Private Members Statement - Drought Assistance
From the Legislative Assembly Hansard – 27 February 2020
BARWON ELECTORATE DROUGHT ASSISTANCE
Mr ROY BUTLER (Barwon) (17:21:39): A few weeks ago I sat on the veranda of my place overlooking the paddocks, taking time to catch up with my family before I headed off again. It was a perfect afternoon. We all stopped, sat together and took a moment to appreciate that it was raining. The paddocks were wet and the rain was still coming down. The smell of the rain hitting the dry dirt was intoxicating. We had been waiting for this rain. I acknowledge that not everyone has had rain. In Barwon, water is snaking its way down our barren riverbeds from the north where they have received rain.
In Brewarrina, 800 kilometres west of here, water from the Barwon River is now flowing through town. Downstream, this water has met water from the Culgoa and flowed into the Darling River. The welcome this water received when it flowed over the weir can only be compared to a rock star rolling into town. But let us not be fooled by the scenes of elation as the water makes its way down the Darling. We are still in drought. As we head west there is a clear line where the paddocks—tinged with green and pockmarked by puddles—dry up and the green gives way to the red dust. This indiscriminately cruel drought rolls on. It has held us in her grip for years now. Life has not gone forward. We have been stopped in our tracks. Communities in my electorate have been stuck in their own version ofGroundhog Day. Instead of waking up toI Got You Babe every morning, it is the repeat of no rain, dust and a lack of definitive action from the Government.
This Government has more money than it has ever had in the history of this State. Yet, instead of distributing it to help people in their time of need, it is keeping it squirreled away in the bank, putting road block after road block in the way of people who dare to head down the road of trying to access any of the assistance on offer. Some 98.9 percent of this State is in declared drought. Last year was Australia's driest on record. At the end of 2019, soil moisture reserves across large parts of the State were close to zero. Simply put, we are nowhere near being out of this drought. We need our mate Huey to send down a lot more rain and we need our mate the Treasurer to loosen the purse strings.
Forgive me if I sound like a broken record but there are a few things the Government could be doing right now that would deliver urgently needed assistance into drought-affected communities. I have been talking for more than eight months about the same suggested actions. I will continue to talk about them and push for them until not a single person in Barwon is crying out for the Government to take action. Rebates on local government rates are needed, and I will tell members why. A few weeks ago two people contacted me. One was from a local council and the other was a ratepayer in that same local government area. The council was calling me to say that over 50 per cent of its rate base had failed to pay rates. The council was spending money it did not have on sending out debt collection notices, which are going to people who have always paid their rates on time and in full. The ratepayer who contacted me has for 65 years paid his rates, diligently and without issue, when they came due. After years of just scraping by, unable to turn a profit due to the drought, he and his wife decided not to pay their rates. The decision pained them but it was a choice between paying the rates or putting food on their table.
They received a letter from the debt collection agency. The tone of the letter shook them: It expressed no sympathy for their plight; it showed no empathy for the decision they had to make. If you were them, what choice would you make? Likewise, with the local suppliers carrying debt: What choice would you make when you know you have to call up your mate—a bloke you have known for years—and ask him to pay his bill, knowing full well he does not have two pennies to rub together? But as a business owner, you do not have customers coming through the doors and you have your bills to pay. For reasons like that I am calling for immediate cash grants to allow cash creditors to be paid.
In one area of Barwon stock numbers have gone from over 425,000 head to under 87,000, and we have not seen a crop in the ground for a long time. The reserves set aside to get back up and running, buying in stock and planting have been spent on the necessities of life. So as the rain comes down and our rivers flow and our dams fill, farmers will be looking for financial assistance to re-sow and restock. They will need to show their commercial and Government creditors a capacity to generate income. That is why I have been calling for the establishment of a re-sowing and restocking grant. The time for that is starting to look pretty ripe.
Lastly, the Government must transition legacy loans. Some people are paying up to 5 per cent when people are on 1 per cent interest loans or zero interest loans for the same product. Make the change. The Government does not need to be making money off poor farmers. After a drought there is a rebuilding process and a recovery time. Farmers who manage livestock do not have a return until they have restocked, reared the stock and sold them. Sometimes that can take 25 months from the breaking of the drought—from gestation to T‑bone on a plate. We must ensure that the speed of recovery for our farmers is as quick as it can be because when farmers are making money, our local cafes, supermarkets, seed suppliers, truck drivers and school fundraiser all get some money as well. Come on, Treasurer: Loosen the purse strings and help our drought-impacted communities.