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Tuesday, 3 February 2009
Page: 124

Senator IAN MACDONALD (7:11 PM) —As I speak in the Senate chamber tonight, an equivalent water capacity to that of Sydney Harbour is pouring over the Burdekin Dam and down the Burdekin River, not far from where I live in Ayr in North Queensland. Senators will be well aware that in the last several weeks there have been enormous falls of rain right throughout North, Far North and north-west Queensland. It is interesting to see the Minister for Climate Change and Water in the chamber. Lest she might think that this wet weather has been caused by climate change, can I assure her that what we are seeing at the moment is a return to how it used to be 20 years ago or, even further back in time, to when I was growing up in the north. We always had a very heavy wet season, with the monsoons coming down. This was associated with regular cyclones, which those of us who have lived in the north for a long time have come to accept as being the norm.

As I speak, severe flooding is occurring in the northern sugar town of Ingham, about 100 kilometres north of Townsville. I know that the mayor there, Councillor Pino Giandomenico, is out there with his troops in the SES and with council workers, moving people to higher ground and doing what can be done to assist those who are being subjected to flooding. The fact that we are used to it and that it does happen regularly does not in any way mitigate the real dramas, tragedies and personal human hurts that are occasioned by these natural phenomena.

I want to alert the government to the fact that these very heavy rains are occurring right throughout the north, and I urge that the generosity which we have seen from the Australian taxpayers today, through the government, is focused to a degree on our home. Charity begins at home, of course. Many people and councils in the north will need assistance through Commonwealth funding to meet some of the damage to homes and infrastructure that has been caused by these natural calamities. I urge the government to be generous when the councils apply for flood relief and for the reconstruction of damaged roads—that will need to happen.

All senators would have heard of Cyclone Charlotte, which crossed the coast coming in from the Gulf of Carpentaria earlier this year. It has meant that some of the areas of the north-west—up around Normanton and Karumba in particular—have been cut off by road from other means of sustenance for some time. At Karumba, a fishing port on the gulf, which is now a tourist destination for many, particularly the grey nomads, the community has for some time had quite a good airstrip, but it has not been sealed. For a long time, the Karumba community has been calling on governments to assist them with the sealing of the airstrip. These floods, cutting them off again for a month or more, really highlight the absolute necessity of sealing the strip at Karumba so that when you cannot get in by road you can at least get a plane in.

Because the strip is not sealed, this is not possible—there are all sorts of problems. A constituent got in contact with my office and said that, because they cannot drive out of Karumba, they have to helicopter out of Karumba over to Cairns, then get the plane down to Townsville, hire a car and drive their kids to boarding schools in Charters Towers. They get some state government assistance for that, but you can imagine it would not be enough to cover the cost just of getting the kids to school. That is just one instance of many things that happen in remote parts of Australia. I ask the government to seriously look at the application for funding the sealing of the airstrip at Karumba when that application comes forward. They applied last year and were knocked back, but I hope their application this year is better dealt with.

I repeat my call for government action to start looking at duplication of the bridge over the Burdekin River between Ayr and Home Hill. It is the only link between the best part of both Australia and Queensland—that is, the area north of the Burdekin River—and the south of our country. There is one very narrow dual-lane bridge over the Burdekin River. Particularly at times like tonight, all of the other methods of getting to the north, even if you went right out to the west and were to come around via Mount Isa or Cloncurry, as you could do in other times, would not be possible because of flood waters throughout the Flinders and all of that area. That needs to be done in the near future.

The floods and the flows in the Flinders River, which passes by Hughenden and Richmond and moves on to the gulf, and the Leichhardt River, which goes beyond Mount Isa and out to the sea near Normanton and Burketown, can be harnessed. There are some very sensible and sustainable plans for water storage off the Flinders River which would allow for huge expansion of agriculture in the Richmond-Hughenden area of North Queensland. We will need food, not only for Australia but for the world, in the years ahead. Here is a classic opportunity where the enormous millions of megalitres of water that are now just flowing out to the sea could be harnessed in a very sustainable way that would not have any impact whatsoever on the ecology, on the prawning in the gulf or on anything else that some people sometimes say militates against dams and water storages on those rivers. These plans really should be looked at. There have been a number of conferences in recent years, and I spoke in the Senate about some just before Christmas.

The very heavy rains we are having in North Queensland at the present time highlight that we have there a fantastic asset which can be harnessed and which should be looked at by governments much more seriously in the future. The Queensland government keeps making all the right noises but never does anything—a lot of talk, conferences, seminars, reports and investigations but, unfortunately, never any action. I think the amount of water that at the present time is running down the Flinders in particular highlights the need for a serious look at environmentally sustainable water storages on that river.

I know all senators and, indeed, all Australians will be thinking of people in North Queensland as many there face these flood problems over the next week or so. The rain is continuing as I speak, bucketing down in Ingham, Townsville and my home town of Ayr, but we are used to that in the north. We live there because we like it there and we accept these things as normal. But when some assistance is needed I know the Australian government—and the Australian people through the Australian government—will be generous and thinking of the people in the north as they deal with these latest flood events in that neck of the woods.