• Written by Linda Botterill, Professor in Australian Politics, University of Canberra
The Coalition has been promoting its $7 billion drought relief package, but critics say what's needed is a more effective national drought policy. Dan Peled/AAP

In a country as dry as Australia, surely it is a no-brainer that we have in place a coordinated, national drought response that can be rolled out the same way that the Natural Disaster Relief and Recovery Arrangements are triggered when the country experiences cyclones, floods or bushfires.

Drought used to be part of these arrangements but, for good policy reasons, was removed in 1989.

Our last attempt at national drought policy

Once upon a time, Australia had a national drought policy. It was enacted in 1992 following a comprehensive review and report by an independent panel, the National Drought Policy Review Task Force, and detailed negotiations between Commonwealth and state ministers and their officials.

The policy included commitments by both state and Commonwealth governments to implement a coordinated and comprehensive package of programs covering drought preparation and response.

At the Commonwealth level, these measures were centred around:

  • the controversial “exceptional circumstances” provisions of its revised Rural Adjustment Scheme, which were aimed at supporting farm businesses by subsidising up to 100% of the interest paid on commercial loans.

  • a farm household support scheme that provided short-term income support to farmers and also offered grants for those who decided to leave the land.

  • farm management bonds, later known as farm management deposits, that allowed farmers to set aside pre-tax income they could later draw on in times of need.

  • a drought relief payment (added to the policy in 1994) that provided income support for farmers in areas declared to be experiencing “exceptional circumstances” drought. By May 1995, over 10,000 families were accessing this payment every month.

Flaws in the policy

As anyone familiar with these programs will know, the exceptional circumstances program was plagued by problems.

The first was the lack of clarity around defining when a drought moved from a “normal” situation that was expected to be managed by farmers, to an “exceptional” situation with which even the best manager could not be expected to cope.

The definition of an “exceptional circumstances” drought became the subject of ongoing debate, along with concerns that drought assistance was based on administrative boundaries, leading to inequities that became known as the “lines on maps” problem.


Read more: Just because both sides support drought relief, doesn’t mean it's right


The second issue was the amount of information farmers were required to provide in order to demonstrate eligibility for “exceptional circumstances” assistance. The process was considered onerous and time-consuming.

Amid these concerns, a comprehensive review of drought policy was conducted in 2008 by the Productivity Commission. This was accompanied by a report by the Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO on the likely impact of climate change on the frequency and severity of droughts in Australia, and an independent report on the social impact of drought.

Following the review, the government decided to end the “exceptional circumstances” program in 2009. This effectively gutted the national drought policy.

Since then, there has been no further attempt at developing a comprehensive, predictable drought policy response from the federal or state governments. There have been intergovernmental National Drought Agreements, but these have done little more than restate the principles underpinning the country’s drought policy since 1992.

In recent years, the Coalition government has appointed a drought envoy, Barnaby Joyce, and drought coordinator-general, Stephen Day, to study the impact of drought on farmers and recommend possible solutions, but we have yet to see what either has come up with.

Drought envoy Barnaby Joyce says he has sent drought reports directly to Scott Morrison, but these have not yet been made public. Lukas Coch/AAP

Providing meaningful, timely and predictable support

Much of the criticism levelled at the government’s response to the current drought relates to its ad hoc and knee-jerk nature. This reactive way of dealing with drought highlights the need to return to a more predictable approach. This would avoid perceptions of pork barrelling and provide certainty to farmers about what support is available and under what circumstances.

A new national drought policy needs to take several forms. First, it needs to support farmers to prepare for drought before it happens. This is one area where the current policy has been moderately successful.

As of August 2019, Australian farmers had set aside a total of $5.809 billion in farm management deposits. These deposits have encouraged farmers to manage financial risk by building up cash reserves in high-income years, which they could then use during times of drought.

Individual farmers can currently hold a total of $800,000 in deposits. One possible improvement is to raise the ceiling on annual deposits in the years following drought recovery to allow a rapid rebuilding of cash reserves.

Second, a strong drought policy needs to provide support to all farmers during drought, not just those who have accumulated sufficient deposits to help them ride out the lean years.

In recent years, many farmers have taken advantage of long-term, low-interest loans to help during drought, and some have called for zero-interest loans to be made available, as well. But loans are not an ideal solution, as repayments are generally required even when farm incomes remain low.

An alternative to low- or no-interest loans are income contingent loans. Similar to the HECS-HELP scheme in higher education, these types of loans only require repayment when the borrower can afford to do so.

This would not only give farmers greater flexibility when it comes to repayment, it would also greatly reduce the extensive red tape that strangled the old “exceptional circumstances” scheme.


Read more: Farm poverty: an area of policy aid built on sands of ignorance


Third, we need a serious rethink of the way we provide income assistance to farmers in a broader sense. Providing income support to farmers who are asset-rich, for instance, raises questions about fairness when compared with poor people in cities who are struggling to get by on Newstart payments.

This imbalance has come into stark focus in recent weeks, particularly on social media, as government ministers have discussed the introduction of drug testing for Newstart recipients, and in the debate around the Indue card.

There has been no serious attempt in the past 45 years to measure the extent of poverty among farmers. We can develop more appropriate and equitable income-support policies if we can better understand the genuine nature of their need.

The elephant in the room

While the government has assiduously avoided making the link, an effective national drought policy also cannot be divorced from discussions about climate change.

The 2008 Productivity Commission report was pretty clear in its conclusions about the impact of climate change on drought in Australia. A growing number of farmers are now acknowledging this reality. Denying the need for serious consideration of climate change is not doing our agricultural producers any favours.


Read more: Is Australia's current drought caused by climate change? It's complicated


Developing an effective national drought policy is hard work. But in another sense, it should also be easy. This is because, unlike many other areas of government policy, it can be bipartisan.

Although the National Party has historically been aligned with rural voters, all parties are broadly sympathetic to farmers and value their contributions to the economy and, importantly, our national identity. The public also generally regards farmers positively and is responsive to their plight when they are faced with hardship.

As such, this should be one area where our politicians can come together to develop a coherent national response — one that is known in advance, forward-looking, equitable with other income-assistance programs in the community, and provides meaningful support before, during and after drought.

Linda Botterill has received funding from the Australian Research Council which has supported her work on the role of scientists in the drought policy process, and public attitudes towards farmers and farming. The Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation supported earlier research on income contingent loans for drought relief.

Authors: Linda Botterill, Professor in Australian Politics, University of Canberra

Read more http://theconversation.com/a-national-drought-policy-should-be-an-easy-bipartisan-fix-so-why-has-it-taken-so-long-to-enact-a-new-one-124775

No, the extra hygiene precautions we're taking for COVID-19 won't weaken our immune systems

ShutterstockDuring the COVID-19 pandemic we’re constantly being reminded to practise good hygiene by frequently washing our hands and regularly cleaning the spaces where we live and work.These p...

Vasso Apostolopoulos, Pro Vice-Chancellor, Research Partnerships, Victoria University - avatar Vasso Apostolopoulos, Pro Vice-Chancellor, Research Partnerships, Victoria University

How to keep your contact lenses clean (and what can go wrong if you don't)

ShutterstockYou’re rushing and accidentally drop a contact lens on the bathroom floor. Should you:a) run it under the tap and pop it in?b) spit on it and do the same?c) use the cleaning solution...

Nicole Carnt, Scientia Senior Lecturer,  School of Optometry and Vision Science, UNSW, Sydney, UNSW - avatar Nicole Carnt, Scientia Senior Lecturer, School of Optometry and Vision Science, UNSW, Sydney, UNSW

Should all aged-care residents with COVID-19 be moved to hospital? Probably, but there are drawbacks too

COVID-19 is continuing to devastate Victorian aged-care homes, with 1,435 active cases now linked to the sector, and at least 130 residents having died.The question of whether to automatically move re...

Jed Montayre, Senior Lecturer (Nursing), Western Sydney University - avatar Jed Montayre, Senior Lecturer (Nursing), Western Sydney University

how New Zealand got rid of a virus that keeps spreading across the world

On SundaYour heading here, New Zealand will mark 100 days without community transmission of COVID-19.From the first known case imported into New Zealand on February 26 to the last case of community tr...

Michael Baker, Professor of Public Health, University of Otago - avatar Michael Baker, Professor of Public Health, University of Otago

INDUSTRIAL EQUIPMENT BUILT FOR EFFICIENCY

Delivering project outcomes on time and on budget comes down to two things: efficiency and effectiveness of resources utilised. This could not be more true for the mining & resources sector ...

News Company - avatar News Company

We need to Close the Gap on health. But even official dietary advice disadvantages Indigenous people

ShutterstockRecently announced Closing the Gap targets aim to improve the health and well-being of Indigenous people.But if that’s to happen, we need to provide health advice suitable for First ...

Odette Best, Professor, Nursing, University of Southern Queensland - avatar Odette Best, Professor, Nursing, University of Southern Queensland

How should I clean my cloth mask?

ShutterstockFace coverings, such as cloth masks, are mandatory for all Victorians and are being recommended for public use in some other parts of the country.Wearing a face covering helps prevent the ...

Brett Mitchell, Professor of Nursing, University of Newcastle - avatar Brett Mitchell, Professor of Nursing, University of Newcastle

why are Melbourne's COVID-19 numbers so stubbornly high?

Melburnians have now been wearing mandatory face coverings in public for two weeks. Yet Premier Daniel Andrews yesterday announced another grim milestone in Victoria’s second wave of COVID-19 in...

Erin Smith, Associate Professor in Disaster and Emergency Response, School of Medical and Health Sciences, Edith Cowan University - avatar Erin Smith, Associate Professor in Disaster and Emergency Response, School of Medical and Health Sciences, Edith Cowan University

Tested positive for COVID-19? Here's what happens next – and why day 5 is crucial

With cases of COVID-19 on the rise, many Australians are asking: what happens if I test positive? With no known cure and no vaccine, what are my treatment options?Finding trusted answers amid the wide...

Julian Elliott, Executive Director, National COVID-19 Clinical Evidence Taskforce, and Associate Professor, School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine, Monash University - avatar Julian Elliott, Executive Director, National COVID-19 Clinical Evidence Taskforce, and Associate Professor, School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine, Monash University



News Company Media Core

Content & Technology Connecting Global Audiences

More Information - Less Opinion