So what would a decent national drought policy look like? It would start by reverting to an understanding the Hawke-Keating government established years ago, but has since been blurred: droughts aren’t a “natural disaster” in the way floods, cyclones and bushfires are. For a start, those others are sudden and short-lived, whereas droughts develop gradually, spread over huge areas and can last for years.
As Dorothea Mackellar realised more than a century ago, if you want to be an Australian, regular droughts are part of the deal. Always have been but, thanks to the two C-words we’re not supposed to say, are now likely to become more severe and more frequent. The day may come when not being in drought is the exception.
According to former top econocrat Dr Mike Keating, “the possibility of recurring droughts must therefore be planned for and not just treated as bad luck, for which farmers themselves bear no responsibility”.
The national drought policy of 1992 required farmers to be more self-reliant and absorb the impact of droughts as something to be expected. Many, many farmers have long been doing just that. Some haven’t bothered and they’re the ones getting most care and concern from fly-by-night journalists and politicians.
Everyone wants to “help those poor farmers”, but how should governments do it? John Freebairn, an economics professor at the University of Melbourne, says you can divide government drought support into three categories: subsidies for farm businesses, income supplements for low-income farm families, and support for better decision-making.
His message is that the main thing we should be doing is supporting programs to help farmers better manage the risk of drought and make their farms sustainable. Such support needs to come mainly between droughts – precisely when media and political interest in the topic evaporates.
Although income supplements for drought-stricken farmers raise questions about why they should get help other small-business people don’t, they’re a much more effective way of alleviating poverty than subsidising farmers’ loans, freight and fodder – which is just what federal and state politicians (and volunteer organisations) have been heaping on this time as the ad hockery has mounted.
As Professor Bruce Chapman, of the Australian National University, said this week, “the politics of drought is not only about helping farmers, [it’s] about showing the world – including city dwellers – that the government cares. It does that by giving money away and having lots of announcements.”
But here’s the less-obvious truth recognised by a considered drought policy: the too-ready availability of drought assistance helps create droughts.
How? By reducing “the risks associated with a bad year, and thus encouraging over-cropping and over-grazing. If farmers know that their mistakes will be bailed out, then they have an additional incentive to maintain their herds even when the risk of not having enough feed is quite high. They anticipate that the taxpayer will bail them out if it doesn’t rain, and that they will be able to buy in the additional (subsidised) fodder when they might need it,” Keating says.
Now get this: according to Lin Crase, an economics professor at the University of South Australia, “there is mounting evidence that farm businesses can actually benefit from drought in the longer term. This seems to occur because businesses that go through a drought develop coping strategies that, when invoked in good years, produce much greater profits.”
This doesn’t mean droughts are a good thing, of course, but it does mean that shielding farm businesses from drought runs the risk that they won’t adapt, Crase says. Changing climate suggests that a lot more adaptation – including bigger, more mechanised farms and many more farmers leaving the land – lies ahead.
Sensible drought policy long ago recognised that more dams don’t help, which is why so few have been built in recent decades. That politicians are popping up with plans for new dams is another sign they’re making it up as the go.
John Kerin, a minister for primary industry in the Hawke government, says that while you can fill new dams when you’ve eventually built them, “you can’t keep them full waiting for a drought, or empty waiting for a flood”. Increased stored water will be used to increase irrigation. And increased irrigation in a time of climate change means greater shortages of water in the next drought.
The expertise to respond to drought more sensibly is there. It’s just that our politicians find it easier pretending to fix the problem.
Ross Gittins is the Herald’s economics editor.
Ross Gittins is the Economics Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald.
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