JOHN KERIN. Droughts and Drought Policy

Drought policy has always been marked by the near impossibility to satisfactorily match efficiency, preparedness, risk management and resource base (environmental) management with welfare measures once large areas of the continent are declared to be in drought by State Government authorities.  

Currently all of NSW and large proportion of southern Queensland is drought declared and the drought is spreading. Millions of dollars are being poured into the farm and grazing sector and dependent regional towns on what is a constant, predictable characteristic of Australia’s farming and grazing lands.

Australia has a farm sector with a climate variability of at least 2.3 times more than any other farm product exporting country. Our climate is now exacerbated by Climate Change (longer, hotter droughts), a ‘discovery’ now endorsed by the National Farmers Federation, but not by the anti-science Nationals, nor the coal loving Liberal Party; their opposition is almost Trump-like. As a rough estimate 60% of Queensland is in drought 60% of the time and this is not going to be helped by the clearing of another 395,000 hectares in 2015-16 by the previous LNP Government.

Institutions and observers not experiencing drought ask why this is so and why do farm businesses have such a large place in the Australian psyche and why have not other longer term drought policies been implemented?

There are at least four reasons for this:

1 Legal. Constitutionally the States and Territories have the power over agricultural production, land, water, fisheries and forestry. The Commonwealth only has powers in taxation (the purse) and trade. This makes it exceptionally difficult to devise national primary industry policy, including drought policy.

2 Economic. We have an historical commodity dependence for our balance of payments. This view persists with good evidence regardless of the fact that we have a service based economy, that agriculture is less than 3% of our GDP (finance is now 8.4% of our GDP) and has been massively overtaken by our minerals and energy sector. It is this commodity dependence that has had a far more profound effect on our overall economic structure.

3 Social. The production of food is primal and just as deep seated as many of the general publics’ ideas on a range of values and isms. Opinion polls tell us that city populations have a sympathetic and somewhat mythical view about our farmers when times are tough and the publicity machines gear up. The reality is somewhat different and there is a large degree of farmer versus farmer in the bush and that the more successful realise that droughts are one way of eliminating less than successful farmers and enabling scaling up and more profitable enterprises.

4 Political. Australia is a very politically conservative country, prone to fear. The economically populist and socially reactive Nationals have a stranglehold on the agriculture portfolio and, generally, the trade and transport portfolios in Coalition governments. This dominance has perpetuated an ethos of ‘agricultural fundamentalism’ and a continuing propaganda drive that the cities are the source of all country problems (not that the cities are its best customers). Australia’s supposedly ‘best retail politician’, Barnaby Joyce, gives evidence of this in his recently published book, which propounds the virtues of more dams, land rights implying more land clearing, more inland rail lines, a city in the Kimberleys, development of the North and decentralisation, all with no idea of costs and benefits, evidence and the how to. More dams may help but you can’t keep them empty waiting for a flood or full waiting for the next drought.

Northern development has long been a dream and hoped for reality one day, although I note the phrase of our north being an ‘Asian food bowl’ has disappeared. Most of the rain in Australia falls in the north, however Ord River Stage 1, developed in the 1960s, still has not been fully taken up nor have stages 2 and 3. Much of the rain falls at the wrong time for cropping in the available, arable land, hence the bid for irrigation. It is probable if $5b is to be spent it may be better spent in other areas of agricultural production, such as in regenerative agriculture and environmental management systems, giving greater attention to the soil and water base of existing crop and pasture land.

The more business minded Liberals tolerate this as the price of coalition although it and the Coalition are fundamentally split on conceding that Climate Change is real and that we need to move to less CO2 production, more renewable energy and more carbon in our soils.

My experience with the drought of 1989-1983, the Natural Disaster Relief Arrangements, the establishment of the Rural Counselling Service and other changes, the McInness Report of 1990,the continuing role of the Farm Management Deposit Scheme, the Rural Assistance Scheme, the policy approach of Exceptional Circumstances through the 1990s, adoption of the Farm Household Assistance programme, following a review in 2008-9, and the Intergovernmental Agreement on National Drought Relief initiated in May 2013, tells me many things. The foremost of these is that there is an over-abundance of information and advice for primary producers about drought which has been added to by bodies such as the Productivity Commission and the Climate Institute. Also, we fully understand the meteorological/biophysical features of climate and its impacts on humans, animals and communities. Further, that as measures are instituted they become the new given base in financial and available measures for planning and relief, and the next drought results in more demands.

Some informed academics have overarching policy solutions, such as those proposed by Botterill and Chapman, Revenue Contingent Loans. There should be no contest between political parties as the way to proceed. Yet the major problem to my mind is the ideology of the Nationals and the nonsense it propounds. It is about time that we faced reality and learnt how to live with our climate.

John Kerin was Primary Industry Ministry from 1983to 1991 in the Hawke Government.

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John Kerin AO has been engaged in four working lives and was a politician and Minister in five portfolios in the Hawke and Keating Governments, including over eight years in Primary Industry.

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