I too rise to add my words to this motion of condolence on the natural disasters. I acknowledge the words of the Parliamentary Secretary for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, the member for Eden-Monaro, and thank him for his visit to my electorate in January. The electorate of Parkes has been battling this disaster in various forms since November. It started at the same time as the grain harvest started. Just as farmers were about to start or had just started the harvest, it started to rain and it did not stop. For a large part of my electorate, it was the first crop they had had in 10 years. The lost expectation of the crop that was going to turn things around has been devastating for many communities. The financial impact of that is actually probably greater than the direct flooding that my electorate suffered as well. Even as we speak today, there are still farmers trying to salvage parts of their grain crop two months after what would normally be considered the end of harvest. As the ground dries out enough to carry machinery, they are trying to salvage what they can. The quality is extremely low and the value per tonne is not very high, but they are trying to get what they can.
The electorate of Parkes is 256,000 square kilometres and covers 34 per cent of New South Wales. Pretty well every shire in my electorate was affected in some way or other. They were affected in different ways. Earlier on, the mid-western area of New South Wales, around Mudgee, had large storms with quite severe, rapid damage. Many people in that mountainous area to the east of Mudgee were isolated because the roads were destroyed. When I was last speaking to the General Manager of the Mid-Western Regional Council, they were estimating that the repair bills were going to be something like $20 million. In December, a fortnight before Christmas, the Macquarie Valley suffered major flooding and the city of Dubbo was cut in half for nearly two weeks. There was one bridge open, but the main bridge that covers the Newell Highway was blocked, which led to traffic chaos in Dubbo. It led to the closure of the main street due to flooding to the back of commercial premises. Leading up to Christmas, this was an economic disaster for those businesses affected. Realistically, a lot of them missed out on Christmas trade that they will never recoup. I compliment the way that the councils have helped and worked during this particularly stressful time. Indeed, Dubbo City Council had to rebuild one of their urban streets during the middle of this crisis because the highway traffic that was diverted down this normally urban road completely destroyed it, and they had to rebuild that as well as deal with the changed traffic conditions.
At that time we also had flooding in the lower Namoi. The week before Christmas I flew across the Namoi, Bogan, Macquarie, Castlereagh and Lachlan river valleys and there were huge amounts of water there. In the Macquarie valley, in the Warren area, there were large amounts of damage not only to the winter crop but to the cotton crop and the summer crops as well, as levee banks on irrigation farms were destroyed.
As I stand here today, a large proportion of the Parkes electorate is under water. The town of Lightning Ridge has been isolated for some weeks. Goodooga has been isolated for a month and will possibly be isolated for two to three months. Rain that fell in Toowoomba caused that horrible devastation. That water has just reached the top end of my electorate now. That is the third flood peak that has come through into the Lightning Ridge, Goodooga, Brewarrina area-and it is at record heights there. When I was at Lightning Ridge it was 30 centimetres above record high. That might not seem a lot, but in that flat landscape that means miles and miles of extra width. The levees protecting farmhouses were not high enough, so the farmers have suffered severe losses to homes, shearing sheds, machinery sheds and machinery and, in many cases, livestock have drowned. The problem they have now is that the stock isolated on ‘islands’ will eat their way out of the available feed on those islands and they will have to be cared for by fodder drops by helicopter. So this crisis will be moving on for some time.
Something I would like to mention is the issue of mental health. This is a very stressful time for all those communities-for the farmers that have lost crops, the small business people that have had their businesses devastated and the people that have had their homes inundated. I was very concerned when around Christmas time and the New Year period there were stories going around of large numbers of farmers in my electorate having succumbed to the stress of the situation they were in and committed suicide. I have done some research, I have contacted the police and followed up the rumours of suicide that I had heard, and I think it is largely an urban myth. Maybe there has been the odd case, but certainly not to the level portrayed. I had a phone call from the Australian newspaper on a Sunday evening asking for confirmation of the reports and I said that I believed this was not the case. The story the next day did not quote my words but those of a member for an electorate in northern Queensland who spoke of large numbers of suicides.
The reason I raise this is that I think this sensationalising of an issue such as suicide and mental health is terribly negative. People deal with stress and they do it in a remarkable way, but mental health is a much more complex issue. You do not have to be under stress from a flood or to have lost your crop to suffer issues of mental health and feel suicidal. To tie mental health issues with periods of extreme stress I think is very dangerous because then funding for mental health gets tied to extreme issues, whether it be drought or flood, and it is a simplistic way of looking at a very complex issue. So I hope that as people try to grab a sensational headline they might think of the consequences of making suicide an issue to sell newspapers rather than doing the research to find out the truth behind the story.
Just recently, due to large storms in the Dumaresq Valley, we have had floods in the Macintyre and the villages of Toomelah and Boggabilla were both evacuated 120 kilometres to Moree. It was one of the largest evacuations over such a distance that we have ever seen in this country, and I would like to compliment the people involved in that process. Moree Plains Shire Council is led very strongly by Mayor Katrina Humphries, who had a sense of the magnitude of the flood and raised the alarm early, and as a result they were very well prepared. I also compliment the people of Moree for opening their arms to the visitors to their town over that particular period of time, and the people of Boggabilla and Toomelah on the way they conducted themselves during that very stressful period. I would also like to compliment the government departments-the state department, DOCS, and the Centrelink staff in that area. We did have an issue because the people in the border towns that were evacuated to Queensland were eligible for a relocation grant but if they were relocated to Moree they were not. This was quite upsetting to some people. I have to say that it was thanks to the management and staff of Centrelink that we managed to resolve the issue at about five o’clock on Saturday afternoon and by Sunday afternoon those people were receiving financial assistance at the evacuation centre. I would like to thank the Centrelink staff for their extra effort at a particularly stressful time.
I would like to finish by complimenting the volunteers. While the flood in the Parkes electorate may not have been as sudden and as dramatic and as devastating as others, it has been a long, slow road. We have got volunteers in the west of my electorate who are giving months of their time monitoring flood levels, manning roadblocks, organising food drops to families, organising fodder drops and a whole range of other things that are going on for a very long time. So I would like to compliment the work the volunteers are doing. I would also like to compliment the work that all the councils have done as the primary organisers of immediate assistance for their communities.