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Wednesday, 29 November 2000
Page: 20180

Senator TIERNEY (7:16 PM) —I rise to support the comments of my colleague Senator Sandy Macdonald in regard to the devastating floods in northern New South Wales. It is very difficult for us in Canberra, where it occasionally rains—which does not really have much effect on our lives—to realise that when you get prolonged rain in an area like the Macquarie Valley, and if you are a farmer out on the flood plain, this can mean absolute devastation, as it has meant to many farmers.

This is not their first flood. This is the third time in three years they have faced devastating loss. The 1998 flood brought disaster and then very heavy rains in 1999 ruined many of the crops. In the year 2000 we have had the worst flood in living memory. Last Friday I was invited up to the area north of Narromine and out towards Warren to inspect the flood damage and to talk to the farmers. It was a complete contrast to my visit to the same area only four months ago. Farmers had wanted to speak then about the problems they were having with a lack of water and the need for the Carr government to do something about water management. Returning this time and flying over the area, I saw an amazing contrast, with floodwater everywhere. But it is not until you get on the ground and actually see the faces of the farmers and their families that you realise the human dimension of this tragedy and the absolute devastation it has caused to the lives of so many farmers.

I spoke not only with the farmers but also with some of their children who were thinking of taking on farming. That was a poignant situation. They had seen their families work the land for over 100 years. They were the next generation. They were standing there in the floodwater, looking at what was to be their future but wondering if there was a future for them in farming in this area.

We went through the area on the back of a tractor which had a trailer behind it with a seat bolted on it. I thought we were going to be out there for about an hour. We were actually out there for four hours—ironically under a blazing sun and blue skies, with floodwater all around us. I got so absorbed by this I did not realise how sunburnt I was becoming and I certainly have evidence of that still. We heard many heartbreaking stories as we went from farm to farm. On the back of this tractor we were moving through floodwater that was about three feet deep. Occasionally there were isolated little islands where people had built their homes on what they thought was the higher land. Many of them were just out of the water.

These farmers had lost three consecutive crops. As we surveyed the area beside the road we could see the canola crops, just the tops of the plants, sticking out of the water. I asked one farmer: `What is the value of that loss?' It was $150,000. Then he showed me the fields with his wheat crops—$400,000. The cruel irony for them was that it was looking like the best harvest ever, the best yields they had ever had, and they had actually started harvesting. A lot of them had got 10 per cent into the harvest and it had started raining. Then it just continued raining. After 12 days of rain all their crops and all their dreams had gone under water.

What they have surviving on many of the properties—the crops are totally lost—is cattle. These were stranded on little islands above the waterline. When I say `above the waterline', I mean they were less than a metre above the waterline. What the farmers were then focusing on was getting enough food and, ironically, water to these animals to keep them alive. We only saw a few of these tragic situations and only spoke to a small number of farmers but the pattern was repeated right along the Macquarie River and, indeed, along many of the other rivers in northern New South Wales.

The losses across the region have been astronomical. In the Central West, which includes the towns of Nyngan, Warren and Wellington, up to 1.1 million hectares of wheat has been lost. That is almost 100 per cent, or the entire crop. In barley the loss has been around 130,000 hectares—that is 50 per cent of the crop. For the north-west region, which includes Coonabarabran, Moree and Narrabri, the department estimates that 790,000 hectares of wheat have been lost—that is about 70 per cent of the crop. In barley 140,000 hectares has gone, about 25 per cent of the crop.

Unfortunately, these people are facing not only a natural disaster but also an element of disaster which is man made. Over many decades a practice has arisen of building levies to protect properties from flood. But the New South Wales state government is culpable in the fact that in building these levies there have not been sufficient planning controls. Sure, people have got the right to protect their property, but it must be done in such a way that it allows sufficient access for the water, once it has flooded the flood plain, to flow back into the river. I was shown maps of where all these levies are. You could see quite clearly that the watercourses have been changed dramatically and the floodways that have been left between the levy banks are not sufficient for the water to flow back to the river. This has meant that the backup of water has reached levels that no-one has ever seen previously. At one point, we were standing at the edge of the water and behind us was a lot of farm machinery, of which half was under water. The farmer had thought his property was safe at this point but, because of what has happened with these levy banks, it was not safe.

The Carr government has not brought in sufficient controls on the building of these banks. As a result of this flood situation, we would urge the Carr government to move very quickly to ensure that the devastation from this sort of flood is not repeated because of these man-made impediments. This sort of lack of duty of care by the Carr government in terms of flood has also been matched by what has happened with the supply and control of water in times of low rainfall. What should be acted upon under the COAG agreement is the proper distribution of compensation for the removal of water rights. With the competing needs of agriculture and the environment, and the issuing of water licences for crops such as cotton, there is a need to bring water rights back under control and into balance. That is accepted by everyone. What is not accepted is the fact that the Carr government, having been given $450 million in compensation for the new competition policy for water, has not spent this appropriately. The farmers in this area told me when I was up there in July that they have not seen one cent of that money. We call upon the Carr government, particularly during this time of extreme flood and extreme hardship, to loosen the purse strings in this area of its public responsibility for finance. These people are desperate for money. The Carr government still has not paid these farmers the money; it has just pocketed the $450 million that it had for this purpose. We call on the government to pay this money out to people who are in absolutely desperate situations. Farmers have gone under and they have really had enough. They want the government to introduce proper flood plain planning controls and to hand them the water reform money that has been provided by the federal government.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Before I adjourn the Senate tonight, I would like to also make a few comments about the floods in the region because they have been somewhat significant. I hope that, when the federal government does make its announcement on aid and assistance, it takes into consideration the fact that many of the contract harvesters have their equipment currently stuck in these flood waters, and it is likely to stay there for some considerable time. This situation creates a potential problem for grain growers in the south of the state, who did not get the flooding and who are looking to good crops. If we do not find some way of getting that equipment out of that water and down south, there could be some real pressures placed on farmers from not having the equipment to undertake that harvest. So I hope that is taken into consideration, too, when the package is announced.

Senate adjourned at 7.27 p.m.