Australia needs a drought policy for the 21st century

ByProfessorPoh-Ling Tan
Griffith Law School

In August 2019, Scott Morrison, the country’s new Prime Minister has made “a national response to drought” his priority, and has done so by appointing Barnaby Joyce a new special envoy for drought assistance and recovery. Many Australians would like to know whether Australia has a policy for managing drought or is this thought of merely in terms of funding for farmers during a drought.

For much of the nation’s history, Australians had two views on drought. Firstly, our early policy makers acknowledged that long and deep droughts were such a part of the landscape that governments needed to build dams capable of drought-proofing agriculture in dry years. Secondly, for much of the 20th century, droughts were also seen to be a natural disaster alongside floods, bush fires and the like, until studies showed that it was untenable to continue to provide relief on this basis.

By 1992 Australian governments agreed on a National Drought Policy that moved away from the second approach i.e. crisis management, towards one which was risk based, encouraging self-reliant approaches to managing climate variability. Introduced in a neo-liberal political context, the 1992 policy provided temporary welfare support for farmers in drought, but sought structural adjustment so that only farmers with long-term prospects continued to farm. From 1999, drought relief for farmers focussed on those in exceptional circumstances (EC) providing help only for those who were viable in the long term to cope with rare and severe events.

Reviews of drought policy in 2008/9 advised governments to avoid short term initiatives and focus on long term sustainable and adaptive approaches. The EC scheme was been criticised as being inequitable and was discontinued in 2012. Writing for The Conversation in 2014, Linda Botterill surmised that Australia’s 1992 National Drought Policy appears to be dead.

This does not mean that drought relief for agriculture has stopped. A White Paper released in 2015 refocuses aid including concessional loans for in-drought support, and farm insurance advice and risk assessment grants. Current drought relief, excluding concessional loans, is estimated as $576 million. Economists have criticised aspects of drought relief strategy particularly subsidies for farm outputs as a “very blunt policy instrument to support farm families facing poverty”.

Our political leaders have been questioned whether they acknowledge that Australia’s current drought is caused by human induced climate change. It is a question that the new Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, has dodged. This is despite the National Farmer’s Federation acknowledging the reality of human induced climate change being responsible for wild climate variability. Climate scientists agree that rainfall in parts of Australia including the south east, is projected to be more extreme with dryer conditions becoming more frequent and higher temperatures resulting in higher evaporation rates, all impacting on water availability. There is evidence suggesting that climate change is exacerbating drought conditions in parts of Australia, especially in the southwest and southeast.

Farmers and other stakeholders are calling out for policy that acknowledges the nexus between drought, climate change and energy. This is the national drought policy that Australia needs for the 21st century.