I rise tonight to speak again about the drought in Queensland, primarily. I believe it was the last topic I spoke about in an adjournment speech in this place.
In my short time in this place so far, it has been an issue that has dominated a fair amount of my time, because, unfortunately, 80 per cent of Queensland remains drought declared. Although there has been some very welcome rain in certain areas in the last couple of months there still remain substantial parts of Queensland that have not received significant rainfall for three wet seasons, and they are now facing a fourth wet season. If it does not rain soon, those communities and towns will be facing some serious hardship—or more serious hardship than they are.
I will start out tonight by complimenting the government for the extensive packages that they have announced during this time. So far, $400 million worth of concessional loans have been provided to farmers and graziers. About 740 farmers and graziers have benefited from those loans. In the agriculture white paper, $250 million a year has been made available for additional concessional loans over the next 10 years, if they are required. The government has also provided money for upgraded water infrastructure, pest eradication and wild dog fences. These build on the support and assistance, fodder and freight subsidies in particular, that have been provided by the Queensland state government. Most of that assistance has been directed at the farming and grazing sector primarily. Obviously, that is where the direct impact of any drought first arises. However, this drought is so severe—indeed, in some parts of Queensland it is the most severe drought on record—that there have been extensive indirect impacts on local towns and communities. They are manifesting in lower business turnover and also population decline and a lack of hope about what the future holds for businesses and people who live in these communities.
The only thing that we can hope for to get those towns back on track is for it to rain. There is no solution in the long term but rain. I would like to hope that we could do all we can to try to sustain population levels in western Queensland, in particular, to help these towns through the drought and to try to make sure that there is a community and that there are businesses and people there, once it does rain, to re-establish the sheep and cattle industries in these areas.
The government has responded to that issue with a unique and very innovative program. In May, the government announced the Drought Communities Program, a $35 million package to fund stimulus projects in local communities to create jobs and to get the economic activity circulating in the towns. I want to recognise that my colleagues Senator Barry O'Sullivan and Mr Bruce Scott, the member for Maranoa in the other place, did more work than I to get these programs up. Seventeen councils have already been declared under these programs, and new projects are being funded.
Notwithstanding that generosity, two councils in Western Queensland have not been declared at this stage—Quilpie Shire Council and Boulia Shire Council—even though, on a prima facie assessment, those two councils appear to be suffering just as much as any other area. Indeed, in the case of Quilpie, every other shire surrounding Quilpie has been declared. It looks like a bit of a doughnut at the moment on the map with Quilpie being right in the middle of this drought but not having been declared under this program for any funding. That has obviously perplexed and frustrated the people and local government of Quilpie. They came down to Canberra about a month ago, saw me and others in this place and put their case. I thought they did have a strong case. I promised I would look more into it. I have done that. I have looked at how they failed to receive a declaration. Today I have handed a report on my analysis to the Deputy Prime Minister, who is in charge of this particular area. I would like to explain briefly what I think are the factors that have led to Quilpie, at least, missing out.
The government has primarily determined eligibility for this program based on rainfall data from the Bureau of Meteorology. Specifically, a council area needs to have at least 20 per cent of its area subject to a one-in-20-year drought, according to that data.
In the case of Quilpie, however, around 70 per cent of the Bureau of Meteorology sites—20 of the 28 sites that are relevant for Quilpie—do not have full data; they have less than 95 per cent rainfall data. An interesting aside that I discovered during this process is that many of these sites have excellent data going back to the 1890s, and then in the last 10 or 15 years the data becomes all patchy. People do not seem to be recording it, and the locals put that down to consolidation and more corporate farms in the area that are not keeping the data up to the same quality that perhaps family farms did in the past.
Be that as it may, we have eight sites where there is full and complete data, and when you drill down at those eight sites, some issues arise. Obviously because there are only a few sites that the Bureau of Meteorology is using for Quilpie, they can be subject to particular anomalies or particular weather events that tip them one way or another. In the case of Quilpie there was a storm in February last year. That is evident in all the data at these eight sites. That storm hit Quilpie pretty hard, and of course it is evidence in a peak. I know we are not meant to use props, Mr President, and I cannot really speak to this graph I have here, but it shows that in the last couple of years Quilpie had a quick little push-up there, because of this particular storm. However, if you took the storm out it would actually meet the one-in-20-year trigger and would qualify, and that is the case at all of these sites. I am told—and certainly this is normally the case—that an isolated storm often does more damage in a drought-affected area than good, because it is heavy rain and can wash away soil, and if it is not followed up with other rains in leads to no pasture growth. That is certainly evident on the ground in Quilpie. It is still very dry and deserted.
I believe that because of those deficiencies the rainfall the data cannot be reliably used to judge Quilpie's eligibility for this program, so I decided to look at other measures. There is not a lot of ABS data at Quilpie's sort of level, and it is too far in between censuses. So I and my office conducted a survey of Quilpie businesses. We identified 55 businesses with contact details—non-farm businesses, because we were looking primarily at the indirect impacts of this drought. We ultimately received responses to that survey from 42 businesses, for a response rate of 75 per cent, which is pretty high. We observed that 90 per cent of those businesses recorded a negative impact from the drought, with an average downturn in their retail turnover of 44 per cent on an annual basis. Many, many businesses recorded a downturn of more than 50 per cent, and 40 per cent of businesses have had to lay off employees—clearly a very stark impact on the Quilpie region from this drought.
I believe that evidence is sufficient and is clearly indicative of the impact of this drought on Quilpie. It shows a serious downturn in their business conditions, and I believe it is sufficiently powerful for them to be declared under this program. I make the point that the guidelines of this program do not specify that councils must meet the one-in-20-year metrics. They were simply measures that the government used to help inform their declaration of various councils, and I make no criticism of using that particular data in general terms. However, I think when you drill down to the data, like all statistics they are not necessarily perfect and they certainly are not in this case. And in that environment we should use a more multi-criteria framework to ensure that we are not being biased by the particular deficiencies in a statistical series.
Finally, I would like to thank the mayor of Quilpie Shire Council, Stuart Mackenzie, who hosted me out there a couple of weeks ago and has helped us with this report, as well as the state member for Gregory, Lachlan Millar, who has also helped and been very vociferous in campaigning for his local area to be declared under this program. And I would like to say that while I did not have an opportunity to look in detail at the Boulia Shire Council and its case, nothing in this report says that it may not be declared. Indeed, there may be similar data deficiencies in its circumstances.