As I said earlier this year, the National Party is never short on chutzpah. Witness Bruce Scott, member for Maranoa, who told the media yesterday that calls to buy out drought-stricken farmers were “un-Australian”.

Speaking two weeks ago at the Centre for Independent Studies, Labor MP Craig Emerson said he wished more businesses were like restaurants: they’re highly competitive, they come and go in response to consumer demand, and they don’t demand subsidies when the trade turns against them.

I don’t know if Emerson had them in mind, but the farm lobby is at the other end of the scale, with its dogged failure to accept economic realities.

It’s true that, by world standards, Australia’s subsidies to our farm sector are relatively modest. But the cost needs to be measured not just in cash handed over but in the environmental degradation that inefficient farming practices have caused — and now in the imposition of water restrictions on urban consumers, who use a small fraction of the water that farmers do and pay a great deal more for it.

Those costs need to be brought to account. Just as coal-fired power stations need economic incentives to clean up their greenhouse emissions, farmers need an incentive to use water more efficiently — including selling it to city dwellers if that’s a more valuable use of it.

As water becomes more expensive, the prices of products it’s used for — such as food — will rise as well. But if it’s cheaper to import food from overseas than subsidise marginal farmers here to produce it, that’s what we should be doing.

As Clive Hamilton said in yesterday’s Crikey, continuing drought relief “is an expensive means of sustaining an anachronism.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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