Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard   

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Wednesday, 9 October 1991
Page: 1611

Mr HICKS(10.11 p.m.) --Most of the debate on the estimates for the Department of Primary Industries and Energy has been about the drought that is gripping much of Australia. This drought has come on top of a rural recession which is probably the worst in living memory and is affecting many people in rural Australia--not only the people on the land but also business people who are associated with the people on the land and with families generally throughout rural Australia.

The electorate that I represent produces most agricultural products that are available in Australia today, apart from those grown in tropical climates. It is a very important food producing area of Australia. However, much of the area I represent is semi-arid.

I wish to speak tonight about a visit I made last week to the small township of Tilpa and the surrounding area. Tilpa is a little township on the River Darling about 170 kilometres north north-east of Wilcannia. I visited that area about three months ago when it was in the grip of a drought. It had not had decent summer rains for at least eight years. The deterioration that had occurred in that time had to be seen to be believed.

I went by aircraft to Tilpa because time did not permit me to drive. I landed on the Tilpa airstrip and went to the Tilpa hall immediately. I spoke to a number of people there, including Leon Zanker, Col Middleton, Jan and Peter McClure, Michael McInerney and Ross and Rosemary Bartlett. They raised several matters with me in relation to the drought in this area. The Tilpa area is typical of some of the black soil country and the red sand hills that exist along the Darling River, each of which have their own problems, particularly in time of drought.

Some of the matters these people raised with me were the added cost burdens that had affected them before the drought came along--interest rates, transport costs, land rates and taxes, the problems they faced with industrial relations systems on the waterfront in trying to get their commodities overseas and the lack of educational opportunities for their children simply because of the fact that they are so isolated. Although there is correspondence and radio education these days, the problem of sending their children away to school is very great. Some people have left the area because they could no longer afford to educate their children.

One of the interesting statistics that emerged was that when assistance for isolated children was introduced in 1973 parents of about 32,000 students in rural Australia received assistance. Today there are fewer than 10,000 students receiving that assistance. This reflects the depopulation of rural Australia.

I recently visited Terrigal for the first time. I found it to be a wonderful place on the coast with plenty of sunshine and sea water, but the thing that worried me when I started to think about it was that here we have, between Melbourne and Brisbane, most of the population of Australia on the coast, living a lifestyle which to some would seem idyllic--admittedly, many of them are working very hard--really supported by those people in the rural areas, in the farming and mining sectors, who are producing most of the wealth of this country.

We find that rural Australia is becoming more and more depopulated. For every person who leaves a small community like Tilpa, or any of the other rural areas, it means a drop in the standard of living or the quality of life for everyone else who lives there. I believe we really have to look seriously at that. As someone said to me in that area, `Do we really want a rural Australia? Do we want a rural producing sector in Australia or don't we?'. If we do, we have to make some fairly immediate changes to try to protect those people in Australia who are producing the wealth of this country.

For example, in Tilpa--it may only be a small thing, but it is indicative of what is happening in those rural areas--over the past 15 years there has been a very good cricket club, would you believe; it has played in nine grand finals and won four of them; but from this year there are not enough people in the area to form a cricket team. A cricket team might seem small peanuts to some people, but that cricket team is very important to that area and to the quality of life of the people who live there.

As we know, and as has been stated tonight already, 30 per cent of farmers in Australia will have zero or negative incomes this year. That was before the drought. Now that the drought has come the position is almost impossible for some people. The interesting thing at the meeting at the Tilpa hall was that the people were not asking for handouts. We know that in Australia farming, really, is the management of drought. We have a volatile weather pattern and people learn, particularly in the semi-arid areas, how to exist under normal drought conditions because they allow for that, but when they get into a serious situation--such as the one I am mentioning, where they do not have summer rains for eight years--then it is very difficult for them to survive.

One of the things they raised with me where governments could be helping them was the provision of rural electricity. In capital cities and larger provincial centres we take the supply of electrical power for granted. There is an electrical power scheme going on under the name of DECA, south of that area, where each land-holder is expected to pay $53,000 for the connection of rural power. The State Government in New South Wales is doing its part towards funding that scheme and, under very generous terms, is providing electricity to those areas. The Federal Government could help by writing off the amount being paid in the year of expenditure, but no, it will not do that. It has a 10-year provision and is not budging on that, despite the fact that we have asked it many times.

After we had been to the hall we flew out to a property just west of Tilpa and landed there. The small breezes blowing were lifting the dust. There was hardly any grass at all. As the feral goats feed above their heads, many of the shrubs were going and any green pick that may have been around was being eaten by native animals or feral animals, particularly the goats. One of the graziers told us that he had a problem shearing his sheep; they were too weak. One of the problems, of course, is that graziers are trying to keep their breeding stock together. As we know, it takes years to get breeding stock, but the way things were going they did not think they would be able to keep the breeding stock. In fact, they found that many of the sheep were too weak to shear and even if they could shear, they could not afford the cost of doing so.

Something has to be done about the animal population, whether feral or native. Despite the fact that we are told that kangaroos are an endangered species, about three or four months ago I was speaking to people who should know and they told me that kangaroos in New South Wales at that time were probably at the highest numbers they have ever been--about 8 1/2 million kangaroos. That is a lot of kangaroos when someone is trying to run a grazing industry in that area.

We also need to look at the tax deductibility of water conservation projects. Despite the fact that they also were tax deductible in the year of expenditure, in 1985 the present Government extended that to a three-year period. I do not see any difference between water conservation and soil conservation. They are both very much connected and both should be written off in the year of expenditure.

The main questions asked were: do we in government think that the rural sector has a future; is there a future in the wool industry? Of course, I said that I thought there was a very bright future. The thing we have to get over to the Government is the need to do something about keeping these people on the land, particularly young people. If we do not get two or three inches of rain over the next few weeks, not only will the local rural communities have problems but also this nation will have problems, as it has had before.

I heard some honourable members from Queensland speak. They said that it is the worst drought they have ever known of. If that is the case, Australia has a real problem. Even if we had rain in the next few weeks, many people would not overcome their difficulties, because of the problems that have been caused by governments through high interest rates, transport costs and all those sorts of things. We have to ask ourselves whether we want a productive rural sector. If we do, we have to move very fast and do something about looking after it.