Mr WHETSTONE (Chaffey) (15:24): I stand here, 138 days after a devastating hailstorm ripped through the Riverland and marginal Mallee country and decimated a huge amount of country and productive horticulture and agriculture, to put on record my disappointment, which cannot be overstated, at the process for assistance for these impacted growers. The sudden and unprecedented hailstorm left an estimated damage bill of somewhere in the vicinity of $100 million to nearly 260 properties. The full effects of the storm are yet to be felt. Wine grapes, stone fruits, citrus, almonds, potatoes, onions and cereal crops and more were impacted.
While provisions for mental health support were established immediately, it took 42 days for any funding support to be announced by the state government under the Commonwealth-State Natural Disaster Relief and Recovery Arrangements. Three Riverland councils were given the funding agreements, but they forgot two council areas—the Mid Murray and the Karoonda East Murray areas—that were also damaged by these hailstorms. They were not put on that disaster relief arrangement—outrageous.
Finally, the state government, through PIRSA, have acknowledged that Mid Murray had significant damage, but they have decided that Karoonda East Murray did not have enough damage even though some crops were 100 per cent wiped out. 'Sorry,' is the response I got. The Riverland growers impacted by the storm were offered up to $10,000 to help clean up and essentially minimise the risk of fruit fly outbreaks. As of this month, just 30 of the 145 contacted growers have made inquiries about storm assistance through the grants.
The problem is that many of the growers themselves had already undertaken clean-up of the damage on their properties weeks before any assistance was announced. We have to remember that growers and farmers are proactive and they cannot just wait. They cannot wait for the slow machine of government. They have to get on and do what they have to do. As far as financial assistance goes, that is it. Despite many concerns being raised time and time again through letters, local media and in this place, the growers have essentially been left with no further financial support and with insurance that nowhere near covers the extent of the damage.
Sunraysia growers, just across the border only 40 kilometres away, were hit by the same storm. They were given an option of concessional loans of up to $25,000, and Riverland growers were not given that same option because PIRSA has stated that Sunraysia suffered greater damage, but how is the damage measured? The extent of the damage on the Riverland will continue through several seasons, so how was that damage assessed? How was that damage put into the context of a submission?
As I understand it, despite the current guidelines the state government has the option of requesting further assistance from the federal government. A state government-commissioned independent report highlighted the lengthy delay in response as a deficiency in the storm response process and identified disparity between the Riverland hailstorm and the Virginia flood responses. A local recovery coordinator took 24 days to be appointed to the Riverland disaster compared to just one day in Virginia in northern Adelaide. This storm has impacted on the livelihoods of our food producers—the shining lights of our economy—and the state government appear to have shrugged their shoulders and said, 'You will just have to wear it.'
Take Riverland farmer Steve Brauer, for example. The storm wiped out his entire stone fruit crop, equating to a loss of around $60,000. As he looks to repair his trees, which may delay crops for some years, and without any income, how will he pay his bills? How will he pay his children's school fees? What will happen to the people who he employed to pick and pack his fruit? I stand here today and call on all levels of government involved in the natural disaster support process to show some compassion and help these growers.
At a time of great need, these farmers have been left to fend for themselves without even a concessional loan to assist. I bet the government will continue to hit them with taxes and levies despite the fact they already and still have no income. I will continue to advocate on behalf of these growers in my electorate of Chaffey impacted by this storm. The South Australian Minister for Agriculture can refer to me in every which way he wants on radio, on TV or here in the chamber; I will not back down.
We must learn from the state government's response to the Riverland hailstorm. This cannot happen again. As Citrus Australia South Australia Region committee member Mark Doecke said, 'It's unfortunate that bureaucracy gets in the way of people who genuinely need help.' We need to support these growers and we need to support South Australia's economy.