Cyclone Debbie – where are we now?

Column by Stuart Armitage, Queensland Farmers’ Federation President

Its more than five weeks since Tropical Cyclone Debbie hit the north Queensland coast, and we now have a better understanding of the impact on Queensland farmers. As is often the case with these intense systems, some farmers received much needed soaking rain; but overall Debbie’s impact has been quite devastating. The damage bill for the sector has been reported by the government at $450 million. Farmers from the Whitsunday region in the north, down to the NSW border in the south east have been impacted. This figure will increase as longer term production losses for the next and subsequent seasons become clearer for many farmers.

The good news is that even though sugar cane, fruit and vegetable, nursery and garden, beef, grains, dairy, cotton, flowers, pork and egg producers all felt the brunt of Cyclone Debbie, assistance is already being delivered and the recovery process is well and truly underway.

Industry should be commended for its proactive response to this latest event. All industries pulled together to support farmers in the initial relief stages of the disaster and worked tirelessly to collect the data from those farmers affected throughout the state during the challenging aftermath period. The Queensland Farmers’ Federation (QFF) in coordination with its member organisations played a key role informing governments of the impact on our sector and how best to support it in the immediate and longer term.

The ‘impact assessment’ information gathered by industry was used to determine the state and federal assistance now available through the Category C declarations in affected regional council areas. As at 28 April 2017, 191 farmers had applied for the $25,000 Exceptional Circumstances Grants coordinated by QRAA to assist them get back on their feet.

QFF thanks the Department for Agriculture and Fisheries (DAF) for the quality of support offered to affected farmers in the aftermath of Cyclone Debbie. DAF’s cooperation and communication with industry throughout the response and recovery process to date and been positive and appropriate. The Agriculture Coordination Group that is run out of the Director-General’s Office is an exemplar for other sectors.

Taxpayers, particularly those from southern states, often and justifiably question the level and the targeting of government support following severe weather events. It is therefore important that Queensland leads by example in any funding commitments our government makes. The Premier recently announced the $1 million Go Local – keep Queensland going strong” initiative to help local farmers and businesses recover from the effects of Cyclone Debbie by encouraging consumers to buy local produce. Promotion of buying local produce is always welcome and the merits of this campaign are most likely noble, but the reality is that this money fails to address and deliver the real assistance impacted farmers need post a natural disaster.

This funding would be better spent supporting farmers directly through industry-led recovery programs that get boots on the ground to assist those that need it most. The “Go Local” campaign misunderstands the issues that affect farmers in the aftermath of natural disasters like Cyclone Debbie by focusing on the consumer market where the demand for food, fibre and foliage is largely unchanged. Investment in industry-led programs that tap in to the knowledge and expertise already available through QFF and its industry member organisations would be more appropriate and very welcome.