Drought policy? Government handouts won’t prepare broadacre agriculture for a self-reliant future

By Geoff Edwards

Thursday November 28, 2019

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Support is building for promulgation of a national drought strategy. Thoughtful opinion pieces on the subject have appeared recently in The Conversation (Linda Botterill and Wolfgang Knorr) and The Guardian (Peter Mailler). The National Farmers’ Federation has claimed that “Australia can go no further without a strategic and sophisticated approach to drought”. An article by horticulturalist Kerry McMartin of the Sunshine Coast even slipped past the climate thought police in News Corp to appear in Brisbane’s The Courier Mail.

These opinion pieces have cogently explained that the present suite of drought prop-ups and hand-outs, while perhaps unavoidable to relieve immediate distress, is not an adequate substitute for a preventative strategy that will prepare broadacre agriculture for a self-reliant future. In extensive tracts of Australia’s vast inland, business will not be reverting to normal, even if good rains come soon. Many of the ecological systems are stressed beyond recovery and the rural communities that depend on them likewise. Even eucalypts are dying.

We should develop a clear-sighted understanding of why previous drought strategies haven’t sufficed. I suggest that drought has been conceptualised as a failure of animal and crop production with consequent financial loss, rather than a failure of the natural systems on which production depends. There has been a shortfall in scientific literacy and a shortfall in consultative forums to mesh expert scientific knowledge with insights from other diverse sources.

How might our nation embark on the preparation of a prophylactic national drought policy as if scientific literacy mattered?

An early response would be to bury the lazy retort that Australia always will be a continent of “droughts and flooding rains”. Of course it is, but even a small increase in frequency or severity of droughts and rainstorms can have drastic consequences. More so when a background rise in temperature of more than 1° (global average) is now locked in. One degree does not sound much, but for some ecological systems, it is catastrophic. It means higher evaporation, death to plants and animals near the limit of their range, changes in crop maturity and mismatches of lifecycles of mutually dependent species.

The business model on which Australia’s rural landscapes have been settled is unravelling before our eyes. Australian agricultural industries will not be restored by a couple of rainy seasons or construction of new dams. The problem is not just drought but an accumulation of pressures that, in the pastoral zone at least, can no longer be absorbed by the typical family enterprise. Drought is superimposed upon unreliable prices for commodities, upon invading weeds, upon over-allocation of surface and ground waters, upon years or decades of cost-price squeezing, upon depredations of feral pigs and goats.

Australian drought rangelands. Author supplied.

Who might lead an analysis?

As drought grips at least half the continent across several states, no one disputes the Commonwealth’s prerogative to set national policy and plan how Commonwealth money might be distributed. Nevertheless the Commonwealth cannot match the states’ constitutional responsibility for most aspects of natural resource management and agriculture and their networks of regional staff, even though now much depleted from formerly.

But even a collage of state strategies does not amount to a federal strategy, given that many of the relevant parameters such as Centrelink policy and rents paid to foreign owners of our land assets are ineluctably within the Commonwealth’s jurisdiction.

Yet it is not obvious that the Australian Public Service will be permitted to acquit the task. The prime minister has recently instructed heads of departments that they are to implement what the government has decided to be done, not to innovate with bright ideas of their own. By this diktat, the Commonwealth has disqualified itself from devising a new model of managing our land outside the current political frames of reference.

Can Australian agriculture’s representative bodies step into this breach? Unfortunately, they are overly imbued with an economic mindset by which farmers are portrayed as autonomous businesses, functioning within national and international markets. Through this economic lens, producers of goods are condemned to exiting if they can’t survive commercially. This worldview has no solution to environmental deterioration. And it will not address the depopulation of rural Australia which has continued for decades, leaving a vast area of Australia with a population base inadequate to maintain the land assets. A human crisis of mammoth proportions is emerging as vigour leaches out of rural communities, attested by rows of empty shops in the townships and rapidly declining social services.

While governments spend billions on infrastructure in the coastal cities, a large public infrastructure across the inland lies underutilised. Pressure for decentralisation arising from social studies such as regional geography in the 1980s and earlier — as well as many recent studies — have been pushed aside as smacking of too much “government intervention”, as if building tollways in the cities isn’t government intervention on a massive scale.

What sources of knowledge must be consulted?

The foundation of a drought policy must lie in knowledge of how rural landscapes function, from within the disciplines of established sciences and Indigenous culture. A range of sociological and biophysical sciences will need to be invoked. The hypothetical drafting team will need to consult widely, as science is specialised and fragmented into silos. A water engineer is not a hydrologist and neither can substitute for an ecologist or a sociologist. However, while scientific knowledge is essential, it is not sufficient.

It must be leavened with the insights of practical farmers, especially of retired practitioners who can bring in-depth knowledge without a personal business stake. But rural industry has not thrown up an abundance of leaders capable of independent policy analysis. Many or most prominent political agricultural leaders are transactional politicians experienced at chatting with rural folk and tend to be suspicious of educated experts, especially environmentalists. This is all very well for representing local sentiment, but local sentiment alone is an utterly inadequate substrate for contemporary rural policy in a globalised economy.

More seriously, the lived experience of farmers and graziers as to how their landscapes function is being rendered obsolete by unprecedented changes in climate and weather events. Bleak indicators of ecological collapse are accumulating daily.

If the national government and the peak agricultural bodies do not have the analytical capacity to develop a cross-jurisdiction, cross-discipline, cross-sector national drought policy, then the task should be turned over to those bodies within civil society who specialise in assembling knowledge. Australia’s non-government knowledge-focused societies in partnership with the CSIRO and experienced farmers would be able to make a fair fist of this task, but they are not funded to do so and will require the support of a philanthropist or some business firm with a sense of civic duty. While hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent on handouts, almost nil public funding is being disbursed to those entities who have the disinterested knowledge necessary to pre-empt the suffering that will otherwise surely be recycled during the next drought.

Dr Geoff Edwards is a newly past president of The Royal Society of Queensland. This article does not necessarily reflect the views of the Society’s members.


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