JOHN KERIN. We have no drought policy.

Oct 21, 2019

The current Coalition response to just another drought is pathetic,short term, divisive and dishonest. All it is doing is managing the drought politically.

There is nothing much that we don’t know technically, factually,  scientifically and practically about droughts in this the driest inhabited continent.

To achieve a National Drought Policy when the States have the Constitutional power over agricultural production, land, water, forests and fisheries is difficult at the best of times. It is more difficult when the alleged farmers’ political Party, the Nationals, cannot see Global Warning is a contributor to droughts. This is accentuated by ‘agricultural fundamentalism’ as a guiding principle for agricultural production, which is best evidenced by the demand for more clearing of native woodland and more dams.

A National Water Policy is also prone to the same disadvantages, policy wise, but it is clearly related to drought policy and needs to be treated differently.

The current Coalition Government’s response to just another drought is pathetic, short term, divisive and dishonest. All it is doing is managing the drought politically because it doesn’t have a national drought, water or energy policy. There is a limit to the recitation of fantasies and home-spun yarns.

I find it tedious to repeat the wisdom and long experience exhibited in many of the articles and analyses which are constantly being published by experts  such as Linda Botterill, John Williams and our Academies which recently analysed the possibilities of achieving $100 billion in food and fibre exports by 2030. Also, there is a plethora of advocated management measures that may enable farmers to adapt to changing circumstances.

There is a consensus among experts (a despised elite?) that Climate Change needs to be taken into account, so that we know what we are up against, and that management can proceed on the basis of risk management with farmers and graziers with the three levels of government fully engaged. 

 The agreement reached between the States and Commonwealth to again address the issue in 2012 didn’t survive Abbott and Joyce in 2013 and what has happened now is the headline grabbing claim of a $7 billion drought policy. $5 billion of this is for an unspecified Future Fund and of the remaining $2 billion, some $300 million has been eked out on an ad hoc basis. There is no National Drought policy. The latest $1 billion for NSW dams was shared with the NSW Government $ for $ and half of the Commonwealth’s commitment was by way of loan. All this  causes disquiet in drought stricken areas.

If governments really want to d0 something about drought, the cost will be horrendous, but in the context of a thought through national policy framework cost estimate have to be made. But estimates are inevitably wrong.

Apart from the National Farmers Federation, most state-based farm organisations and the Nationals are still in denial about Climate Change. More and more farmers are realising the impact of Climate Change but they don’t get much of a hearing, even from The Australian. The view that it is all a hoax is also shared by most Liberals. The Liberal advocacy group, Advance Australia, regards campaigns about the global  climate challenge as  ‘deconstructing society’ . Greta Thunberg seems to have upset many deniers as have the people associated with the Extinction Rebellion. Again, the dreaded experts say that up to million species are in danger of extinction- not just humans. Australia has driven many marsupials to extinction and now it is the birds and insects under threat. Once bees disappear perhaps farmers will have some worries.

We are also experts at habitat loss. This is best evidenced by the 395,000 hectares cleared in Queensland in 2015-2016 by the last Liberal National Party Government .I accept that some clearing is for drought fodder although accurate quantification is lacking and that some forest types need some clearing to be managed. Given the qualifications to the above number, clearing was  at the rate at least half to two-thirds of the amount cleared in the Amazon Basin in the same year.That is extraordinary! Considering that over the last two decades about 60% of Queensland has been in drought for 42% of the time, one has little faith that the practice of clearing will limit future droughts.

As usual, the recitation by the claimed supporters of the farm sector will trot out the well rehearsed, un-costed aspirations for on farm ‘drought and bushfire proofing’, building more dams in the future and turning coastal rivers inland. As droughts become more severe and the weather becomes hotter, it is apparent that the water supplies for country towns and stock will need to be upgraded, to have more water for rural use and water security. While Barnaby Joyce may believe that you can build dams to stop floods, e.g., on the Fitzroy in Queensland, the fact that wqhile you can fill the eventually built dams, you can’t keep them full waiting for a drought or empty waiting for a flood. Increased capacity will inevitably be used for irrigation which only pushes the issue further out. 

It is possible to drought proof farms by way of irrigation, as long as the resource is managed properly, which it isn’t in NSW. Does anyone really think that we can ‘drought proof’ broad-scale sheep, cropping and cattle properties anymore than you can do anything about the massive flood in Queensland earlier this year, that killed an estimated 600,000 cattle? It is hard to imagine that cattle properties of 4,000 square kilometres or more can be ‘drought proofed’, when the northern monsoon fails. 

Steps for reform or change generally, face a hard job as evidenced in the May 18 election The Nationals full well know that Queenslanders think Climate Change is a ‘Southern Obsession’. Labor’s 20 page well thought through policy on the topic could easily be ignored as could the future of the Reef because all Labor was doing was ‘abandoning the workers’.

John Kerin was Minister for Primary industry and Primary Industries and Energy in the Hawke Government.

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