The PM’s drought relief package has come too late
“As a consequence of climate change, drought is likely to be more regular, longer in duration, and broader in area,” wrote the drought coordinator-general, Major General Stephen Day, in his April report, finally released today. “It means that farmers and communities who rarely see drought are likely to see it more often. And those that have been managing drought for many years may now see it intensify beyond their lived experience. Ultimately, the nation could see some areas of Australia become more marginal and unproductive.” That advice may be too apocalyptic in tone for the prime minister, who today announced an extra $709 million in drought relief – including direct cash injections for farmers, small businesses and local councils – but whose government continues to ignore the elephant in the room.
Reaction has been mixed. Broadcaster Alan Jones slammed Agriculture Minister Bridget McKenzie this morning – no surprise there – saying the nnewly announced concessional interest-free loans were unaffordable for farmers who “don’t have the money” to pay them back. Go figure. TheAustralian Financial Review editorialised [$] that “by letting farmers rely on welfare for longer the government is encouraging dependency by propping up otherwise unviable farmers”. The Greens’ agriculture spokesperson, Janet Rice, said the package was a bandaid solution: “The first step to solving a problem is acknowledging that one exists, yet the government has no plan to tackle the real issues or deal with the effects of the climate crisis on Australian farmers. There is also no plan to offer support or alternatives to farmers whose land is deemed unviable.” Rice also criticised the government for ignoring the National Farmers’ Federation’s call for exit packages, although the NFF itself made no mention of that in its response today. To be needlessly fair to the government, last month’s combined Agriculture Ministers’ Forum did endorse a “coordinated national approach and proposed work program” to help the agriculture sector “adapt to climate change and manage emissions”.
An interesting aspect of the drought package is a deal between the federal and South Australian governments to secure up to 100 gigalitres of water for farmers to grow fodder, silage and pasture at a discounted rate. Drought Minister David Littleproud said the water would produce up to 120,000 tonnes of feed for animals on farms in drought. The Australia Institute has been calling for water to be made available for fodder since April, and senior water researcher Maryanne Slattery repeated the call on the ABC’s Q&A a fortnight ago. Slattery today welcomed the announcement of extra water – to be sourced by supplying less water out of the Murray–Darling Basin to South Australia, which would also activate its desalination plant – but warned that there would have to be some “pretty creative” water accounting. She also warned that the amount of extra water per farmer was very low, and, becoming available in April, could arrive too late for many, meaning that feed grown in winter would not be ready until November. “In principle it’s a really good move and something that should be part of our drought strategy,” said Slattery, “but it’s probably not going to be enough.”
The government should have listened, and acted, earlier.
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Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is also the author of three books, including a recently updated unauthorised biography of Malcolm Turnbull, Born To Rule?
“As a consequence of climate change, drought is likely to be more regular, longer in duration, and broader in area,” wrote the drought coordinator-general, Major General Stephen Day, in his April report, finally released today. “It means that farmers and communities who rarely see drought are likely to see it more often. And those that have been managing drought for many years may now see it intensify beyond their lived experience. Ultimately, the nation could see some areas of Australia become more marginal and unproductive.” That advice may be too apocalyptic in tone for the prime minister, who today announced an extra $709 million in drought relief –...