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Rural policy needs more than a one-day drought summit

A well-informed national policy on drought preparedness needs ecological literacy, says Dr Geoff Edwards. Business-as-usual market economics and Canberra coordination aren’t enough.

When the guests privileged with invitations arrive at the Prime Minister’s National Drought Summit on October 26, they will be shouldering a weighty responsibility. Prominent events to which pressing contemporary problems have been deferred are always burdened with high expectations. This one will be particularly challenging, partly because of the complexity of rural policy generally and partly because of scale: nearly the entire Australian continent is periodically vulnerable to drought.

Further, the discussions will be shadowed by the rising likelihood of an El Niño event superimposed on top of the dry conditions that have led to the summit. There is no obvious national strategy to meet this looming challenge, or the climate trends superimposed upon El Niño.

The summit will understandably devote much of its time to reactive short-term measures to alleviate present rural distress and to coordinate between various national and state-based relief programs. Optimistically, the delegates will also deliberate on the prophylactic steps necessary to improve longer-term resilience – that is, drought preparedness.

Capacity requires policy

The capacity of rural communities to endure drought is a summation of several different capacities – personal, financial, institutional, environmental.

These capacities are built upon policy settings that have accumulated barnacles over the years and in many cases are no longer fit for purpose. In this short opinion piece, I wish to identify several strands of policy that require fresh, reflective analysis.

Definitions of drought

“… a drought is a severe income deficit triggered by an exceptional weather event. It is not a dry spell. It is a prolonged period of having real costs to bear in the face of no or greatly reduced income.”

It is quite likely that early on, the forum will debate a definition of drought, so it will be well served if it acknowledges meteorological, hydrological, ecological/agricultural and socio-economic dimensions[i].

The definition offered by former federal parliamentarian Tony Windsor in The Saturday Paper recently for a pastoral enterprise is serviceable for the socio-economic perspective: “… a drought is a severe income deficit triggered by an exceptional weather event. It is not a dry spell. It is a prolonged period of having real costs to bear in the face of no or greatly reduced income.”

A prolonged period of income deficit turns up as accumulated debt. This definition highlights the need for a new industry-wide program to wind down accumulated debt that exceeds the value of property, while allowing landowners to exit with dignity. Original policy is required.

Turning to meteorology, in Australia a common definition has been a three-month period when total rainfall falls within the lowest 10% of the long-term precipitation record. However, the background temperature is now a degree warmer than traditionally (and rising) and this has far-reaching implications for evaporation and survival of particular species of plants and animals.

A catch-all scientific definition of drought embracing agricultural and hydrological dimensions might read: ‘A drought is a period when the flows of carbon that energise a landscape slow down and the ecological systems, lacking moisture, transition into resting mode’.

Revival from resting mode requires healthy refuges which can repopulate the landscape with plants and animals when suitable conditions return. Yet across eastern Australia, refuges have been widely destroyed or compromised. Vegetated corridors have become fragmented through tree clearing, burning, grazing, weed invasion and weed spraying. Rivers shrink into pools when water is over-extracted upstream and then the pools dry up. In any case, waters can’t sustain healthy aquatic systems when contaminated by stock living and dying in the channel.

Scientific knowledge is quite adequate to explain why our environmental systems are now collapsing and unable to act as reliably as refuges, but the national leaders of farm policy have convinced themselves that the scientists and environmentalists who understand these dynamics are opponents rather than interpreters.

There is no known program to improve the ecological literacy of farming’s national policy leadership so that they better understand the natural systems on which farmers’ production systems are totally dependent. Farmers who believe they can run a sustainably productive agricultural enterprise without concern for environmental condition and trend have been reading too much politics and not enough science, for nature will have the last word.

Some limbs of policy requiring reflective analysis

“Farmers who believe they can run a sustainably productive agricultural enterprise without concern for environmental condition and trend have been reading too much politics and not enough science.”

Many other ingredients of a well-informed policy seem to be lacking. There is no mainstream theory to explain how markets for food and fibre commodities can adequately reimburse landholders for spelling pastures when the pastures need spelling, a timetable unrelated to the banks’ need for repayment or the prices received in manipulated international markets.

Let’s hope that the delegates don’t reflexively defer to market forces as a substitute for proactive drought policy, by parroting the ‘farmers are independent businesses’ argument.

If drought is defined as an economic shortfall, then relying on the business-as-usual market economics that has led to the current predicament is no solution at all.

If drought is defined as an ecological condition, market forces can’t provide a solution, as most components of ecological systems are externalities to traditional markets.

Let’s also hope that the delegates don’t pursue ‘coordination’ in Canberra as a reflexive ingredient of a new drought policy.

‘Coordination’ in the form of the Murray-Darling Basin initiative has failed dismally. The Basin states referred some of their constitutional prerogatives to allow a ‘coordinated’ approach under the Commonwealth’s jurisdiction. Rather than the bright future this promised, we have seen large payments by taxpayers to buy environmental water that we thought was public property, then demands from Commonwealth politicians to sacrifice environmental water because of irrigators’ financial distress. All while the natural systems continue to deteriorate.

There still doesn’t seem to be any entity in charge who understands that the Basin is at its core a complex ecological system upon which sociological, economic and institutional dimensions are superimposed.

“Let’s hope that the delegates don’t reflexively defer to market forces as a substitute for proactive drought policy, by parroting the ‘farmers are independent businesses’ argument.”

Drought preparedness requires an associated policy of decentralisation to maintain the vigour of rural townships during the pastoral industry’s lean times. Policies are needed to reverse the flight of population from the countryside to the coastal cities. Decades of scholarship within economics on how to structure behavioural incentives can be tapped, but these require governments to actively steer market forces in that direction.

The summit should examine the tail-end consequences of the relentless fiscal lead weights visited upon government agencies during the past three decades. Budget cuts across the nation have forced departments of agriculture, lands and environment to close down district offices that were previously proud to support and advise farming communities. The superficial savings arguably turn up later in the cost of patch-up grants like drought aid, fodder subsidies, mental health remediation programs or welfare, none of which assuage the abandonment felt by the farming communities, or which do anything much to regenerate the damaged natural systems.

Policy is also required on fuel security. Fingers crossed, the delegates won’t rely on trucking fodder from one state to another to ameliorate drought, given that Australia is already less than 50% self-sufficient in petroleum and is vulnerable to a blockade on shipments of fuel from Muslim countries in the Middle East and South-east Asia.

In northern Australia, pastoralism may best be organised on a semi-nomadic model, based upon droving stock from drought-affected districts to fresh pastures elsewhere after storms or monsoons. This will require a program to clear the stock routes of cross fences and private occupation.

Arm citizens with knowledge

There is a voluminous academic and popular literature on drought and optional responses, but the repositories are disaggregated. Modern policy-making requires strong analytical capacity, sufficient to distil scholarship from a range of expert disciplines and to mesh with practitioner knowledge from farming and other sectors.

Reflective analysis of this kind is all-too-readily derailed in the reactive political arena. Why not turn the challenge over to a citizens’ assembly and give them a week, with access to spokespeople for as wide a range of sources of knowledge and insight as a week can accommodate?

If Australia is to steer its rural enterprises towards sustainable prosperity, self-reliance and resilience, its leaders will need more than a single day to recalibrate the foundations of rural policy. Perhaps the best possible outcome would be for the summit to avoid making grand declarations but simply to invest some public institution skilled in reflective research and analysis with a mandate to assemble knowledge in this field and report back in 12 months’ time.

Dr Geoff Edwards is President of The Royal Society of Queensland, the State’s oldest learned institution. This article does not necessarily reflect the views of all members of the society.

[i] Nicholas Bond, P. S. Lake and Angela Arthington. 2008. The impacts of drought on freshwater ecosystems: An Australian perspective. Hydrobiologia 600:3-16. Prof Angela Arthington is a member of the Royal Society of Queensland.


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Author Bio

Geoff Edwards

Dr Geoff Edwards is President of The Royal Society of Queensland.