AFTER a woeful couple of years, it has been a lovely festive period for drought-stricken farmers in Queensland, with many centres in the Maranoa and Warrego regions receiving their best falls in two years.
Should this promising start translate into a meaningful turnaround in the rural economy in northern Australia - and farmers return to a more even keel - it would also signal the perfect time for meaningful debate on government drought reform in this nation.
The time for discussion on how to best manage our notoriously fickle climate is not when cattle bones glisten whitely on a backdrop of parched, bare earth. That is a time for emergency provisions and getting people through as best as they can.
No, the time for rational discussion comes when the seasons are better and people are able to think clearly about what to do to ensure resilient rural communities.
Drought encourages action for action’s sake, such as the well-meaning, but ultimately futile push for a drop in interest rates for farmers.
A 2 per cent drop from already historically low rates is unlikely to mean much to long-term viability of the drought-affected.
Too many drought measures have been like this, described by someone as a band-aid for a gaping wound.
So – where to from here?
The current system, or lack thereof, stinks. The one redeeming feature is that it gives the relevant authorities complete carte blanche to start completely afresh.
To start with, those involved with agriculture want a chance to be able to help themselves.
No bail-out packages which benefit risky farming practices and no snide commentary from the city-based media about ‘hand-outs’ (all the while conveniently forgetting years of propping up a manufacturing sector).
What is needed is more products, such as farm management deposits or multi-peril crop insurance that allow farmers to store away funds or insure themselves adequately against these inevitable poor seasons.
Systems that allow farmers to set up their own defences against poor years can be set up easily and relatively cost effectively compared with current drought aid packages through tax concessions and other incentives.
Obviously, the government can’t provide the simplest solution to drought – make it rain - but any further investment in medium-term weather forecasts allowing farmers of all persuasions to have reasonable faith in the forecast for as short a period as a month would create billions of dollars in value.
The government needs to have faith in Australian agriculture. It is a risky, but profitable sector that generates valuable export dollars. A system which allows farmers to better manage climatic volatility would provide an important platform in creating even more value into the future.