My drought plea to the Prime Minister
This week I have been travelling around the Central and Western wheat-belt of NSW and have seen the destruction that the drought is again bringing to many regions. The dust storm which hit Sydney also took with it the hopes and this year’s incomes of many country people.
I would normally never publish a letter like this, however, time is running out for many farmers and I can only hope that by publishing this letter on The Punch, the Prime Minister takes an interest and finds the time to visit the men and women for whom the drought is now becoming a reoccurring nightmare.
Hon Kevin Rudd MP
Prime Minister of Australia
Suite MG 8
Canberra ACT 2600
Dear Prime Minister,
It is with a great deal of regret that I write to you to inform you that we are facing another winter crop disaster in much of Central, Southern and Western NSW, with parts of Queensland and Victoria also facing severe crop losses. In addition the situation in regards to irrigated agriculture in the Murray Darling Basin following another year of low allocations has reached a point of no return for many farmers.
Most regional communities in drought affected regions are also facing a bleak year ahead through no fault of their own. Only this week another abattoir in northern Victoria was forced to sack staff and reduce its work hours to just one shift, a move the company is blaming on decreasing stock numbers directly due to the drought.
I am genuinely fearful of the mental health of many of my own constituents who in some cases are facing their seventh year of drought and failed crops. The mental anguish of many farming families has been compounded by the fact that at the start of the growing season we had some fairly good rainfalls which did a lot to instil hope and a positive outlook, indeed the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Tony Burke was so sure the drought was over he withdrew Exceptional Circumstances from many of the regions now facing significant crop losses.
Without high level support from the Federal Government, I believe that we are facing a calamity in many regions of the country. Already in irrigation regions in the Murray Darling Basin your Government’s water buy-back program has been swamped by desperate farmers willing to sell all or part of their water licences not because they are willing sellers but in order to survive.
The debt burden on many farmers is now reaching a critical level. The cost of putting in a crop or buying in temporary water can run into hundreds of thousands of dollars, another crop loss has added significantly to many farmers debt burden. Increasing property prices have allowed farmers to borrow more as their equity grew.
We are now reaching a dangerous tipping point which could see farm values plummet dramatically if bank fore-closures force many properties onto the market because of an inability to make interest repayments as a direct result of another failed crop. A dramatic drop in the capital value of farms would cause flow on failures all along the line.
Whilst the current Exceptional Circumstances system can certainly stand reform, the real and urgent need is for immediate support from the Government, particularly for regions which have been taken out of exceptional circumstances prematurely, following five to seven years of EC drought.
Prime Minister, over the five years that the Howard government administered the current Exceptional Circumstances situation it several times had to change policy as the situation worsened. The situation we are now facing has gone on for so long it can not be dealt with by drought reforms or drought policy it is about dealing with disaster.
The next four weeks will be a critical period for many hard working farmers and their families. Whilst crops have already been wiped-out in some regions, if we get another few days of hot, dusty, windy conditions, with very little rain, I am very afraid for the immediate future of entire regional communities.
This drought has and is destroying too many good country people and without your Government’s leadership, empathy, and financial support I fear that more lives will be lost as despair sets in after what was such as promising start to the season.
The current situation cannot be past off as ‘global warming’. The onset of the 2002 drought came straight out of a good season, and was like falling off a cliff. Climate Change is slow and insidious. There have been other extremely long and severe droughts in Australia’s recent history such as the Federation drought.
I and other organisations, including the NSW Shires Association have had a standing invitation for the Minister responsible, Tony Burke to visit the worst hit drought regions to experience first hand the problems being faced by farmers and their communities. To date this offer hasn’t been taken up.
Prime Minister, your personal intervention is required to ensure the mental, social and economic well-being of regional communities in Australia.
The fate of this years harvest will very soon be apparent.
The Hon. John Cobb
Member for Calare
The Shadow Minister for Agriculture,
Fisheries and Forestry
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