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Wednesday, 8 February 2012
Page: 318


Mr COULTON (ParkesThe Nationals Chief Whip) (17:02): I rise to speak on this matter of public importance, brought to the House by the member for Lyne. I would like to note that it is somewhat comforting as a member in this place that sometimes thrives on adversity that at times like this we all tend to pull together. I acknowledge the minister for his visit to my electorate on Monday and the prompt action that came from that visit. I also see the former parliamentary secretary for agriculture—I am not quite sure what he is these days!—and acknowledge that he came and studied the losses we had in the Dubbo area last year.

This is a big flood in northern New South Wales. The benchmark floods in Moree in my lifetime have been those of 1974 and 1976. These floods exceeded those and were comparable to the flood of 1955. A lot of the focus has been on the larger centres and the river systems—the Namoi River and the towns of Boggabri, Narrabri, Wee Waa and, on the Gwydir, principally around Moree. But some of the more tragic stories that I am getting through my office now are about battles we are having coming from unknown streams and cross-country flows mainly between Moree and Narrabri, now focusing on the Rowena community. There have been large losses of stock and grain. I understand machinery has gone underwater. They are battling that at the moment. Quite a few of the levees around the homesteads there—I am not sure of the numbers—have not been sufficient. We are seeing inundation of homesteads and the farm infrastructure around that, which is a massive financial loss.

This flood event is affecting my different constituents in different ways in Moree, Yarraman and smaller villages down the river. There has been a wonderful response from the SES, the Rural Fire Service and local volunteers, and the local community have been helping each other out. It has been quite heartwarming to see that level of support and how people are helping each other out. I was in Moree on Monday as the water was receding and everyone was just rolling up their sleeves and cleaning up the mess and getting rid of the mud as the water went down. It was surprising how quickly they did that.

The announcement of a category C from the Australian government disaster relief fund was greatly welcomed by many of those people. I am just disappointed that some people have tended to see this as an opportunity to make a bit of easy money. There have been reports of people phoning Centrelink and misrepresenting the severity they have experienced personally because of the availability of the $1,000 payment. I would discourage people from doing that. I understand that the government is trying to retrieve funds from people who received funds illegitimately in the Brisbane floods last year, and I understand that that will be the case in these floods. This assistance is designed to help people who really need it and, believe you me, there are plenty of people who really need assistance. For people who are thinking about rorting the system, I would caution against that because ultimately it will catch up with you. Also, I welcome the $15,000 grants that were announced today for small business for flood damage. That will be appreciated, but it is a drop in the ocean compared with what is going to be required. I have heard a report of one farmer who has had over $1 million in damage to his irrigation infrastructure. That is one farm alone. I have heard of a drover who has not had a job since the end of October. He cannot get out onto the route because it is impassable because of the water and stock are not moving. Someone like that is experiencing real financial hardship. This grant does not cover loss of income so there will still be a lot of hardship. I was speaking to a small business man who has an irrigation company and he said he has not worked since the beginning of November. He employs six people. He has been paying those six people so he does not lose them because qualified staff are such a valuable commodity. But his debts are adding up because this has been going on for some time. So there is going to be a need to ensure that we do not lose people through financial hardship as this goes on.

I also want to speak about the impact on public infrastructure and the cost to local government. On the black soil plains of the Gwydir, Moree and Narrabri shires, the great irony is that the most highly productive land generally has the worst roads. The most highly productive land is on the black soil, which is notoriously difficult and expensive to build roads on. There is generally a shortage of suitable gravel and road-building materials, and they are very susceptible to deterioration in wet weather.

Councils across my electorate have losses in the tens of millions of dollars. The obvious one in the Gwydir shire is the Gwydir River bridge at Gravesend, which I think will take months to repair. A lot of causeways have been washed away. A lot of gravel has been washed off roads. At Christmas-time after the first flood went through, I was in discussion with the state Minister for Roads and Ports, the Hon. Duncan Gay, and the Mayor of Moree Plains Shire Council, Katrina Humphries, and we felt that rather than flood payments to councils after disasters to repair infrastructure to pre-flood levels there is a good argument to be made to engineer the repairs so that they will cover the next flood. We are now seeing roads that have been repaired being washed away with the next flood. It would better value for the Australian taxpayer to put more money in now to repair them and not have to come back and do it again after the next flood.

The other issue is the difficulty that producers are having getting their produce off their farms. We had a fairly large harvest, though some of it was downgraded due to the November rain. At the moment, we have huge tonnages of grain on farm. Many of these farmers have contractual agreements with flour millers, feedlots and users on the coast to deliver this grain in a timely manner, and it cannot be shifted because the road is impassable. They are in a real financial bind. Some of them are having trouble with contracts. Some of them have payments to make to finance companies. They were expecting to have money come in and they cannot ship the grain. That is causing real hardship.

In closing, I will give a plug for the work that is being done by the Australian Rural Roads Group, who are identifying the importance of the first few miles for a product. Every item on supermarket shelves starts its life on a country road. If it cannot do the first 10 kilometres, it cannot do the last 100 or 1,000 kilometres. In this country, we need to seriously look at bringing these roads up to a condition that will handle a flood situation like this.

I have welcomed the opportunity to talk about the severity of the floods in the Parkes electorate. I would like to close by acknowledging the great work being done by my communities and by the volunteers who have come from all over New South Wales to help. I want to let those people know that this parliament is still thinking about them and to acknowledge that their hardship will be going on for some time yet.