Adjournment on Queensland
A few weeks ago I went on another of my road trips, listening to the people of Queensland. I drove up, leaving the rain of the Sunshine Coast, to the dryness of the north and west. I went up to Emerald, Winton, Abbotsford Station, Hughenden and Charters Towers and then across the coast to Ingham, Cardwell, Tully, Innisfail and Edmonton, before ending up at Rocky Creek, which is on the tablelands, near Atherton. While on this road trip, everything from the drought to red tape, yellow crazy ants, infrastructure, cattle prices and abattoirs, better roads, motor sports, sugar marketing, the impact of Panama Tropical Race 4 on the banana industry and aged care was raised. Later in my remarks I will speak further about the drought and the good work being undertaken by the federal government to help not just those on the land but those in the small communities who are afflicted by this terrible natural disaster. Later tonight I hope to talk about the $600 million banana industry and the challenges facing the north with Panama Tropical Race 4.
In today's remarks I want to touch on a couple of issues from the trip before going to the drought. The first is the issue of the yellow crazy ants. In Edmonton, just south of Cairns, I visited the yellow crazy ant eradication project and went away rather itchy and twitchy but blown away by the threat posed by these ants to Queensland. I was incredibly impressed with the work being undertaken to destroy the ants. This is an issue that is hard to comprehend without seeing it first-hand and hearing from survivors—and maybe being harassed by the ants yourself. Only then can you fully understand the consequences of this pest, should super colonies develop in tropical North Queensland.
Sadly, this ant is found across the state, but due to the climate and habitat of the wet tropics, the yellow crazy ants pose a clear and present danger to farmers and residents, along with world heritage areas. Robyn Quick, who was our Liberal National Party candidate in the seat of Mulgrave at the last state election, took me to see first-hand what is going on. We went to a farm owned by Frank Toedo, who hosted me. In between lots of tea, sugar and biscuits, he told me stories of how the yellow crazy ants had impacted upon his quality of life. He told me of how he had woken up in the middle of the night with the ants all over him starting to eat away at his eyes and get into his nostrils. He also told me what they had done to his dogs. The stories that he told me, sadly, keep me awake at night. What is more scary is that these ants are still at his back door.
I would like to thank Frank for hosting me, but also Lucy and her team from the Wet Tropics Management Authority, Chris Clerk and the team from Conservation Volunteers Australia and local residents for meeting with me. The Wet Tropics Management Authority currently have a $2 million grant from the Commonwealth for a Green Army group working on baiting the ants. Sadly, funding is not guaranteed after the next program. We need to further extend the project and gain additional funds to finish the baiting. I have written to Minister Hunt seeking further support for this worthwhile project.
I have previously spoken in the chamber about the Rocky Creek Igloo restoration project. This is the restoration of a rare surviving World War II igloo; indeed, it was the entertainment theatre from the largest hospital in the Southern Hemisphere during World War II, where over 55,000 soldiers from the Pacific theatre were treated. The Rotary Club of Atherton, along with other committed volunteers from the tableland, are leading the charge to save this grand old building, and I am helping as patron for the restoration project. On Saturday, 11 April, we formally launched the fundraising campaign. We need around $1½ million, so for anyone who is listening to this or reading the speech later and is passionate about our heritage and about what happened during World War II, please—this is something that you should support. This is a strange old building. It is quirky. It is a grand old building that is not merely the sum of its parts—it is the iron, the wood, the dust and the rust and the musty smell. It is the sum of all of us. It is a bridge to a past that is fading; it is from a world war that is slipping slowly from memory to history. This building must be saved—not because it is old but because it is the story of the people of the north.
I would encourage you to go to Rocky Creek to see this building. It is a lonely sentinel. Not only is it guarding and protecting the decaying remnants of the hospital; it is also standing as a sulking praetorian over the memories, the dreams, the tears of laughter and tears of sadness and the light and dark of this special place where so many people who served our country were treated and where some, sadly, passed away. While the hospital helped to heal the physical wounds, it was in this igloo that the war could be forgotten. Nightmares were left at the door as dreams were collected at the ticket counter in the shadows of dancers and the flicker of light. If you have any spare money, I would encourage you to please, please support this restoration.
I would now like to talk about the terrible natural disaster that is the drought affecting a lot of Queensland. A persistent theme throughout my trip was the impact of drought—not just on the graziers and the farmers but also on the rural communities. This drought is actually a silent dry, as I fear that very few in the city or even in the southern states have, until now, really heard about the impact of the drought on Queensland. Across the western districts I met with graziers, small businesses and local governments to witness firsthand what is happening.
Agriculture is worth about $58 billion to the Australian economy, employing over 300,000 people and feeding tens of millions globally. But, without water, a precious resource in the outback, bustling towns and pastures are gradually morphing into parched earth. Large areas of Western Queensland continue to experience rainfall shortages, with the recent wet season failing to make enough of an impact. Of the 77 local government areas in Queensland, 44 are drought declared and three are partially drought declared, covering over 70 per cent of the state—an astonishing figure which too often goes unnoticed in the city. The drought, combined with high debt levels, depressed land values and, in some cases, decreasing farm gate returns—not to mention Labor's disgraceful ban on live exports—has created a perfect storm for farmers throughout Western Queensland. As a senator for Queensland, the most decentralised state in our federation, I am very proud of the steps that this government is taking to support rural and regional communities in their time of need. I am particularly proud of Liberal and National party senators Barry O'Sullivan, Matt Canavan, Ian Macdonald, George Brandis and former senator Brett Mason for their advocacy to the federal government to assist drought-affected Western Queensland.
The $330 million drought support package announced by the Prime Minister and the Minister for Agriculture, Barnaby Joyce, last week up at Longreach is vital and welcome throughout our communities which have been hit hard by the drought. This is a practical package. It is all about local jobs, local spending and keeping our towns and communities going. For example, in many small towns where local government is a major employer, the need to increase local work projects to provide employment was a message I heard repeatedly on my tour. So it is fantastic to see a $35 million grant allocated towards shovel-ready local infrastructure and employment projects. Other measures include $25 million to manage pest animals and weeds in drought-affected areas; $20 million to expand existing social and community support programs; $1.8 million for additional rural financial counsellors and $250 million to continue access to drought-specific concessional loan schemes. These measures build on the existing Commonwealth support to farmers experiencing hardship, which is currently flowing to almost 5,000 farmers or their partners.
I was also pleased to see that last night's budget contained further measures to assist farmers. From 2016, farmers who improve their land will get an immediate tax deduction for water facilities and fencing, and three-year depreciation for all capital expenditure on fodder storage assets. The $5 billion announced for infrastructure loans in Northern Australia will also help to build the economic potential of that great frontier, and more will be announced when the white paper is handed down later in the year.
I am very proud of the work of this coalition government, which once again demonstrates that the Liberal and National parties are fully committed to rural and regional Australia and to the bush. Helping communities suffering from drought is not just about what this government is doing; individuals and communities listening to me today also have a role to play. I encourage people to donate money to local organisations that are working on the ground in regional communities, such as the Country Women's Association. Do not give goods, give money—by giving goods you are hurting small businesses in struggling towns. Or better yet, become a tourist and go to Western Queensland. Not only is there so much for you to see and do out west; but you will also boost local small businesses and gain a personal experience of the challenges that far too many rural and regional Australians are facing every day. The drought will only go when the rains come. In the meantime, all of us can do our bit to help the communities of Western Queensland.