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Thursday, 13 February 2003
Page: 11845

Mr JOHN COBB (3:18 PM) —My question is to the Acting Prime Minister. Would the Acting Prime Minister inform the House of the drought situation in Australia? Is there any new meteorological information on the likelihood of a break in the drought this autumn?

Mr ANDERSON (Acting Prime Minister) —I thank the honourable member for his question. It goes to the heart of a very important issue, particularly for the very large number of Australians who live in the regions. They are in fact directly confronting one of the greatest threats to their economic security in the nation's history. I think we are at that point. It goes well beyond the impact on farmers. It is now potentially massively impacting on food processing, the abattoir sector, the transport sector, the tourism sector and, indeed, in some parts of the country, heavy industry. Some reports indicate that a very significant number of jobs in the small business sector as well are at risk—potentially as high as 70,000. Every one of us hopes that these grim forecasts do not come to reality and that we get as early a break as possible.

I have sought advice today on this important matter. The best forecasts remain those that say that the end of March is the most likely time for a significant break, but I think we need to be realistic and say too that the summary that the met office has presented to me for the next three months remains, frankly, very concerning. Its estimates are that there is only a 50 to 65 per cent chance of more than median rain in the south-west half of Australia over the next three months, that the rest of the country has less than a 50 per cent chance of higher than median rainfall and that there is quite a low chance of median rainfall for north-east Queensland. Worryingly, in New South Wales, the outlook to April is only a 45 to 50 per cent chance of median or better falls in the north-west and 55 to 60 per cent over the south-west. There is a better than even chance of continuing higher than normal temperatures, which, as the minister for the environment pointed out, can in fact be an equally serious problem along with a lack of actual precipitation. In Queensland, whilst there have been some very welcome falls, the outlook is estimated to be about a 30 to 45 per cent chance of being drier than normal until April and a 70 to 75 per cent chance of being hotter than normal.

The situation with the water storage system, particularly in the Murray-Darling Basin, is now very serious indeed. Irrigation storages are at about 30 per cent capacity and, at current depletion rates, will be exhausted by the end of May. In the rest of New South Wales, the northern areas will have no allocations next season if the drought persists. All reserves in the south have been used, except for a small amount for the Murrumbidgee that could give 10 to 15 per cent allocation for the 2003-04 irrigation season for some rice planting. In Queensland, if the drought continues, most systems will be without water in 2003-04. Stream flows are very low. A number in central and south-east Queensland have stopped flowing. In Herbert and on the Atherton, stream access is on the toughest ever restrictions at 10 to 25 per cent of normal. In the Wimmera and Mallee in Victoria, there have been no allocations this year. Without rain next year, the areas may well run out of domestic and stock water altogether. The Goulburn-Murray started this year on 54 per cent allocation and could be down to 10 per cent next year. In South Australia, we are told some areas may not receive their first allocation for the first time—given they are very conservative allocations anyway in that state—in 100 years.

This is a very sobering national outlook. The federal government are seeking to be sympathetic and responsive in the way we handle this and are seeking to help people through. At this stage, we are estimating $1 billion or so will flow from the applications for exceptional circumstances assistance that are before us. We hope sincerely that the drought breaks; there is no substitute at all for a substantial rainfall event. But we are fortunate in this country. The reality is that, in many societies throughout history, this sort of event would have had the nation very worried about something as basic as food security. But such is the surplus production by our farmers in this country that we are not at any point contemplating such an outcome.

I would say to the House that I think all Australians affected by this should know that we are concerned indeed. I cannot help but note, though, that over the last two weeks while the very important matter of Iraq has been before this House all we have seen from the opposition is the pursuit of a conspiracy theory. That has been denied, of course, not only by the Prime Minister and the government but by General Cosgrove and the President of the United States as well. Worse than that—and I do not know what the country mayors who were in the audience yesterday thought—at the height of the most serious problem confronting a huge slab of the Australian economy and the people dependent upon it, is that not one question on drought has been asked over the last fortnight.

Opposition members interjecting

Mr ANDERSON —If I am accused on that basis of being a complete disgrace, that might as well be recorded in the Hansard

The SPEAKER —Member for Lilley!

Mr ANDERSON —because I should think that it is a disgrace that the Labor Party has not asked a single question about drought over the last few weeks.

The SPEAKER —I warn the member for Lilley!

Mr ANDERSON —Mr Speaker, I ask that further questions be placed on the Notice Paper.