WITH public debate raging about bank foreclosures on debt and drought-savaged farm businesses, Cox Inall director Lucy Broad asks whether the media and political cycle is helping or hindering the situation.
LAST week I woke up to the news that the ANZ Bank had announced a moratorium on farm repossessions in northern and western Queensland and north-west New South Wales.
Times are really tough in parts of rural Australia, particularly Queensland, and terrible farm suicide statistics provide a sobering reminder that for many these are literally life and death issues.
The weekend papers told me the ANZ bank has promised to “stop evicting drought-stricken farmers from their land” and “driving people off their farms”, and that “struggling farmers escape eviction as banks back down”.
Without diminishing in any way the seriousness of the problems being faced in some areas of farming, it struck me that as storytellers in rural Australia, many of us have spent a great many years fuelling the community’s love of hating banks.
It reminded me in particular of a story I reported on in the late 1980s for the ABC TV program Countrywide, near the small town of Sealake in the Mallee district of north-west Victoria. It’s the heart of Australia’s southern wheat belt, and a farming family had received a foreclosure letter from their bank.
We filmed the father tramping the streets of Melbourne seeking alternative finance, and put it to the background soundtrack of John Schumann’s “Borrowed Ground”.
We filmed at the farm (with the family’s blessing), while they sat around the kitchen table and explained to the children that they would have to leave; and we filmed the clearing sale as the accumulated equipment of multiple generations of family farming was dispersed.
The family was sad and angry and understandably emotional. The bank was vilified by all and nowhere to be seen.
Dare I say it: it was great television.
The family had come through years of drought in the 1980s, continued to borrow heavily at high interest rates, overcommitted themselves and couldn’t meet the repayments.
The drought support for farmers that did exist was subsequently found to be poorly targeted, and acted as a disincentive for farmers to prepare for hard times.
The government has been trying to get that right ever since, aiming for policies that encourage farmers to take a risk management approach to drought and become more self-reliant. We are still not there.
Around the country in the late 1980s it was an all too familiar scene, and the stories of farm family hardship and foreclosures were often heartbreaking.
The perception of banks was of ruthless, profit making, big businesses, encouraging excessive borrowing at record high interest rates by families who didn’t understand the consequences.
Perhaps there was an element of truth in that.
But now, almost 30 years later, have we really not moved on?
With widespread fear of an imminent increase in farm foreclosures, the banks are being forced by public opinion and government pressure to “get on the front foot”, and in their words “dampen mounting political and community anger”.
In an interview on ABC Radio the ANZ CEO said there have been less than 10 farm foreclosures over the past 12 months. The papers quote Westpac saying there have been four, and NAB seven. Clearly there is a fear of those numbers increasing, but foreclosure is a last resort when all other options have been exhausted, usually resulting in fire sale land prices and widespread grief.
The fact is if any business is not sustainable in the long term, hard decisions need to be made.
Just ask the faces and families behind the empty shopfronts that are now a familiar sight in most country centres, most of whom never make the headlines.
Might it be better to allow those difficult conversations to occur without the influence from community, media and political pressure?