For Australia’s predominantly urban population, drought has so far meant little more than finding new ways to clean our driveways and cars and ruing the fact that our lawns are turning brown. In rural areas, it can be a life and death situation. The suicide rate among Australian male farmers is nearly double the national average, and a study published earlier this year found a clear relationship between rainfall and suicide in NSW.

Last week the treasurer announced the failure of much of Australia’s wheat crop and the likelihood of rural recession, and Jeff Kennett fronted up in Bendigo a few weeks back to speak about rural depression in his role as chairperson of Beyond Blue. According to the ex-prem, a rural male suicide occurs every four days. In recent days both federal and state governments have announced new funding for mental health and social support services in rural areas.

Australia is not a land of plenty – it is the driest inhabited continent on the planet, with some of the poorest soils going. The folly of intensively farming marginal land has already left its mark on much of the country. Given that global warming is expected to significantly exacerbate drought conditions in Australia, the current dire situation paints a bleak picture of what Australia’s future might increasingly be like for many of our beleaguered primary producers.

It seems strange in this context that the suggestion that some farmers may need to leave the land meets with such condemnation. Clive Hamilton’s comments drew a savage rebuke from the country yesterday, with Junee farmer Senator Bill Heffernan suggesting that the Australia Institute head honcho was speaking out of his rear end. Even Bob Brown thought he’d pushed it a bit far.

Some of Hamilton’s comments seemed callous and unfair, but if his underlying point is that it is uneconomic, ecologically damaging and in the end pointless to keep farming marginal and degraded land, then it’s difficult to realistically argue otherwise. Heffernan himself at least concedes that as climate changes we will need a rethink on what can be grown and where.

Staying on to battle against all odds might keep Henry Lawson from rolling over in his grave, but it is climatically and ecologically delusional and only consigns more people to eventual heartbreak. It may be that the high suicide rates in rural areas are related as much to a loss of cultural identity as to economic hardship per se, but it’s hard to imagine we can preserve it by subsidising people to keep working land that fails every time a drought arrives. We are better off subsidising farmers in the worst affected areas to leave.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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