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QCWA president listening as bush does it tough.

MAKING A DIFFERENCE: QCWA’s dynamic state president Robyn McFarlane.
MAKING A DIFFERENCE: QCWA’s dynamic state president Robyn McFarlane. Toni Somes

IT WAS a call like so many others from a rural voice edged in desperation.

"I'm sorry. I hate asking. But we've put everything we have into keeping our cattle alive and they're still dying. We're desperate and now I can't pay the car rego."

"When is the rego due?

"January."

It is April and Queensland Country Women's Association state president Robyn McFarlane is answering a stream of calls from rural families asking - quietly and uncomfortably - for help.

I cried for a week the first time I had to wait in a Centrelink line, but cane prices were terrible and things were really tough.

Since stepping into the top job in November, this energetic canegrower from Mackay has had the dual role of overseeing the association's Public Rural Crisis Fund.

It's a challenging role in a state struggling through one of the most widespread droughts in history. Along with her QCWA state executive, she has has listened to hundreds of heartbreaking calls from country families struggling to cover even basic necessities.

The association has paid out close to $122,000 (in $500 lots) in the past seven months, to people from Georgetown in the lower Gulf country through to Charleville and St George in the south.

In the hours before this interview, Mrs McFarlane had paid one family's anaesthetist bill, helped with the final payment on a washing machine, paid for hearing aid repairs and sorted out the overdue car registration.

"We also give out grocery vouchers; though in a lot of regional areas we like to give local store credit - that way you are helping two families."

It is a tough, emotional job deciding who gets help when needs are great and funds are limited, but she does it with the trademark empathy and compassion that has taken her to the helm of one of the country's oldest lobby groups.

"I cried for a week the first time I had to wait in a Centrelink line but cane prices were terrible and things were really tough," Mrs McFarlane explained.

"So I understand how hard it is to ask for help."

Those who know this vivacious woman won't be surprised to learn within a week of her Centrelink initiation, she was taking her farming friends in to seek assistance.

"I ended up being on a first name basis with the Centrelink staff," she laughed.

There is no disputing this mother of three and grandmother to eight has an uncanny gift for connecting with people - from the former Queensland Governor-General Quentin Bryce (who invited her Longreach school reunion class to afternoon tea, after a chance meeting with Mrs McFarlane) to the young woman, who helped with her latest bus booking.

"Connecting with people is exactly what QCWA is all about," she agreed, bringing up yet another of her passions.

But her introduction to the association was less involved. The daughter of a railway employee, she spent her childhood moving around central and western Queensland, before starting work at a bank in Longreach.

It was there she met her "destiny" or more specifically, her husband Peter, a cane farmer from the Septimus region north-west of Mackay.

"Then my mother-in-law told me the local hall was going to close, so I had better join the QCWA. It was 1976 and you did what you were told then, so I joined," she said.

She credits the decision with changing her life.

"I gained a lot of confidence through my involvement with QCWA," she explained.

"And the friendship and support of other women made a huge difference.

"It is what I love about the association - it has the capacity to change women's lives.

"To bring a sense of togetherness and to help ease loneliness and build confidence."

The richness of her experience has been the driving force behind her energetic push to grow QCWA numbers across the state.

"I look at some of the women in our communities and I know they could benefit from the togetherness we offer as a women's association.

"There are a lot of women from different cultures and backgrounds, who must be lonely and we should be opening our doors to them.

"I would like to encourage more night meetings for working women; and making sure we offer something of interest to younger women and recently retired.

"It is about being creative and open to change."

As president, she knows the reality: lobbying power stems from a broad membership base.

"QCWA started because women were concerned about health and education. What has changed? These are still very real concerns," she said.

Any questions about the association's relevance should be answered gently by the difference they continue to make to rural and regional families, she explains.

Last year, after years of lobbying by QCWA, the State Government doubled the Patient Transit Subsidy Scheme rate for people required to travel long distances for medical treatment.

This year, they continue to take calls from many rural families struggling to survive the drought. Helping them through is a goal Mrs McFarlane has embraced personally, flying to Brisbane from Mackay regularly to help answer calls for assistance.

For this dynamic entrepreneur - she has juggled a gift and coffee shop, along with her hands-on role on the cane farm - it's the least she can do, as rural communities do it tough.

"I believe in the future of the QCWA, I know we are very relevant," she said.

"But we do have to move forward and be willing to embrace change, so we have something to offer today and tomorrow's generation."

 Visit http://www.qcwa.org.au to make donations to the Public Rural Crisis Scheme.

Topics:  assistance drought mackay qcwa rural women