ALEX MITCHELL. The Great Drought: Panic or Policy?

Aug 15, 2018

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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