STATEMENTS BY SENATORS - Queensland: Bushfires, Queensland: Cape York Peninsula

September 11, 2019

Senator CHISHOLM (Queensland) (12:51): I want to start by acknowledging the words of Senator Stoker as a Queensland senator. I pass on my thoughts and condolences as well. I acknowledge the hard work of emergency service providers, Energex crews out there doing the work and the communities that have been affected, and I acknowledge a stellar job by the state government, who are, unfortunately, becoming all too accustomed to dealing with the natural disasters of fires, floods and cyclones.

I too want to talk about regional Queensland and, in particular, a recent driving trip that I made to Cape York. Unfortunately, now that we're back in opposition, we need to use our time wisely, so having 10 days set aside to travel from Brisbane to Napranum and Weipa and some towns in between was really a great privilege for me as a senator. It was a privilege to be able to do that and to have the opportunity to meet with mayors and community representatives and just have a chat—there are always a lot of people up in those parts of the world, including tourists having a look around—and get a sense of life and community there. And it was a real eye-opener for me. I had been to Weipa and Napranum before, but I'd flown in. Having the opportunity to drive this time gave me a better perspective on the distance covered up there and on the remoteness of the area. But it also meant I had time to spend, as I wasn't tied down to plane schedules. I could go from town to town and go off in various directions, so it was a tremendous eye-opener. I want to talk a little bit about the towns I went to, thank the people that spent time with me and talk a bit about the issues that I picked up, which I think are some of the ones that I want to have an ongoing interest in. I want to ensure that I'm a regular visitor back to that part of the world as well so I can continue to represent those people and also ensure that I'm continuing to stay in touch with the challenges in those remote parts of Queensland.

As I said, it was a 4,500-kilometre trip all up, from Brisbane to Weipa and Napranum and back. I started in Cooktown, where I met with the mayor, Peter Scott. Peter is doing an outstanding job there with such a large geographic area and such a low rate base and with the constant challenges there, particularly during the wet season, of roads and infrastructure funding. He's doing a really good job coordinating across the cape and ensuring that Indigenous communities and councils are represented as part of that group at the same time. There's also the ongoing role that they've got supporting tourism and tourism infrastructure in that part. It's increasingly becoming a popular place for people from other parts of Australia to go and explore, which is fantastic, but it also brings with it challenges from a low rate base to ensure that services are kept up and that roads are maintained in what can be a tricky part of the world to get around. It was a really good opportunity to meet with the mayor and hear a bit about the work they're doing. I look forward to getting back there soon to continue to learn more about the Cook shire and how it operates.

We stopped in Coen and spent a night there. Special thanks go to Barry at the Exchange Hotel for looking after us. He's recently taken over as the manager there. We had a really interesting meeting with Dion and Tim from Kalan Enterprises, a local Indigenous group that has really tried to provide local Indigenous employment opportunities, focused on the ongoing roads and maintenance work that needs to happen in that part of the world. They gave me a tour of their plant and equipment and talked about the ongoing work they have been doing and how they've been able to employ local residents—but also the sense of opportunity that they see for the future. There's obviously, in all parts of the cape, a tremendous opportunity around improving roads and improving the economic opportunities that result from that. But they're also starting to look at what they can do on the tourism front as well. With amazing nature and wildlife and because of the remoteness, it could become a really popular area for walking tracks. They're looking at what they can pursue around that area to diversify the economy and continue to build the roads and infrastructure but look at other economic opportunities for Indigenous peoples in Coen.

We also visited the Coen state school. Thanks go to Bronson, who is the deputy principal there, for showing us around and taking us into a couple of the classrooms. It was an interesting insight for me because the Coen state school is a Cape York academy school. I'd visited other schools that were not Cape York academy schools, so the compare-and-contrast element to that was invaluable. I met a number of students in grade 6 who are heading off to boarding schools in other parts of Queensland from next year as well. It was a real experience for me to get a sense that increasingly the high school opportunities for Cape York kids are at boarding schools further to the south, including as far as Brisbane. The teachers there do a fantastic job and they have had some real improvements in their rankings when it comes to some of the ways that that is done in Queensland.

We next drove to Lockhart River. It was about a five- or six-hour drive to get to Lockhart River, where the mayor, Wayne Butcher, and the CEO, Dave Clarke, were really generous with their time. They spent the morning with us, giving us a briefing on the work the council is doing. Particularly, they are doing some innovative work in giving local contracting opportunities. They are encouraging local Indigenous members to buy plant and equipment and then contract back to the council. So it's really creating a sense of entrepreneurship and small-business opportunities where they're forming their own work gangs, basically, to do road work. It's giving a good economic sense that there's employment coming into town. They're making money to spend in the local community. There's a sense of pride for those people as well. We met a number of those workers as we subsequently went on a tour and saw some of the road work and other work that they are doing in those towns. That is a really good story that the mayor and CEO should be incredibly proud of.

The mayor then spent the afternoon taking us on a tour around Lockhart River. We went to the Puuya Foundation and met with Dorothy Hobson and Veronica Piva, who are board members. That organisation is providing early education opportunities for children from when they are babies through to pre-kindy and pre-preschool age to come and basically get ready for the schooling system. They can spend time there with trained professionals, but also the parents of those kids can receive support at one centre as well. It is a really impressive organisation that has been operating now for a couple of years. It receives good philanthropic support from members of the philanthropic community. It has been a real success story. Talking subsequently to the teachers of the kids who have been attending the Puuya Foundation over time, I heard the kids are much better prepared when they do get to prep as a result of going through that program and getting a better understanding of the rigors of schooling. The parents obtain support as well to prepare their kids for schooling. That was a really important foundation that's doing great work that needs to be supported.

We then met with Kate Parkes, the deputy principal at Lockhart State School. Kate was generous with her time, considering that there was a real shortage of staff that day, so it was a real privilege that she took time out of her day to spend time with us and talk us through the school attendance issues that they have in trying to attract and encourage kids to attend school more regularly and some of the methods that they're using to encourage better attendance, but also the challenge of attracting teachers to the area to continue to ensure that they have the best possible resources available. It was a really interesting contrast between the methods that they are using there in Lockhart River and what they are doing in Coen.

Then we made the drive from Lockhart River to Napranum and Weipa. It was a really interesting contrast, again. Napranum is so close to Weipa, whereas the other communities are a bit more remote. Charles, Rhonda and Gail from the Mokwiri foundation talked a bit about the economic opportunities they're pursuing for Indigenous members in Napranum. Sonia Schuh from the Apunipima health service, who is also the deputy mayor, talked us through the work that they are doing around health but also the educational opportunities for a town that is so close to Weipa but doesn't have it its own education services like they do in Lockhart River and Coen, something that that community is very passionate about. Then in Weipa we met with the Weipa Town Authority and visited the Rio Tinto mine as well. Overall it was a fantastic opportunity to spend a week in the cape. I'm really thankful to those communities that spent time with me, because I found it an invaluable experience that will enable me to do a better job as a senator for Queensland. (Time expired)