In 2015 his urgent advocacy helped bring about the $35 million federal Drought Communities Program to stimulate drought-ravaged communities in rural Australia.
Three years later, Queensland LNP Senator Barry O’Sullivan is calling on his government to initiate a fresh round of funding.
Speaking from Longreach last week, Mr O’Sullivan announced that he had written to the Prime Minister advising that for many grazing businesses and towns in the state’s west, circumstances were no better than they were three years ago.
“While there’s been some relief in some areas, for those who have not had relief, you can only imagine, if the circumstances were bad in 2015, how bad they are in 2018,” he said.
“There are people now into their second and third year surviving by eroding their equity in their asset base. In effect they’re borrowing money to subsidise their entire life, top to bottom.
“Even if there were a return to better fortunes today, they’re still 20 to 30 months off a cash flow.”
He said it was no secret that he favoured schemes such as cluster fencing and prickly acacia control as the best ways to deliver the stimulus needed.
The current Drought Communities Program began in the 2015-16 financial year and was set to run for four years, offering eligible councils up to $1.5 million to fund shovel-ready projects.
“These are ways we can immediately get money into the community and employ people,” Mr O’Sullivan said. “On payday they go to the baker shop, then the baker goes and fuels his car and so on.”
As to the scale of assistance required three years later, Mr O’Sullivan said it should be relative to the 2015 package, but it was something he expected to discuss directly with the Prime Minister when they returned to federal Parliament in a couple of weeks.
Flashback to Queensland Country Life reports in April 2015, at the end of a wet season that didn’t eventuate, and a grim picture was being painted across western Queensland.
Business turnover declines of 50 to 60 per cent, school enrolments plummeting – they were all symptoms of an economy in rapid collapse as a severe drought began morphing into a general rural crisis.
As wheels began turning within Abbott government quarters for an economic stimulus package, a committee based around Longreach started up the Western Queensland Drought Appeal, as much to raise urban awareness as to raise financial relief.
At its height, passengers were filling jet charter flights for weekend splurges in Longreach.
Resilience building essential
Programs that build resilience have been identified as the key to managing the effects of recurring drought conditions in rural Australia.
This was one of the recommendations of a report prepared by Dana Kelly for the Western Queensland Drought Appeal.
Titled Beyond the Dust, the final report was released at the end of March but will be launched publicly at the Longreach show in the middle of May.
Its findings, collated after in-depth interviews with 83 people across the central west in 2015, 35 of them small town businesses, have been described as providing a model for all parts of regional Australia.
Its instigators say its findings of severe financial hardship and high levels of stress were the only empirical pieces of evidence gathered throughout the crisis.
The recognition that requests for assistance had to be backed up by evidence-based policy advice were a motivating factor in the commissioning of the report.
The first step it recommended to build resilience was to support and enhance local governance, ensuring that local people were provided with opportunities to actively engage in decision-making processes.
“The high level of adaptability to change in this region means that investment is likely to be well used,” it said.
“When matched with significant local effort with highly motivated volunteers, investment has a significant multiplier effect in these small communities.
“The many examples of successful partnerships, networks and innovative businesses give hope to this region surviving drought and building resilience to withstand future challenges.”
Decentralisation key to resilience
Centralised capital city models of assistance and ‘experts’ arriving to solve a community’s problems for them were two of the roadblocks to rural resilience identified in the Beyond the Dust report.
Its author, Dana Kelly, said regional towns around the central west were quite diverse and it was important to understand differences within and between them.
The report listed 17 major recommendations to build resilience to ongoing drought, putting the decentralisation of the public service and government departments high on the list.
Dana said a more collaborative approach with local decision-making was perhaps the greatest need in rural and remote areas to help communities cope with inevitable change.
Doing this would help address both the symptoms and causes of the challenges, she said.
Using a DUST analogy, she composed a message that “when decision-makers Decide to act [D], these recommendations incorporate strategies to help Understand the local context [U], Support local capacities and institutions [S] and transform towards collaborative local governance [T]”.
This includes improving whole-of-government planning for services, including basing relevant public servants in regional towns.