Getting a feel for how the ongoing drought is impacting communities in central Queensland was just one of the issues deputy Nationals leader, Bridget McKenzie, faced when she visited the Emerald and Alpha regions last week.
As the federal minister for regional services, which gives her responsibilities for rural health and regional communications, the minister for sport, and the minister for local government and decentralisation, under which the Drought Communities Program is administered, there were plenty of issues for her consideration.
In what’s a traditionally quiet time and with temperatures in the high 30s, Senator McKenzie explained the visit as one she had been working on with Better Internet for Rural Regional and Remote Australia co-founder, Kristy Sparrow, since she was appointed federal regional communications minister a year and two weeks ago.
With intermittent mobile phone reception, it was also a convenient place to field calls from media outlets questioning her decision not to be one of the Nationals candidates for the seat of Mallee when preselection nominations opened.
She explained it as having plenty of time for a move from the Senate to the lower house.
“It's been a pretty busy year, for a lot of reasons, but I wanted to do this so it was a matter of finding space in the diary,” she said of her central Queensland visit.
“I'm from Victoria. As deputy leader of the Nationals, rural and regional Queensland is a big part of the work we do as a group, so I'm constantly advocating for live cattle exports, for our mining industries.
“I like being on the ground and understanding in a real way how policy decisions we make impact real people and communities.”
Despite having the blood of a Victorian High Country cattleman flowing through her veins – her grandfather held leases there from 1850 – last Thursday’s horseback ride helping the Dillon family move some of their cows and calves to a better paddock was her first mustering experience.
“To do that today has been an absolute delight for me at a personal and professional level, to be able to sit there and talk to Sean (Dillon) around the industry, the impact of the drought, how they've been able to maintain their herd levels, just understanding how the drought has impacted them.”
Mr Dillon is also a Barcaldine Regional councillor and was quick to point out the pros and cons of the Drought Communities Program, some of which is providing $1 million to 81 eligible councils in 2018–19 to support local infrastructure and other projects for communities and businesses impacted by drought.
It was a valuable exchange for Ms McKenzie as she heard what sort of activities had been funded, and why some of the projects the council wanted to undertake couldn’t occur under current guidelines.
“That to me is a real truth test as a minister, hearing this great idea we thought would work, how's it actually working, could we tweak it a bit.”
Prior to last October’s national drought summit, Barcaldine mayor and Remote Area Planning and Development Board chairman, Rob Chandler sent a strong message that the quarter of Queensland his organisation represents didn’t want to hear any more hot air on drought responses.
Saying that after a decade of workable solutions being offered to alleviate the growing crisis in regional communities gutted by drought, Cr Chandler called on the government to be “bold enough to drive transformational change and finally erect the scaffolding around communities to enable them to develop their economies to be diversified away from weather dependence”.
Speaking at Alpha on Thursday, Ms McKenzie said agriculture minister, David Littleproud, also the local member, had been tasked with the drought response, which he was “living in his own communities”.
“I think that's going to be a powerful response,” was all she would say of what could be expected.
”We've already had $7b worth of initiaitives from the federal government alone, that's outside of what the Queensland and NSW governments have been able to do,” she said.
“I think there's been a significant response from state and federal governments and I believe there needs to be an ongoing response.
“This isn't something that we all breathe a sigh of relief and walk away from once the first decent rain comes.
“We all know you need to restock, if you're a cropper you need to get the seed in.”
She said one of the challenges was in distributing the generous donations of fellow Australians in a fair and responsible way.
“That's probably the thing that came out (of the drought summit) was that coordination around who's responsible for what and how do we make this as easy as we can for communities.”