DROUGHT is demanding some hard questions of producers in the northern half of Australia, and it’s going to throw some hard questions at Canberra.
The “Coalition” suggests one entity, but when it comes to economic policy, the new government’s incumbents range from market-centric, small government economic “dries” to agrarian socialists – the “wets”.
Out of this philosophical gradient, the Coalition has to shape policy to deal with drought and exceptional circumstances.
The National Drought Reform Package introduced at the start of this financial year seeks to strike a balance, at least on paper.
The dries should be content with the package’s emphasis on drought preparedness.
The real “reform” in the reform package, this introduces measures to ensure producers can build fiscal haystacks against hard times.
The wets should approve of the package’s support measures: $100 million towards the Farm Household Allowance to help farm families in hardship; a more integrated approach to the Rural Financial Counselling Service.
But is it enough? Or is it good enough?
About 20 years ago, climate scientists began warning that increasing the heat-trapping effectiveness of Earth’s greenhouse gas blanket by burning fossil fuels would make Australia’s highly variable climate even more variable: more extreme droughts, more extreme floods.
Events of the 21st Century have done nothing to disprove this hypothesis.
Prominent members of the government, and much of the farming community, would prefer to think of climate change as the past repeating.
Tumbling climate records and the apolitical physics of global warming suggest otherwise: the operating environment of the past 10,000 years is history, and that globally, agriculture is moving into new territory.
If the hot, dry, wet extremes of the past decade continue to develop along the same trendline for the next decade, drought policy – and all agricultural policy – will also be in new territory.
One of the first governments in a long while to show genuine zeal for boosting Australian agriculture may also find dealing with productivity-crippling climatic extremes is as important as proactively lifting productivity.
In doing so, the Coalition will have to find whether old principles adhered to by dries and wets can deliver something new for exceptionally new circumstances.