It’s taken him too long, but public concern and the looming election has finally obliged Malcolm Turnbull to do the right thing by our farmers struggling with severe drought.
In Forbes on Sunday, Turnbull announced a further $250 million in assistance to farmers and communities, including initial grants of $1 million each to 60 drought-affected councils in NSW, Queensland and Victoria, bringing Canberra’s direct handouts to $826 million.
Add a further $1 billion in concessional loans and the total outlay comes to $1.8 billion.
Well, about time.
Is that what you think? I don’t.
I think most of it will be a waste of taxpayers’ money. You’ve heard of being cruel to be kind, but the way we carry on every time there’s a drought is being kind to be cruel. Our sympathy, donations and taxpayer assistance just prolong the agony of farmers unable or unwilling to face the harsh reality of farming in a country with one of the most variable climates in the world.
We may not be able to predict their timing or their length, but we can be certain that, before too long, this drought will be followed by another. And the scientists tell us climate change will make it worse.
And yet we keep pretending no one could have predicted or prepared for the next drought. Nonsense.
Our attitude to drought is all soft heart and soft head. I have two objections. The first is the way our collective concern about drought and its consequences is always media-driven.
When I visited the country in mid-May, my host complained that no one in the city seemed to know or care about the drought that was ravaging the countryside.
But when, a few months later, the first media outlet got the message, it started the usual flood of heart-rending drought stories.
The media love drought stories because they know much they stir their customers’ emotions. Most people like having the media give their heart-strings a regular workout. I don’t.
And the trouble is, our concern about the drought – or the tsunami or earthquake or bushfire – lasts only as long as it takes the media’s attention to shift to some newer source of concern.
It’s already happening. Turnbull’s big announcement in Forbes got little media coverage because the threat to his leadership was far more exciting.
My more substantial objection to the recurring carry-on about drought is that it makes the problem worse rather than better. We give the bush a fish to feed it for a day when we should be helping it learn better fishing techniques.
In their efforts to tug our emotions, the media invariably leave us with an exaggerated impression of the severity of the drought and the proportion of farmers who are suffering badly. They show us the very worst farms and the worst-off farmers.
To be blunt, they show us the bad managers, not the good ones. I can’t remember ever seeing a story where someone whose farm was in much better shape than his neighbours’ was asked how he did it.
The exception that proves the rule? Don’t be so sure. On average over the six years to 2007-08 – the Millennium drought – nearly 70 per cent of Australia’s broadacre and dairy farms in drought-declared areas managed without government assistance.
Many, maybe most, farmers prepare for drought. Some don’t. They’re the ones the media want us to feel sorry for. The ones who’ve overstocked their now badly degraded properties hoping it will rain before long or, failing that, the government and guilt-ridden city-slickers will give them a handout.
The trouble with our emergency assistance approach to drought is that it encourages farmers not to bother preparing for the inevitable. It encourages farmers whose farms are too small, or who lack the skills or spare capital to survive, to keep struggling on when they should give up.
And it does all that to the chagrin of the wise and careful farmers who’ve made expensive preparation for the next drought with little help from other taxpayers.
Australians have been leaving the farm and moving to the city for more than a century. They’ve done so because continuous advances in labour-saving technology have made small farms uneconomic and decimated the demand for rural labour. All while the nation’s agricultural production keeps growing.
This is my own family’s story. I was raised mainly in cities, but my father grew up on a dairy farm near Toowoomba and my mother on a cane farm in North Queensland.
Meaning that, were it not for my brush with economics, I too would share the city-slickers’ sense of guilt at having deserted the true Australian’s post on the land for a cushy life in the city. Would $50 be enough, do you think?
We are perpetrators of what Americans have dubbed the “hydro-illogical cycle”. As Dr Jacki Schirmer and others at the University of Canberra describe it, this occurs when “a severe drought triggers short-term concern and assistance, followed by a return to apathy and complacency once the rains return.
“When drought drops off the public and media radar, communities are often left with little or no support to invest in preparing for the next inevitable drought.”
Every government report on drought concludes the best response is for farmers to improve their self-reliance, preparedness and climate-change management. We could help them with their preparations, but we get a bigger emotional kick from giving them handouts when droughts are at their worst.
Ross Gittins is smh.com.au economics editor.