08 Aug The Children Who have Never Seen Rain
Remember, way back in 2011, when raging flood water tried to tear the heart and spirit out of Brisbane, but left big chunks of Queensland dry?
Or remember Japan being hit by that almighty earthquake and the tsunami that followed.
Amy Winehouse being found dead, and we cried with the Morcombes as police confirmed they’d found the bones of their missing teenager Daniel.
Cadel Evans won the Tour de France. Kim Clijsters won the Australian Open and England stole the Ashes.
Seven years ago. Four prime ministers ago. It was pre-Turnbull, pre-Abbott and pre-Rudd, at least the second time around. Julia Gillard ran the country, Anna Bligh ruled Queensland, and Kristina Keneally shared the top job in New South Wales with Barry O’Farrell.
And chunks of our nation were drought-declared. Seven years ago.
So what does that mean? It means a child, born in 2011 in some western parts of Queensland, is in year 2 – and they have never seen rain. They’ve never witnessed the skies darken, and the heavens open. They’ve never heard the sound of water hitting a tin roof. And they’re seven years old.
One farmer told me this week that some children were lucky. They’d seen light rain, a few times.
That led one girl to complain her elder sister was spitting on her. But even the lucky ones haven’t seen green grass.
Often people will send me an email, pleading for assistance to make an issue public via this column. Same-sex marriage reform. Domestic violence. The scourge of ice. Crime and punishment. The list goes on.
This week it was the tears of an elderly man, battered by the stories of friends in the bush, that should break all our hearts.
We’ve heard of the small country towns where small businesses have gone broke, and big chain stores have closed their doors and moved in search of bigger profits.
But it’s the effect of that we might not contemplate.
“Where now do we get undies and socks and the like?” one farmer from south-west Queensland asks. “Some of these businesses have been operating for 40 years and it’s never been as bad as this.”
We’ve heard how farmers and business owners have taken on second jobs, just to put food on the table. But do we understand – and have our policymakers looked at – the impact of that on rural depression rates and suicide attempts? They damn well should.
We see the novel side of the drought now, almost every day. The big award-winning photos that fill television screens, and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull intrigued by Bulloo Shire mayor John ‘Tractor’ Ferguson who is now hand-feeding his bees.
But what about the images of grief that don’t make for pretty pictures: farmers crying over unwieldy Centrelink forms and bank demands and the exhaustion of young children rising before dawn to help their parents before catching a bus to school.
Cr Ferguson says people in the city are trying to understand, but it’s difficult. “There’s a disconnection there. They see it on the media. And they don’t realise just how bad it is.”
Our governments – state and national – are belatedly helping at the fringes, but a seven-year drought cycle sits awkwardly with a three-year election cycle, and a National Party where the focus is on the heartbreak of its former leader, not its constituents.
This is a crisis and needs to be addressed as one – by all parties.
For the rest of us, it’s worth supporting that plethora of charities that are working around the clock to help our country cousins. Perhaps banks should start to address their herculean credibility problem by cancelling, not delaying, the interest bills of those worst hit.
In Brisbane, starting this week, we also get chance to really celebrate the country at the Ekka – whether it’s in the ring, on the ferris wheel, or downing an ale in the Cattlemen’s Bar.
In parts of NSW and Queensland, this is the worst drought in living memory. That’s a fact, but it doesn’t portray the story behind it.
The tears of an old man did that for me this week. Thank you.
Madonna King is a leading journalist and commentator. An award-winning presenter of 612 ABC Brisbane, she has authored 12 books and now works across radio, television and online.