The wicked dilemma of drought (and drought policy)

Visits to drought-stricken regions by the Prime Minister, Treasurer, senior ministers and the Opposition Leader in the past seven days are a welcomed acknowledgement of the incredible hardship facing many farmers right now.

I’ve read and heard criticisms of these visits. Some commentators have labelled the visits as nothing but PR stunts designed to get pictures for the 6pm news. While I’m sure there is an element of that, the NFF will never criticise anyone in public office for taking the time to meet with farmers and others doing it tough in the bush. 

Certainty, it is difficult via any other way to fully grasp the enormity of this dire situation without actually being on the ground. One can look at photos, colour-coded drought maps and Bureau forecasts but nothing replaces hearing first-hand the lived experience from those whose everyday reality is drought.

The NFF will never criticise anyone in public office for taking the time to meet with farmers and others doing it tough in the bush. 

More often than not, these visits have been marked by additional support for farmers and regional communities. Support that the NFF has welcomed, including the cutting of red tape, is more money to help farming families put food on the table and cover everyday living expenses, low and no interest loans, grants for local government projects to give struggling regional economies a boost and critically, an expansion of health services to look after our most precious assets – our people’s wellbeing.

Successive prime ministers in this government have consulted with the NFF on how they can best help farmers right now. We’ve been pleased to be asked and appreciated the genuine commitment to support farmers through these trying times.

We believe the Government’s drought measures to date have been the right approach for the wicked position we, as a nation, find ourselves in. Wicked in the sense of the shear cruelty that mother nature is inflicting. But wicked also because somehow Australia, a land of drought and flooding rains, is in 2019 without a strategic commonwealth approach to preparing, managing and recovering from drought.

As the grip of this drought continues to tighten, I find myself lamenting as to how successive governments of different stripes could have led us to this point. How after the droughts of 1967-68, 1982 and the millennial drought, we are still resorting to hand-to-mouth, reactive measures when dry times turn to be something more sinister.

There is only one silver bullet for solving drought and that’s rain. There is no man-made panacea.

But I have to stop myself. Because looking to the past and looking for scapegoats won’t help anyone, at the very least farmers. There is only one silver bullet for solving drought and that’s rain. There is no man-made panacea. But in saying that, I know we are smart enough, resourceful enough, to do better than we currently are.

The NFF itself is a broadchurch representing almost all of Australia’s agricultural industries across the length and breadth of this country. We’ve looked long and hard at ourselves and admitted that our current approach to drought is no longer fit for purpose. With our destiny in our own hands, we’re right now reconfiguring how the NFF would like to see drought handled in this country. We’ve thrown the song book out and put everything on the table. We’re calling on governments of all levels to support us by doing the same. We have welcomed the Government’s $5 billion Future Drought Fund, it certainly establishes a new framework for drought assistance. 

At the heart of a new approach to drought must be diversity and accountability. A national drought policy that assists farmers to prepare for, manage and recover from drought will be complex. It needs to include measures that reward farmers for carrying out environmental works to equip their land to better to withstand drought as well as business and banking systems which enable farmers to create a fiscal buffer. Of course, there need to be elements of emergency relief – we’ll always need that.

We, industry and government need to commit to continual improvement and to assessing how we’re dealing with drought from a land, business and community perspective and make changes when an approach isn’t working. It’s imperative that government financial support measures are given particular scrutiny.

And, only when all parties including farmers, business and governments of all levels and jurisdictions are given a voice, will Australia get anywhere near the sophisticated drought policy that is badly needed.

When the rain does come, and it will, only one thing is certain – the dry times will return. I hope that the difference next time will be that we’re prepared – to the extent we can be anyway.

Fiona Simson

Fiona Simson

Fiona Simson is the President of the National Farmers' Federation and a farmer from the Liverpool Plains.

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