ALEX MITCHELL. The Great Drought: Panic or Policy?

Desperate farmers in rural communities across Australia are being led into a cruel dystopia where reality is being smothered by false hopes.

Government drought relief (i.e. taxpayers’ money) is being offered on a massive scale and generous private and corporate donations are pouring in.

National Party Cabinet Ministers in Canberra and Sydney are climbing into Father Christmas suits to show their generosity as they give away tens of millions of dollars to bush people.

But just try to obtain government funds on the same scale for the homeless, apprenticeships or refugee resettlement. Nothing doing. You’ll be told the economy is flat and the national debt is alarmingly high.

Sensible rural policy and careful planning are being caste aside as “drought panic” captures front pages and top billing on all news bulletins for the first time in living memory. The “forgotten” people have suddenly been “remembered”. Or have they?

National Party leaders and well-financed farming, mining and water stakeholders are pulling every public relations trick in the book to build support for extra funds for rural communities.

At the same time, the very same organisations are busily trying to thwart any measures developed by political parties, academics or entrepreneurs to combat climate change.

Indeed, the very cheer squad selling the message that 100% of NSW is suffering from drought is zealously arguing that climate change is “all crap” and that Australia should quit the 2015 Paris Agreement (along with US President Donald Trump) and resume building coal-fire power stations.

Don’t look for any logic in these two positions: there isn’t any; they are mutually contradictory.

By the way, if NSW is 100% in drought, as NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian claims, why aren’t water restrictions in force in Sydney, Newcastle and Wollongong where water consumption by the mining, coal, power and gas industries is ravenous?

In the Tweed Valley in far north NSW where I live, water tankers roar along the roads and motorways taking vast quantities of water to the soft drink and bottled water manufacturers in Sydney. Why not divert them to the drought-stricken inland to save cattle, sheep and people? Don’t look for answers: there are none.

Researching this article, I was also told that councils across the State are watering football grounds, racecourses, parks and gardens while people are washing their cars in home driveways and sprinklers are operating day and night on precious lawns and gardens on Sydney’s North Shore.

I’m not objecting: so they should because the 100% drought story is untrue.

First of all, lest I be damned by trolls from the drought cheer squad, there is a critical water shortage in large parts of rural Australia. This regular occurrence has been a recognised fact for decades by meteorologists and by indigenous people for thousands of years longer.

But while Aboriginal people learned to survive during long droughts, European settlers haven’t. They stole the land from its owners, built fences around “their” holdings and proceeded to vandalise the land by over-stocking, land clearing, reckless underground water extraction and wetlands draining.

As a result, grazing land turned arid, surface soil became dust, and inland lakes, rivers and streams dried up (except during flood time).

Little or no attempt was made to improve soil quality, conserve water, save forests and bushland, protect native flora or fauna or the birds, bees and butterflies that lived there. Aboriginal communities were driven off their land to die in private misery. In many cases, they suffered the same fate as other bush species.

Just three years ago, the pastoral estates now being burned dry by drought were under floodwater measured in feet rather than inches. In response, were large tanks built above ground or underground to conserve water, was major water reticulation undertaken, new catchments built or were grazing lands regenerated? If not, why not?

Agriculture Departments in Canberra and State capitals are treasure chests of water studies dating back to the 19th century. They gather dust and receive no attention whatsoever from Cabinet ministers drawn exclusively from the National Party (when Coalition governments are in office).

That’s because rural and regional policy has been handed to the pastoralists and their friends in charge of agribusiness and mining.

The demise of the Country Party, forerunner of the Nationals, as the party representing struggling farmers and graziers is a chequered one. Its founding leaders were conservative minded men (all males) who feared the militancy of unionised shearers, miners, railwaymen and the like and sought to block the spread of the fast-emerging Labor Party vote.

Early leaders like Earle Page, Michael Bruxner, Archie Cameron and Arthur Fadden were flawed individuals but formidable politicians who held high office in the Commonwealth. The party’s clout within the Menzies Coalition was preserved through domineering skill of John “Black Jack” McEwen and then continued under Doug Anthony and Ian Sinclair in the 1960s and 70s.

Since then, and coinciding with the name change to the Nationals in 1975, the party has become the wagging tail of the Liberal dog and its backbenchers have been used as obedient voting fodder for Liberal policies. In 2002 I interviewed half a dozen Nationals who were opposed to Australian involvement in the invasion and occupation of Iraq, but when Prime Minister John Howard fell into line with President George Bush’s war plans, they did too.

The old pre-war slogan of “countrymindedness” has been replaced by “don’trockthecoalitionmindedness”. As a result, fringe parties, such as One Nation, Shooters, Fishers and Farmers, Palmer’s United Party (PUP), Australian Conservatives, Australian Liberty Alliance and Love Australia or Leave, have smelled raw meat and moved in like a pack of dingos.

In this heated pre-election period, regional voters are being courted, coerced and manipulated on a grand scale. Utterly discredited bankers are jostling with failing media hosts and PR executives from inner-cities to befriend farmers and sign them up for hand-outs and loans i.e. further indebtedness as well as a place on the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) watch list.

Much of the money being doled out comes from unknowable sources and it is virtually untrackable. Will it all go to struggling farm communities? I hope so but I would be very naïve to think so.

But to give the current political situation its context: the Nationals are desperately short of cash to face forthcoming Federal and NSW elections. Following the Barnaby Joyce shemozzle, campaign donations have dried up and the Nationals are desperately searching for funds from any source to maintain their bush dominance.

The ABC has swung behind the Nationals-led campaign because the public broadcaster’s rusted-on support lives in the Outback. As a result, free advertising and special programming is being devoted to the bush and the relief effort. So put the ABC’s sudden bush strategy down to corporate self-interest.

Moral of the story: sentimentality and mythology are enduring traits among people who prefer to avoid reality.

Alex Mitchell is former Political Editor of the Sydney Sun-Herald and past president of the NSW Parliamentary Press Gallery. His autobiography Come The Revolution: A Memoir was published by NewSouth Books in 2011.




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4 Responses to ALEX MITCHELL. The Great Drought: Panic or Policy?

  1. Erik Haan says:

    As always an interesting and refreshing perspective. Thanks Alex.

  2. Richard Habgood says:

    An appalling article!!

    Typical of what we have come to expect from a political journalist who has worked for a tabloid newspaper. Lots of light, noise and fury but little substance. No wonder people have become sceptical of journalists.

    Let’s get to grips with the facts of CONTEMPORAY government drought assistance for farmers. So a reasoned assessment can be made on the question posed of “panic or policy”.

    Essentially the federal government offers three avenues of support during times of drought (and from time to time for industry downturns such as was experienced in the dairy industry several years ago). There is Farm Household Allowance, farm business concessional loans and rural financial counselling services.

    Farm Household Allowance is access to the equivalent of Centrelink benefits capped at 4 years. The aim is to put “food on the table” and give the farming family time to make a decision on whether they continue in farming or leave agriculture.

    Farm business concessional loans are essentially longer loans at concessional interest rates which can be used where a farmer can demonstrate longer term viability. The concessional interest rate is the cost to the federal government of borrowing the money plus a margin to cover the cost of administering the scheme (currently the rate is 3.58%).

    Rural financial counselling is a free, independent and confidential service available to eligible farmers to assist them review their financial situation and support them to make decisions whether they continue in farming or leave agriculture.

    The aim is to assist the farm sector in the adjustment process, either adjustment WITHIN agriculture (where the farmer can demonstrate medium term economic viability), or, adjustment OUT of agriculture (with some degree of dignity).

    All governments (state and federal and of all political persuasions) and now lock step behind this policy approach.

    So if the author had more rigorously investigated the issue he would have found there is an underlying policy response to this and more recent droughts.

  3. michael lacey says:

    Lovely article for reference thank you! Will spread it to as many people as I can!

  4. Andrew Glikson says:

    The lands in NSW and Queensland now suffering severe drought are the lands from which coal and methane gas are being extracted, ending up in the atmosphere to the tune of near or over 4 percent of global carbon emissions, enhancing heat waves, fires and droughts around the world..

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