is missing out while Barcoo is in.' Another said, 'We have flipped our whole business upside down. When there was de-stocking there was a bit of work, but everything has dried up now. People are not spending any money, especially on contractors. I am doing anything that is available—spraying weeds, labouring and driving dozers, but all of this is out of the shire.'

Finally, I want to pay tribute to and give credit to Quilpie Shire Council, which is doing its best to represent the interests of the shire—particularly Mayor Stuart Mackenzie, who has been down here to Canberra to speak to us about this. He hosted me in Quilpie last week. They have made a detailed submission to the government, as I will make with my survey results, asking them to reconsider. I give credit to the government that they are open to reconsidering the situation, and hopefully that will be done. As I said earlier, it is a very innovative program on behalf of the federal government. I give credit to my colleagues Senator Barry O'Sullivan and the member for Maranoa, Mr Bruce Scott, who have pushed very hard to get this. But it would be an unfortunate miss if Quilpie fails to receive declaration, when it is clearly just as in need of these stimulus projects, these shovel-ready projects, to help the community to get through what has been, in some areas, the most severe drought in Queensland's history.

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