Drought policy needs long-term approach

Opinion: Drought policy needs long-term approach

Opinion
Records of properties enjoying a bumper season can be a powerful tonic in hard times. Photo by Stephen Burns.

Records of properties enjoying a bumper season can be a powerful tonic in hard times. Photo by Stephen Burns.

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Photos of a property enjoying a bumper season can be a powerful tonic in hard times.

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At times, when I visit a property enjoying a bumper season, I make a point of asking the owner if they have taken any photos to preserve the moment, and if they haven’t, to suggest they do.

At times like this, as most of the state remains gripped by a drought which, we are told, has at least some months yet to run, those photos can be a powerful tonic, an incentive to “hang in”.

I was reminded of this last month by comments from former National Rural Woman of the Year, Pip Job, who had just stepped down from her six-month stint as NSW state drought coordinator.

As reported at the time, she described the job as “one of the toughest” she’d had since stepping aside from the family farm to work with the Department of Primary Industries, but also “the most rewarding”.

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Travelling across the drought-ravaged state and hearing at first hand so many stories of hardship, she could only have come away uplifted by the resilience and stoicism she found holding families together.

Now her drought coordinator’s baton has been passed to Walcha grazier and former NSW Farmers’ president Jock Laurie, who has said he will “do what needs to be done” for as long as it takes.

Picking up from where Pip Job left off, he said in the next phase he would “deal with a whole range of issues including long-term drought policy and how state and federal government will deal with it”.

One could only hope that out of this process comes a multi-government agreement on future drought policy that provides farmers and rural communities generally with some certainty.

For too long, drought assistance has been a political football subject to changes of focus at the whim of successive governments.

A problem all governments face in providing financial assistance is balancing the equity issues, in other words, how to weigh up the entitlement to drought assistance of farmers with different enterprises and widely differing approaches to management.

For example, some graziers destock early to preserve ground cover, and before their animals lose condition, while others hold out in the hope of a “break”, until their paddocks are bare and their stock unsaleable.

While freight subsidies on transport are undoubtedly of great value to graziers in time of drought, they do nothing to help farmers who rely on cropping income, let alone irrigators bereft of water.

Access to drought aid funding is also determined by a farmer’s personal financial position, although some would argue that drought is the great leveller, and aid should be available to all.

Then there’s the question of how and to what extent rural towns should be supported, as farm spending tightens up, farm workers and contractors drift away and local businesses and services suffer.

Jock and his counterparts will have plenty to chew the fat about.

- Peter Austin

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