Rainmaker Prime Minister on weekend drought tourSally Bryant, Monday February 17, 2014 - 14:45 EDT
When Prime Minister Tony Abbott started his listening tour of drought-stricken rural Australia, flying into the western NSW town of Bourke, he arrived at Jandra Station in a cloud of dust and an ancient farm ute.
The paddocks were bare and the stock were being hand-fed near a dam.
Graziers Phillip and Di Ridge were hosting the Prime Minister and his entourage at their property just outside Bourke; it has been largely de-stocked with just core breeding animals remaining.
Phillip says the financial situation in Australian agriculture today is very worrying and there needs to be a major rethink of how the banking system impacts on agriculture.
It was a heavy humid morning at Bourke, the skies were overcast and the flies were sticky, but no-one was going out on a limb and predicting rain.
Graziers have seen the weather do this before in the past couple of years and they've been repeatedly disappointed.
The clouds hovered above the circus of politicians and media, as the locals explained the problems they're having to cope with and how they think they could best be helped by the federal and state Governments.
There was talk of assistance to restructure debt, of the need for income support and also for social support as depression and other mental health problems are exacerbated by continuing financial pressure.
But then, just as the party moved into the woolshed, the heavens opened and driving rain thundered onto the tin roof.
Over morning tea, the Prime Minister met with graziers, business owners and representatives of local government from across the north-west of the state. They struggled to hear each other over the drumming of the rain on the roof.
The Mayors and General Managers from surrounding shires had all been invited by Bourke Mayor Andrew Lewis, who is quick to point out that the drought is something that impacts on the entire community, businesses in small regional centres service local landholders - if farming's not making money, then nobody's making money.
A clear illustration of this was provided by Prue and Ben Ritchie, who have a business in Bourke supplying metal for fabrication, fencing supplies and other rural necessities; they say they're hurting in the current drought.
Ben says things are as bad as he's seen them.
"Things have really slowed down for us; we're nowhere near as bad as our friends and clients who are on the land, but things are bad."
The Ritchies have four small children, one of whom is just over 12 months old and has not seen rain before; their parents would like to see these children grow up in the community, they enjoy the lifestyle of rural Australia.
Prue Ritchie says droughts strip country towns of population; saying that the previous drought in Bourke had seen over 600 workers leave the community.
"I'd like to see some assistance that will help towns maintain their population, so that when the drought is over we can get business moving again."
Cam Rowntree is a farmer from the nearby shire of Walgett, which is also in a critical drought situation. He says, while he welcomes the initiative in bringing the Prime Minister to see what's happening and to meet with primary producers, he'll reserve judgement until the Federal Government announces what assistance it's going to deliver.
Mr Abbott was accompanied in Bourke by the Nationals Member for Parkes Mark Coulton, and the Minister for Agriculture Barnaby Joyce, who was quick to point out the irony of discussing devastating drought in a torrential downpour.
"This rain is great, it's a blessing, but this is not necessarily a drought-breaker.
"Just like one swallow doesn't make a summer, there's a lot more to breaking a drought than one good storm.
"It's so important that the media accompanying us today know that, welcome as this rain is, it's not raining feed, it's not raining money."
Mr Joyce says the issues of drought relief is made more complex by the fact that the government has no money; any funds that are allocated will have to be borrowed in the first place
The Prime Minister told the locals, and the media, that there are measures coming in the near future which will be both 'appropriate and fiscally responsible', but beyond that he would not be drawn into commenting on the detail.
"We are very confident we are close to finalising a drought package which will address people's economic and social needs."
The rain continued to pelt down and locals started to look sideways at each other; it might not be such a good look for the Prime Minister to be bogged in mud at Bourke when his drought listening tour was due in Longreach and Broken Hill.
So the vehicles were called for and the official party drove off into a sea of muddy water.
And Bourke mayor Andrew Lewis and Mr Joyce spent the next half hour or so helping other drivers out of the sticky mud.
© ABC 2014
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