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Monday, 25 October 2010
Page: 1302

Mr SCHULTZ (3:11 PM) —My question is to the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities. I refer the minister to the recent rains that have come to rural and regional Australia following nine years of soul-destroying drought, bringing significant hope and confidence to farmers and rural communities. While these rains are predicted to bring the best wheat and canola crops in 20 years, there are significant problems such as locusts and increased pasture fuel build-up. Will the minister advise the House what initiatives will be undertaken to address this future fire and pestilence threat to Australian farmers?

Mr BURKE (Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities) —I can answer that question largely in my capacity representing the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry in the other place. I thank the member for Hume for the question and acknowledge his very strong interest in this. Once the good rains started to come, we knew that the good news was likely to come with some very bad news in terms of what the return of good weather means for locusts. The Australian Plague Locust Commission, based within the agriculture portfolio, performs an important function in making sure there are three different ways that plague locusts are dealt with. The first is that there are Commonwealth areas of direct engagement in Commonwealth regions where aerial spraying takes place, there is direct involvement from the state governments and, most importantly, there is an extraordinary level of work done by farmers on the ground.

When farmers do this work on the ground we need to understand the nature of a locust plague. The fact that the locusts are hatching in your area does not necessarily mean that is where they will do the damage. The work that farmers do—and there is only a very small window when you can do the spraying, when they are in that nymph stage—is extraordinarily important in managing their own property to some extent but very much so for their neighbours. We are talking, for those who have seen the film footage of locusts or who have been unlucky enough to have seen them face to face, about what looks like just a solid back cloud about four metres above the ground.

We are seeing, and expect to continue to see, what the head of the Plague Locust Commission Chris Adriaansen has described as the worst plague in 70 years. Certainly, the good work that has been done by farmers, by state governments and at the Commonwealth leadership level means that that damage is being mitigated to a significant extent. But we should not pretend anything other than that this will be the worst locust plague in 70 years. That is what is expected, even if everybody does everything right. It does also come at a time when that has a real hit on the hopes of many farmers, and the question from the member for Hume alludes to that.

Just at the time when many people had been seeing a new moment of hope after years of the challenges, including mental health challenges, that come with long periods of dryness—just at that exact same moment—something of the nature of plague locusts hits. It causes a real level of not just economic devastation but personal devastation for many people. Even in that context, we can still say it is good that the rains have come, even though these sorts of consequences sometimes come with them. We can also say that, through the good work of all involved, whatever damage is borne in the coming weeks—and some of it has occurred already—it is certainly nothing to what would have happened if we had not had, from all levels, the leadership that we have had.