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‘We’re in real trouble out here’: crisis forum seeks long term answers

James Nason, 03/02/2014

Ministers John McVeigh and Barnaby Joyce and farmers Rowell Walton and Peter Mailler in foreground listen to an address at the St George crisis forum on Saturday.A packed crisis meeting at St George attended by Federal agriculture minister Barnaby Joyce on Saturday was told of the desperate need for both immediate and long-term action if Australia’s rural sector is to remain viable.

Government ministers, the national media and rural leaders heard heart-rending stories of an unfolding human tragedy that is now spreading rapidly and relentlessly across Queensland.

While much of Saturday’s rural crisis meeting focused on the terrible toll drought is now taking on livestock and farmers, an equally clear message was that the current crisis should also be seen as a symptom of a much deeper and systemic issue of declining rural profitability that is in dire need of attention.

Minister Joyce was called upon by the meeting to return to Federal Cabinet to fight for the creation of an Australian Reconstruction and Development Board within the Reserve Bank of Australia, which is currently the subject of a bill which is before the Senate.

Queensland University of Technology economics lecturer Mark McGovern told the forum a reconstruction bank is needed to stabilise a rapidly worsening asset devaluation and debt crisis in rural Australia and to avert a looming and potentially catastrophic round of fire sales.

He said the RBA already had the powers required to establish and operate a reconstruction and development bank, and emphasised that the move would have no effect on the Government’s budget bottom line (See seperate article: Push for reconstruction bank gathers momentum)

Minister Joyce told the meeting he had “no major philosophical problem” with the concept of a rural reconstruction bank, but warned that proponents will face an “immense and long term” fight to gain support for the proposal from mainstream Australia and Federal Cabinet.

“You have got to not just influence myself and my colleagues, but you have to influence a whole country, it has to be something that, when you walk into a (Cabinet) room, with the 19 votes, you can get 10 of them. And that is what is politics about.

“And it is great to see so many here, because if you didn’t turn up in the numbers that you have, then I could say well mate we can forget about it, it has died already, its finished, because you (only) had 100 people, but you packed the room out and so all of a sudden things start to get momentum.”

That an estimated 400 plus producers (the offical count was 490 according to organisers) made the effort to leave their properties and pack the St George Civic Centre to standing room only on Saturday, at a time when most are tied to relentless daily hand-feeding and scrub-cutting regimes for livestock and pulling sheep and cattle from boggy water holes, spoke volumes of the gravity of the crisis now being experienced.

Organisers told the meeting many people  had phoned ahead to apologise in advance for their absence, some who had explained they could not make the trip simply because they no longer had money available to pay for fuel.

Lifeline’s Darling Downs director Derek Tuffield said that with 69pc of Queensland now experiencing natural disaster, financial stress was building and leading to increased cases of self-harm and suicide.

“We can’t bury it, we can’t say it doesn’t happen,” Mr Tuffield told the forum. “You know in this community it happens, I know in the Toowoomba community it happens. It comes with pressure. We’ve got to decrease the pressure to stop the self harm.”

Lifeline has just launched its own 2014 drought appeal in an attempt to get cash flowing to where it is most needed.

“What Lifeline is aware of at the moment is that we know the State Government is rolling out packages, we know the Feds are going to be rolling packages out, and I know that Barnaby (Joyce) will get behind this, but at the moment we need cash in there for farmers, so they can keep food on the table, fuel in their tanks, and so they can keep power connected to their houses, that is really crucial from our point of view,” Mr Tuffield said.

Saturday’s crisis forum was attended by Federal agriculture minister Barnaby Joyce, returning to the town where he operated an accountancy practice for 10 years; state agriculture minister John McVeigh, state member for Warrego Howard Hobbs, Federal Member for Kennedy Bob Katter, National Farmers Federation president Brent Finlay, AgForce president Ian Burnett and Chief Executive Officer Charles Burke, Northern Gulf Grazing Group and Northern Beef Crisis Committee chair Barry Hughes, mayor of the Balonne Shire Donna Stewart and mayor of the Maranoa Shire Rob Loughnan.

The meeting was organised by three producers from the Roma/Condamine area under the banner of “Cranky Cockies”. In one significant act of generosity Howard Ostwald of Dalby-based infrastructure company Ostwald Bros donated the use of the company’s corporate aircraft to fly speakers, dignitaries and media to St George and back.

Elephant in the room

While the immediate focus of Saturday’s meeting was dealing with drought, the elephant in the room was the repeatedly expressed view that even when drought breaks, producers may feel little reason for long-term optimism because of the ongoing decline that has occurred in farm-gate prices relative to cost of production.

Several people who addressed the forum from the audience expressed anger and frustration that producers were no longer receiving a fair-share of the returns from the product they produced, while “middle men”, processors and retailers further along the value-adding chain were perceived to be generating significant profits from the same product.

Among those to speak out was Bollon cattle producer Rob Moore, who floated his proposal for a “Primary Producer Pricing” bill at the meeting, which he believes offers a solution to improving competition and in turn farm-gate returns for cattle producers (See separate article for more detail on Mr Moore’s proposal).

Acknowledgement of deep-seated, systemic issues

Meeting chairman and Goondiwindi farmer Peter Mailler said one of the most significant developments from Saturday’s meeting was the acknowledgement received from Minister Joyce and Minister McVeigh that a deep-seated, systemic structural problem exists in the agricultural sector in Australia today.

“They both said it is not just the drought, there is something more serious underlining it,” Mr Mailler said.

“That is actually a major breakthrough, because for a long time, certainly from my experience, you spend your time saying there are problems here, and people kept telling us there is no problem, you just need to farm better.

“I sat in a meeting in Moree last year and listened to a NSW state politician tell a room full of farmers that they just needed to work harder.”

‘The gate is shut’

Balonne Shire Mayor Donna Stewart told the forum that the fact that such a large area of Queensland was now in drought was compounding an already dire and critical situation.

“We’re in real trouble out here, not just here but the north west, the central west and right throughout inland Queensland,” she said.

“With Bulloo Shire now just declared, all of inland Queensland is now drought declared and I can never remember seeing that before.

“That is why people are so desperate, the gate is shut. There is no where to go, usually you can find some agistment, a way out, markets with your cattle, but there’s no way out, the gate is shut.”

 

If you are depressed or contemplating suicide, help is available at Lifeline on 131 114. Alternatively for more information on Lifeline’s website about managing rural mental health click here

 

RELATED ARTICLES:

Push for reconstruction bank gathers momentum

Pricing transparency part of longer-term solution, crisis meeting told 

St George crisis forum: What they said

 

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