SUBJECTS: Drought support in Stanthorpe; Drought policy.
REPORTER: Can you tell us why you’re here today?
JOEL FITZGIBBON: Well, I’m here to express solidarity with the local community, including the growers, and the producers. What you see behind us is confronting, and we can see apple trees being pulled from the ground – it could almost make you cry. So, we stand with the community. We want to help the community, and importantly I need to know what more the Government can do.
REPORTER: And what have you been hearing from those on the ground as to what the Government can do more of?
FITZGIBBON: I’m hearing a distressed community. What started as a problem for agriculture has now become a problem for the township for households, and of course, for business, and look, we can’t let people continue to deal with these issues on their own. There’s a lot more I think government can do, and I think we need strong leadership from the Federal Government. We’ve had drought summits. Drought coordinators. Drought envoys. Drought taskforce. What we really need is some action that helps people in the short-term.
REPORTER: What kind of action?
FITZGIBBON: Well I think we’ve got to put cash in people’s pockets, and we’re hearing about people having to transport water, for example, at an enormous cost, and, you know, if that stops happening we’ll lose investment and that will cost the Government revenue in the future. It would make more sense for the Federal Government to invest now to protect the trees, to protect the crops, to protect the orchards so that we continue to derive revenue from those businesses, but more importantly so the regional economy can remain vibrant.
REPORTER: When you say more cash in people’s pockets, do you mean in terms of, you know, drought assisted loans, or do you mean in terms of grants?
FITZGIBBON: Well, we have people no longer qualifying for Farm Household Allowance. We have infrastructure programs that closed last December from the Commonwealth Government. We have people paying $23,000 a mega litre to get water to their orchards. There are a number of ways the Federal Government could step in now to lend more assistance. And a number of weeks ago, very importantly, Anthony Albanese said: 'look whatever it costs – whatever the Government wants to spend – Labor will give support'.
REPORTER: So in the Labor Government’s mind is a – sorry, is a loan better, or is a grant?
FITZGIBBON: Labor believes that the Government has been talking and meeting for too long on these issues. We need action, and a great credit to the local community here. The entrepreneurship. The investment involved in the Emu Swamp dam, but that’s two or three years away. The growers need help now. The town needs help now. Labor is offering bi-partisan support. We’re saying we will back anything the Commonwealth want to do; we just want them to do it.
REPORTER: You hinted at it before, Joel, so maybe a relaxing of, you know, who can be eligible for these loans and grants?
FITZGIBBON: The Government has been fiddling around with Farm Household Allowance since 2014, and yet people are still being denied or are unable to secure access to the scheme. So, there’s still more work to be done there, and look – drought solution is short, medium and long-term. What the Government can do now is help people get water to their orchards, for example. We can’t have people continue to pull trees out of the ground.
REPORTER: Can you tell us why you are here?
ANTHONY CHISHOLM, SENATOR FOR QUEENSLAND: I’ve spent a lot of time with Joel Fitzgibbon getting out and about across regional Queensland; first time I have been able to visit Stanthorpe as a Senator and its been really confronting. I think some of the opportunity we have had to talk to local businesses and the local community on the tour today – but the community have been really generous, there’s a real resilience and a real pride around their town, and I just want to do what I can as a Senator for Queensland to ensure that their voice is heard on the national stage.
REPORTER: You just touched on then, on the national stage, you think a lot of people around Australia don’t appreciate what’s happening here?
CHISHOLM: Oh look, I think that we can always do more to ensure Australians understand what is going on, but it also our job to pressure the Government to ensure that this community doesn’t get left behind and that they do have a viable future.
REPORTER: So you want to pressure the Government: how are you going to do that? What are you calling for?
CHISHOLM: We’ll make some learnings based on today, but it's obvious that the government needs to take action, that they can’t sit around – there’s a lack of confidence in the community whether it be town water, whether it be local business, or whether it be those farming communities. So it is really important that the Government does listen and take action and give people confidence that they are going to have a long term future here.
REPORT: What action are you hoping that they take?
CHISHOLM: Well, I think that they just need to give confidence; that there can be viable towns, that the agriculture sector can continue to thrive, and that’s what we’ll be about listening today – learning from that. But for me it’s about building a long term relationship, I’ll be a regular visitor here and I’ll continue to advocate for the needs of the community.
REPORTER: Is that the best way to build confidence or presence? Or does money come into it as well?
CHISHOLM: Well obviously that is part of it. We are in opposition; we obviously aren’t responsible for that. But what we can do is ensure that those voices are being heard, and if the Government does take correct action, we will be the first ones to congratulate them.
REPORT: So what is the correct action you would like to see?
CHISHOLM: Well we want to see that the Government provides support for this community, that’s what needs to be done; that’s what the Government needs to do.
REPORT: Support in what forms?
CHISHOLM: Well, providing support for this community, so as Joel said that there’s a number of assistance measures that could be in place. We want to ensure that the community are getting access to them.
REPORTER: Can you tell us what conditions are like at the moment?
DINO RIZZATO, LOCAL FARMER: Look, it’s pretty tough at the moment. It’s been dry for a long time, it’s been one of the driest that I’ve seen around, and just the lack of water – it’s really tough, because, you know, we’ve got a sizeable business here. We have a lot of people employed, and it’s making it tough on making decisions. We’ve had to pull some trees out, so that way – to try and spare that water. We’ve been carting water in from up to 60 kilometres away, been doing that for several months to try and keep our trees alive and keep them going. So going forwards hopefully we can just keep them, yes, ready for the rain.
REPORTER: How long have you been here for?
RIZZATO: I’ve been – I was born here. So, I’ve been around for 60 plus years. So, this is what I’ve done, and this is what I love doing. It’s, yes, our business is third generation. So our, our whole family is involved here. Yes, it’s affecting us. It’s affecting staff, jobs and look the whole community does need rain, we need water, we need a dam, all that. So, it’s great to see that we have some politicians come down and have a look at this, here. It’s really good, the support is very welcome.
REPORTER: What message do you hope they take back to Canberra?
RIZZATO: Look, from what they’ve seen, that they can see that it’s a resilient community here, but we just need some help.
REPORTER: What kind of help – what would help you in this situation? What are you hoping for?
RIZZATO: Look, we’re hoping that, okay, the Emu Swamp Dam is the biggest thing, and we know that it’s not going to help tomorrow sort of thing, but we, you know, we’ve got to look forward. We’ve got to hang in there, keep going. At the moment there are sort of items like helping the community of the town with a say freight subsidy, cart water for the town, but also say include horticulture in part of that for freight subsidies. They would be things that would help now.
REPORTER: If you don’t mind me asking, and you don’t have to answer this, but how much has it cost you to cart that water in?
RIZZATO: Ok, look, without being down to the details, it’s over a million dollars its cost us to cart water in.
REPORTER: In total?
RIZZATO: In total, yep.
REPORTER: What kind of impact does that have on your business?
RIZZATO: Well it’s a fair impact because you can’t cart enough water for what your trees need. So you’re doing only the bare minimum, so you’re taking as much as you can and as much as you can afford too.
REPORTER: What’s it like for you to look around and to see that dams are empty and trees that you’re pulling out?
RIZZATO: It’s hard. But you just have to get on with it and with the help that is coming, we have just got to make it fit.
REPORTER: Keep waiting?
REPORTER: With those trees, you’ve obviously put everything into them, they might have even been planted before you came and took over the farm kind of thing, what’s that like to then have to make a decision on the tree’s future?
RIZZATO: It’s a difficult decision, it’s something that when you’re born and bred into this industry, like they’re hard decisions, but you just got to do it just like cattle people have to make hard decisions, we have to, too.
REPORTER: And do you know how many trees have you pulled out, do you know on the top of your head?
RIZZATO: Its approximately about 20 acres at this stage.
REPORTER: And have you ever had to pull trees out before?
RIZZATO: Yes we have but not based on a shortage of water.
REPORTER: And obviously that was a really tough decision to make?
RIZZATO: Yep, it was tough. But you’ve got to sort of say we’ll take those trees out and that will benefit the all the younger trees and newer varieties and all that coming along. So you have got to sort of make a commercial decision.