Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Two Drought Policies

By Simon Grose

How you cope with long dry spells depends a lot on your place in the evolutionary tree.

If you were one of those outback frogs that spend droughts underground in a self-induced coma you might have been lured to the surface in February when the first real rain for almost 18 months fell on western NSW and Queensland.

You would probably have been spawned almost 2 years earlier when that part of the world was in flood. Those were La Niña days, so La Niña that in April 2012 the then-Agriculture Minister Joe Ludwig declared that the whole continent was officially drought-free for the first time in more than a decade.

As you stretched your webs and cranked up your mating croak you may have wondered how the humans who have generally buggered the joint had been coping while you were snoozing.

When you were a speck of spawn they had a drought system based on “Exceptional Circumstances”. If a region was declared by the National Rural Advisory Council to be suffering “EC”, farmers and small businesses in that region were eligible for income support, interest subsidies and grants.

Over the first decade of this century this cost almost $5 billion, with a peak in 2008 when 69% of the continent was drought-declared. In that year state and federal governments agreed that the EC system was “no longer the most appropriate way to provide drought assistance in the context of a changing climate”.

A new approach, piloted in Western Australia from 2010 at a cost of $81 million, focused on risk management rather than crisis management. Mentoring, farm planning and family support were included with the usual financial supports and exit financing.

In April 2012 – when you were a tadpole with erupting legs – the governments agreed that the pilot had flown and should be the basis for a new approach to drought support from July 2014. By May 2013 – when you were settling into your underground coma – they agreed on that approach under the Farm Finance program.

Joe Ludwig said: “The new drought policy will continue on throughout, no lines on maps, no declarations, no exceptional circumstances, no National Rural Advisory Council wandering around telling people on one side of the line they’re in drought and the other side of the line they’re not in drought”.

This new regime has been maintained by the Coalition government, with Minister Barnaby Joyce managing to even screw a bit more money and start it up early.

Not that you really care. Anyway, you’re probably dead already, snapped up by a pelican or a snake or a cat after exhausting yourself trying to get a floss of fertilised spawn into the landscape. It’s harder for humans; they have to live longer to make babies, prefer to spend their time on the surface, and some insist on trying to be farmers beyond the black stump.

Simon Grose is a Director of Science Media (sciencemedia.com.au).