If you want to quantify the toxic effect of the National Party on Australian public life, the $2 billion in “drought relief” this Government has announced in recent years, including yesterday’s package, is a good place to start.

For all our pretensions to being morally and economically superior to the Europeans, the Japanese and the Americans in agricultural policy, the fact is we provide massive subsidies for our regions. Much of it is in the form of grotesquely uneconomic infrastructure provision – transport and communications infrastructure built to urban standards for a fraction of the population. But the Howard Government, after the commendable fiscal rigour of its first two Budgets, has established and expanded a range of regional pork-barrelling initiatives like the Regional Partnerships Program. As the Auditor-General has regularly shown, these programs are not exactly models of transparency and rigour.

Add billions of dollars in drought relief and the elaborate non-tariff barriers we use against imports of foreign produce, and you have a massive and systemic redirection of resources from urban communities to regional Australia and, in particular, the agricultural sector.

Sometimes you get the impression it’d be administratively simpler just to send semi-trailers out into the bush with people shovelling cash out the back as they went. And while the ALP has objected to the more blatantly political rorts, it hasn’t dared to criticise this massive distortion. In fact, since Ross Cameron lost Parramatta at the last election, no MP has been willing to question why we waste so much money on regional Australia.

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As the drought has worsened, the Government’s need to appear to be doing something has grown ever greater. Earlier in the year, the Prime Minister resorted to suggesting we all to pray for rain. Perhaps our churchmen should be required to front an inquiry to account for God’s recalcitrance on this score. But as always, the Government prefers to hand out money to its favourite interest groups.

About the only respectable aspect of the latest assistance package is the commitment to give farmers up to $170,000 to “exit with dignity”. Of course, workers in any other industry don’t get to “exit with dignity”. If their workplace shuts because of import competition, or structural change, or bad weather, they’re out on the street.

But it might be a low price to pay to curb the environmental damage caused by trying to farm unviable land. The history of agriculture in Australia has been a long story of havoc wreaked on our landscape and waterways, for which we are all now paying the price. Giving farmers cash to stop doing it might be the only way to ensure some sort of sustainable agricultural sector in the long-term.

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