Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull poses for a photograph with Paul Donoley (left) and Bruce Alexander during a visit to the township of Blackall, Queensland, Tuesday, June 5, 2018. Malcolm Turnbull and his senior National Party colleagues are touring regional NSW and Queensland towns this week to visit communities struggling with drought. (AAP Image/Lisa Alexander) NO ARCHIVING

Malcolm Turnbull with Paul Donoley (left) and Bruce Alexander during a visit to the township of Blackall, Queensland.

Perhaps it’s due to the fact that the pernicious influence of Barnaby Joyce on policy has been removed, but when Malcolm Turnbull spoke ahead of his tour of drought-affected regions in Queensland on Monday, he made sense. Farmers, he said, were going to have to adapt to a changing climate that was making rainfall more variable. “You’ve got to ensure we can do everything we can to ensure that farmers are resilient,” the Prime Minister said.

They were remarkable words coming from a Coalition Prime Minister, not merely for the acceptance of the impact of climate change, but for the implication that agriculture had to be prepared for greater variability rather than simply relying on governments to help out whenever drought struck. No wonder traditional Nationals like John Anderson — deputy prime minister when climate denialism was explicit government policy — immediately got their backs up.

The approach to drought policy during Barnaby Joyce’s long and disastrous reign as agriculture minister was to throw money at farmers. In Joyce’s 2015 Agricultural Competitiveness White Paper — that’s the one with a white heterosexual family on the cover as the symbol of Australian farming — a quarter-billion dollars in new concessional loans were announced.

Concessional loans are, as the Productivity Commission (PC) pointed out in 2009 in its comprehensive assessment of drought policy, at best a second-rate policy option. They’re not as bad as handouts, because they still leave recipients with some stake in using the money effectively. But there’s no justification for giving businesses cheap loans — either an investment makes commercial sense, in which case a bank will provide a loan, or it doesn’t make commercial sense and the investment shouldn’t be made at all. And there’s no benefit in providing assistance to drought-affected farmers anyway; it merely helps unviable, inefficient and marginal producers stay in business, at the subsidised expense of the majority of farmers who have invested in making their operations resilient. “Most farmers are sufficiently self-reliant to manage climate variability,” the PC concluded, noting that even during the ferocious drought of the 2000s, 70% of farmers hadn’t needed assistance. Drought relief rewards farmers who haven’t bothered to make the same investment in resilience despite knowing there will always be another drought.

Who knows, maybe Turnbull will oversee a new drought policy that stops punishing the majority of farmers who manage their operations responsibly and with an understanding of climate variability.

 

Peter Fray

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