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Drought policy runs dry

10th October 2019

In the midst of an historic dry period and calls for the federal government to “do something” Professor in Australian politics at the University of Canberra, Linda Botterill has examined the question of why there is no drought policy in Australia.  Australia enacted a national drought policy in 1992.  The result of a comprehensive independent review and report. The policy was gutted in 2009 with removal of the problematic “exceptional circumstances” program. The problems were firstly defining when a situation became “exceptional”, the point beyond which even the most diligent and prepared farm manger could cope.

Since then there has been no serious attempt at developing a comprehensive, predictable drought policy response from governments that can be rolled out when increasingly frequent droughts hit according to Botterill. Avoiding perverse outcomes that reward non-preparedness, arbitrary thresholds for support, and only discussing drought policy when the crisis hits have been historically challenging.  On the other hand, farmers are regarded positively by the community, have a political party that is aligned to their interests, and have bi-partisan support from the major parties, particularly in times of drought.

While acknowledging the difficulties, Botterill observes  this should be one area where politicians can come together to develop a coherent national response – one that is known in advance, forward-looking, equitable with other income-assistance programs in the community, and provides meaningful support before, during and after drought.

According to economics writer Ross Gittins, a decent national drought policy would start with reverting to an understanding that droughts aren’t a “natural disaster” in the way cyclones, floods and bushfires are. Droughts are not sudden and short-lived, they develop gradually over months and years, can spread over huge areas. With climate change, a phenomenon that many in the Coalition still deny is happening, not being in drought may become the exception.

The focus needs to be on programs that help farmers better manage the risk of drought and make their farms sustainable. This support needs to come between droughts – but as Gittins observes, this is precisely when media and political interest in the topic evaporates.

The current Coalition government has the added challenge of barely acknowledging climate change exists. While stating drought is top priority, prime minister Scott Morrison’s response has largely consisted of photo opportunities and re-announcing existing or future funding. Into this vacuum the National Farmers Federation announced a National Drought Policy this month creating a Forum and Committee to gather stakeholder feedback as well as review and develop specific drought measures.

The details of any coherent policy seem a long way off, but Gittins warns that too-ready availability of drought assistance can create droughts by reducing the risks associated with a bad year from over- cropping and over-grazing. Anticipating that taxpayers will bail them out offers farmers additional incentive to maintain herds, even with a high risk of having insufficient feed. Likewise the promises from some in the federal government that building more dams will solve the problem. Increased water storage will increase irrigation but dams can’t be kept full waiting for drought, or empty waiting for rain. More irrigation in the face of climate change only means greater impact when the next drought hits.