The scale of the drought that’s gripped much of eastern Australia is still truly staggering.
Despite some isolated showers across some parts of NSW, it stretches from south-west Queensland through all of NSW and into South Australia.
The Liverpool Plains and the town of Quirindi, where Four Corners filmed its story this week, are the epicentre.
The statistics show 2018 has been the warmest and one of the driest periods in that area since records began in the early 1900s.
Locals old enough to remember say they haven’t seen anything like it since 1965 and that this drought is worse.
Many have been hand feeding their cattle now for well over a year. Some have sold off much of their herd already. Those that haven’t are now trapped in an endless cycle of feeding stock that are too malnourished to send to market.
It’s a gamble: those that can keep enough cattle alive through this drought will obviously be in a better position to restock once the weather turns. But it’s an expensive gamble.
Some have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars and everyone recognises there will be a breaking point soon. The farmers want help but how much financial assistance should farmers be given?
Should farmers get handouts?
It’s an argument that surfaces in every drought.
Economic dries — no pun intended — accuse farmers of wanting to socialise their losses and privatise their profits. When drought hits, they get handouts. When they have a good season, they make good money and keep it.
Plenty of economists argue farming is a risky business so why should farmers be bailed out by the taxpayer when other businesses aren’t?
Does welfare for farmers simply perpetuate farming in areas that are now too marginal and reward bad farming practice? Or, should drought be viewed like other natural disasters such as bushfires and floods?
There are no easy answers and governments have been struggling with the dilemma for decades.
Drought policy always controversial
The history of drought policy in this country is fraught.
In 1992, the Federal Labor Government introduced a National Drought Policy. Farmers were encouraged to plan and manage their responses to drought. Family support payments and interest rate subsidies were introduced.
Through the 1990s, the policy was redefined into what was called the Exceptional Circumstances Scheme with strict definitions of what exactly constitutes Exceptional Circumstances.
The tough years of the Millennium Drought in the early 2000s put a heavy burden on the Budget.
While many farmers welcomed the assistance, there were concerns that some who needed support couldn’t qualify for it while some who didn’t need it did.
The Exceptional Circumstances system was phased out in 2012, partly because defining what is an exceptional circumstance has now become so difficult and projections from the CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology suggest climate change will result in more frequent and severe droughts in the future.
Is the current approach working?
Some economists say Australia hasn’t had an effective coordinated drought policy since then.
Paul Nankevill is one. He’s a farmer with an unusual pedigree: he’s been an economic consultant for the World Bank and other international agencies and he’s also a former mayor of Quirindi.
He says governments have failed to do the work required to even begin to formulate a policy relevant to the modern era:
“There’s been no analyses of what farmers have been doing to become more drought proof — where they’ve been doing it, how they’ve been doing it.
“So, policymakers don’t know what measures are going to have a tailored impact. They just say ‘Oh, you can have some concessional loans, you can have these grants and whatever.'”
What we’ve been left with, he says, is a series of ad hoc state and federal welfare measures and subsidies but there is no long-term view.
To prevent the decline of the agricultural sector, he says, “It’s critical for drought policy to be aligned with other policies for the modern era such as climate change, energy policy and water resource policy.”
Drought policy always evolving
There are some in the government who do accept that argument, but it’s a big ask. As we’ve seen, getting consensus on climate, energy and water policy has been an intractable political issue.
However, agriculture minister David Littleproud denies policy has shifted significantly from the coordinated approach from 1992.
In a statement, the minister says:
“The objectives of the 1992 National Drought Policy were to:
- encourage primary producers and other sections of rural Australia to adopt self-reliant approaches to managing for climate variability
- facilitate the maintenance and protection of Australia’s agricultural and environmental resources base during periods of climatic stress
- facilitate the early recovery of agricultural and rural industries, consistent with long-term sustainable levels.
“The InterGovernmental Agreement on National Drought Program Reform, which underpins drought preparedness and assistance by all governments, superseded the 1992 National Drought Policy in 2013 and was extended earlier this year by the Agriculture Ministers Council.”
Drought policy, he says, is always evolving.
What is the Government doing?
Scott Morrison has called a special drought summit for the end of this month. This follows a special drought round table that was held three months ago that included banks and farm groups. That meeting discussed ways of ensuring drought policy remains targeted and relevant.
What’s clear is that farmers are frustrated by the current arrangements and confused about the processes for accessing aid.
They’re bamboozled by the bureaucratic maze they must negotiate to sign up for the Farm Household Allowance and to qualify for things like freight subsidies and the lump sum payment of $12,000 promised by the government.
The application process for the Farm Household Allowance is being reviewed with a report back early next year.
Australia’s farmers will tell you the worst possible time to talk about drought policy is the middle of a drought, but many say what passes for drought policy at the moment isn’t working.
Four Corners’ drought report, Proud Country, is on iView.