Tonight I rise to speak on an issue that is of grave concern to the people of regional Australia, including the people of the electorate of Parkes, and that is the issue of local rural roads. As most people would realise, nearly everything that we find on our supermarket shelves starts its journey on a local road. As the face of agriculture has changed over time, the funding for rural roads has not kept pace. That has prompted the formation of a new group within Australia called the Australian Rural Road Group, which is very much in its infancy but has a membership of rural councils with agricultural production in excess of $100 million per year.
The Australian Rural Road Group presented at the National Local Roads and Transport Congress in Bunbury in Western Australia last week to rousing applause from delegates, who felt at last there was someone planning to tackle the issue of local rural roads head-on. The Australian Rural Road Group have identified several methods of attack to approach this problem. Over the years, the level of asset management and reporting from local government has been less than satisfactory. There has been an improvement over the last few years, but at the moment there is not a nationally unified, uniform method of asset management of local roads. That is one of the first things that the group are lobbying for-that there be an asset management system that can identify the issue right across Australia. Their preliminary studies point to an annual shortfall of $3 billion in Australia in these roads.
What does this mean? In my electorate I have agricultural businesses that are generating produce worth millions of dollars. They are expected to meet market contracts, with grain and livestock, on roads that were built in the time of Cobb and Co. and are very little different from that time. As well as getting produce to market, people need to get their children to school. A lot of farm people work off farm as well and need to get to their place of employment or into town for medical emergencies and the like. Last week I went to the village of North Star, which is in an area known as the Golden Triangle in north-west New South Wales. I met with a farmer who, two weeks out from this year’s grain harvest, is still trying to deliver last year’s grain. He has contracts to meet but he has been able to shift very little grain for the last couple of months because of the wet weather we have been having. This is causing enormous financial hardship to this farmer, and he is just a small example of what is happening right across the country.
While I was on this road visiting Mr Greg Hohn, and looking at the condition of the road that he has to use to deliver his grain, I spoke to a neighbour, a lady who was going to collect her children from the school bus. She explained to me that the week before she had been hopelessly bogged in her four-wheel-drive vehicle trying to get her kids to school. The rural roads group was formed by the Gwydir and Moree shire councils-they were the nucleus-and has now grown exponentially. Their membership is coming to Canberra next week. They are meeting with Minister Albanese and Minister Crean. I thank them for their time and I thank the member for Fremantle, who has just left, for helping facilitate that meeting for me. That will start the ball rolling to finding a clear and definite method to tackle the problem of the gross underfunding of local roads and the severe productivity brake that this is putting on the development of regional Australia.