Unfortunately, welcome rainfall brought only short-term relief for many of our farmers. For too many years now government support for drought affected farming families has be ad hoc, reactive, and too difficult to secure. Time and time again drought measures have looked more designed for the announcement rather than their effectiveness.
The latest announcement came last week when Agriculture Minister David Littleproud, how the first $100 million from its Future Drought Fund will be spent. It was an underwhelming package for farmers, heavy on abstracts such as leadership, upskilling, capacity-building, online apps and network-building, but low on practical assistance.
In short, the money goes to consultants and agricultural industry bodies. Not one cent goes to drought-affected farmers.
Of concern to many farmers is the lack of a strategic view of agriculture in the years and decades ahead. This is what the Future Drought Fund was supposed to do when it was heralded at the Drought Summit in October 2018.
The Drought Summit was Scott Morrison’s first major policy outing as Prime Minister and there he announced a Future Drought Fund with great fanfare. It was to be a long-term funding mechanism for drought resilience in our agriculture industry and rural communities. He was so eager to stamp his mark on drought as a defining issue for his Government that he gazumped the speakers at the conference by announcing his Future Drought Fund before a single speaker had uttered a word.
The Fund came with its own exaggerations – they called it a $5 billion fund even though it was only $3.9 billion. And less conspicuous in the announcement was the fact that the Future Drought Fund is a rebranding of the Building Australia Fund, which had been established by Labor to ensure a consistent funding stream for regional roads and bridges. Moreover, the Future Drought Fund only draws-down $100 million every year.
The economic impacts of drought are well-known: while it mainly translates to water restrictions and grocery prices in the major cities, it seriously diminishes regional economies, where it can affect jobs, incomes, exports and general economic activity including retail and construction trades.
The Bureau of Meteorology says there is currently a 50% chance of Australia experiencing a La Nina cycle – which brings wetter conditions – but for now Australia is currently drought-affected, in parts of Northern NSW, Southern Queensland, South Australia and the south of Western Australia.
The COVID crisis and the bushfire emergency before it, have removed drought from the headlines. But large swathes of our agricultural areas currently have ‘below’ and ‘very much below’ average rainfall in the last two years according to the classification by the BoM, with many areas now recording ‘lowest on record’ rainfall.
This is happening now, in the regions that provide our food and fibre. The drought has not disappeared and is a current concern for many of our farmers. And in Minister Littleproud’s drought-funding package, I know that most farmers were expecting something more than weather apps for their phones, financial planning lessons from accountants and suggestions for crop rotation and no-till cropping – as if they haven’t long ago learned from that advice.
Australia is an advanced agricultural industry. It’s awash in technology, online data and expert advisers. What our farmers needed was practical assistance to build drought-resilient farms in their regions. On this count, the Government has failed with its first Future Drought Fund package.