Sixty per cent of Queensland is in drought, and farmers are facing the prospect of losing their livelihood in order to pay back crippling debts. Jeannette Francis spent a week in far north Queensland where farmers are now taking their own lives at a staggering rate.
Airdate: 
Monday, November 10, 2014 - 19:30
Channel: 
SBS Two

“It’s as bad as we’ve seen out west. It’s very, very dry.”

Jim Prichard works at the Charters Towers cattle market, and business is slow. “It was every Wednesday, and sometimes Friday as well. Now we’re only having it twice a month.”

Charters Towers is a small town of 8500 people 130km from Townsville. The close-knit community survives on mining and the cattle industry, and the latter has seen better days. Sixty per cent of Queensland is in drought, and the changes in regulation for live cattle exports have taken their toll on local farmers. Earlier this year the saleyard prices reached their lowest point in sixteen years.

“I doubt whether there’s too many people that wouldn’t say they’ve been doing it hard, with all the associated expenses that come with drought… Around here there are a number of graziers that have just had their property sold up.”

A month ago, a relative of Prichard’s and a sixth generation grazier took his life. “Nobody saw it coming, that was the worst part about it... the family’s been in the bush all our life.”

It rains, but decent rain? It’s been three years. And every year it’s getting worse.”

The community members of Charters Towers are all feeling the pressure. “It rains, but decent rain? It’s been three years. And every year it’s getting worse” says one man.

Another agrees. “It’s all culminated with poor market, lack of money, lack of water, and feed.”

“There are people who are leaving the land, there are people who are suiciding, because they just don’t know how they’re going to cope.”

 

The devastation of drought is something the Whelans of Dixie in far north Queensland know too well. Their oldest son, Mac, took his life on August 4 last year. He was seventeen, and until his death his family had no knowledge of his mental state.

“Mackie was very lovable. He was always laughing; he just had to be the clown. He was just so happy, and getting on with everybody,” says him mother Kym.

“When you look back there were probably signs, things he had said. But at the time you just don’t even… you don’t even pick it up”.

His father Jim remembers the last day of Mac’s life. “The night he took his life I wasn’t there, I had to go to the other property. I took off and said ‘you right, mate’ and he said ‘yeah, I’m fine dad’. That night he took his life.”

"He could never understand why we weren’t getting anything for our cattle."

“Mac used to say ‘I need new boots’ and I’d just say no. For years you’d just say no, no, no, we can’t afford it. I’ve worried a lot about that since his death.”

“In his young developing mind he could never understand why we weren’t getting anything for our cattle. We’d come to town and buy some meat and we’d pay $20 for it. And it costs you 12 cents a kilo to cart them,” he says.

The loss of their son has been overwhelmingly traumatic for the family. Kym says, ‘I find it very hard to let go. But then one day it’ll just come upon me, and I have to pull up by the side of the road and cry for half an hour. I just try to stay strong for the children, for the three girls. He adored the girls…When he did shoot himself he had their three birth certificates rolled out on the grass beside him. I guess it was his way of having them near him when he did it.

“The first few months were very tough. Just trying to get them to understand where Mac was and where his state of mind was at the time.”

“I just wish he’s talked to Dad. I’d just ask why he did it and if he could have told us and we could have helped him. Because he kept it all in.  And I would tell him that we missed him a lot, and we wished he was here,” says his sisters.

"You know you’re borrowing the money to pay the bills.”

The Whelans have sold their two cattle properties to pay back the banks, and are now facing the prospect of losing their home. “The thought of my three girls losing their home where they grew up with Mac is pretty difficult,” says Kym.  “I hate to get the mail. I get tight in the chest, and drive past the post office every day. You know you’re borrowing the money to pay the bills.”

Bob Katter, the farming community’s most outspoken advocate in parliament, has long been drawing attention to the plight of farmers. “There’s a farmer committing suicide every four days in this country. Ask me what any government, state or federal, has done to help them.”

Katter has lobbied for more government regulation and lower interest rates for farmers, along with an increase in government support. Citing an OECD figure that states 40% of farmer income worldwide comes from the government, he points out that Australian farmers rely on the government for just 4.5% of income. “How can we compete?” he asks.

"The banks were quite happy to provide..because they always get their money back." 

The Queensland government was given 100mill of federal funds for drought concessional loans over the past two years, and 30mill for non-drought related farm finance. However, the state’s rural debt is estimated at 17 billion, with the average debt per borrower at over 1 million. Cattle farmers represent over half of those debtors.

“The banks were quite happy to provide, and they’re quite happy to foreclose now. Because they always get their money back… they’ll just sell you up.”

Jim Whelan is also concerned about the threat of mass foreclosures on the bush. “It’s so upsetting because it is happening, and it will happen more. It really frightens me just how many are going to go when the rural industry is on its knees, and they take their land away. Nothing like it is now. It’s going to double fold.

“We do live in isolated areas but we love it, we wouldn’t do it if we didn’t like it. But you have issues with getting help.”

"You can just imagine looking up at the sky and it hasn’t rained in two years, and they just have to keep battling away."

Ross Romeo has been working with CORES (COmmunity Response to Eliminating Suicide) to help address this lack of support. He is from the Burdekin area, and became involved with the issue after losing a friend to suicide in 2008. He is well aware of the pressures facing farmers trying to provide during drought.

“When things don’t go right and they can’t provide then they suffer an awful lot of guilt. You can just imagine looking up at the sky and it hasn’t rained in two years, and they just have to keep battling away.”

He pinpoints the laconic nature of rural people, particularly men, as a factor in the suicide cluster in the area. Jim Whelan agrees. “I suppose we cuddle the girls but we probably don’t do enough man hugs. Only a week before he took his life he grabbed me and said ‘that didn’t hurt Dad, did it’.

“You don’t look at your family and say ‘he’s going to go shoot himself’. Maybe we need to learn these things.”

It is this knowledge that Ross is trying to impart. “The idea is to make people more aware of what to look out for. The earlier we pick up the signs the easier it is.

"The land recovers quicker than people."

 “The last few years we’ve been asking people ‘just let us know if you’ve intervened with someone’ and what’s come back at us is that every fourth person who has done the training has done an intervention with somebody and helped them out. That’s what people have got to realize; that these people don’t want to die. They just want to end that pain.

The land recovers quicker than people. Once it rains, the grass will start growing again. The land’s been dealing with drought for thousands and thousands of years. But people have got to deal with getting back to where they were before.”

Anyone seeking support and information about suicide prevention is encouraged to contact:

Watch Insight's episode on male suicide here.