Farmers and regional communities are getting a hand thanks to the NSW Nationals as the entire State slips into drought.
Out at Attunga, near Tamworth, the signs of the drought are all around. Gum trees, which normally weather droughts thanks to incredibly deep roots, are dying from the dry. Crops have failed and farmers are hand-feeding their stock. For the scarce properties with enough water to irrigate, the lush green is in stark contrast to the dusty dry paddocks dotted only with stubble.
Farmers compare stories of hay they’ve bought in as they gather outside Attunga Hall for the first in a series of drought-relief forums organised in part by grassroots members of the NSW Nationals. One farmer says he ordered a truck full of hay only to discover he also had to pay for freight – that wasn’t included in the skyrocketing price – and when he got the load it was still half-green.
The small community hall at Attunga has stood for decades, through numerous droughts. A landscape painting of the region in better times adorns the back of the stage, while a picture of the Queen hangs slightly askew on the wall. Outside, members of the press from near and far huddle around and a cold breeze blows as Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack arrives with New England MP Barnaby Joyce. They’re greeted by Tamworth-based Nationals member Russell Webb, who helped organise the drought forums. They speak briefly as the media scrum surrounds them, with Russell introducing co-organiser George Frame from the local radio station and Salvation Army Rural Chaplain Di Lawson.
As the event starts, more and more farmers arrive, packing out the hall and standing outside straining to hear what’s going on. Russell introduces the Deputy PM and he takes the podium.
“Russell put the call out to me and said ‘look what can we do further to help these drought-stricken farmers?’ – and not just farmers, it’s not just about farmers; it’s also about small businesses, it’s also about families, it’s also about entire communities. This goes way beyond the farm gate,” Mr McCormack said. “We can’t make it rain but we can be there with help and support and assistance. And I would urge and encourage you to make use of that assistance. I would also urge and encourage you on your social media networks, when you’re talking to your friends, when you’re talking to other families in other areas, make sure you tell them too: Don’t self-assess. Don’t self-assess. May it rain very, very soon. And the prayers and thoughts are with you all.”
Lining the walls of the small hall are representatives from Government agencies like Health, Centrelink and the Australian Tax Office. Rural Financial Counsellors are there, as are the Salvos and the CWA. Everyone that has anything to do with helping communities survive the drought.
While the speeches go on inside, volunteers are busy cooking up a feast and unloading trucks full of donated food and supplies. Di Lawson from the Salvos tells the crowd that there’s immediate help there for them and that they’ll be back to check in on them in coming weeks. As the formalities end and people move around the Government tables, breadrolls and hot sausages are handed out along with cups of coffee while big bags of dog food, boxes of vegetables and cases of cereal are placed in the back of cars and utes.
They’re a proud bunch, these farmers, used to weathering the hard times together. But it’s also important for them to accept the generosity shown by people in Newcastle and Sydney who have sent what they can, if only as a show of moral support for the community.
The drought facing farmers and communities saw the second-driest autumn on record, according to analysis by the ABC. A chart produced by the public broadcaster found this year’s autumn rainfall was almost 57mm below average, the driest since the 1902 Federation drought (68mm below average). And the media attention around the drought has been growing, as evidenced by the pack that turned up for the officials.
But for the people in Attunga on Tuesday morning, they got some welcome relief as the Nationals as a collective movement came together to help in any way they could.