(Image: AAP/Dan Peled)

This article is part two in a series. Read part one here.

A lot of Australia is in severe drought. Farmers are bleeding. The federal government is under pressure to “do something”.

Enter the Drought Communities Program, one of the government’s main initiatives, a program where 123 local government areas are eligible for $1 million each to spend on community projects which employ farmers.

That’s a sizeable chunk of money — one which, by our own analysis, appears to have been handed out at random.

But maybe there’s some method to this madness: Of the 123 LGAs eligible for funding, just six were in electorates that voted for Labor.

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This doesn’t necessarily imply favouritism — Nationals and Liberal members hold more rural seats than other parties.

Still, of the six LGAs which did vote for Labor in the federal election, two voted Liberal in the state election, two voted for the Nationals, while the two Tasmanian LGAs are in the State electorate of Lyons, which is represented by three Liberal and two Labor members.

The winning hand

The 123 Councils — and the $123 million — were spread across mostly conservative electorates.  In the federal election, 49 councils were in electorates which voted for the Nationals; 41 were Liberal; 21 voted for the LNP, and four voted for the Katter Australia Party. Of the remaining eight, six voted for the ALP, one for the Centre Alliance and one for independent Helen Haines. 

Government ministers were the big winners: 10 councils in Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack’s electorate of Riverina received funding, as did six in Environment Minister Sussan Ley’s electorate of Farrer. $18 million went to councils in Minister for Regional Services Mark Coulton’s electorate of Parkes, while Drought Minister David Littleproud’s electorate of Maranoa got $14 million.

In total, $61 million was given to councils in a government minister or assistant minister’s electorate. 

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Losing Labor regions

Labor Member for Hunter Joel Fitzgibbon believes this was a very deliberate tactic. “It’s a pork-barreling exercise, typical of the National Party. The secrecy is all about covering [it up],” he said. 

In Hunter, Muswellbrook was the only LGA awarded funding back in 2017. Neighbouring LGA Singleton, which has had similar climate conditions and, according to Fitzgibbon, comparable agricultural industries, didn’t get it. “Singleton is just as deserving as Muswellbrook,” he said. 

Our own analysis showed Singleton experienced 19 months of below-average rainfall across individual BOM stations from June 2017 to June 2019, the period used for analysis for the 13 most recently announced LGAs. 10 of those months were in the lowest 5th percentile of rainfall for all recorded history. 

According to the government’s loosely defined methodology, both low rainfall and economic and industry data was used to determine eligibility. “I have no doubt [the government] will try to argue it was allocated based on agriculture workforce — if that’s what they want to argue, show me the numbers,” Fitzgibbon said. “Three rounds and each time they just added more LGAs and I think that was the result of backbenchers getting on the phone.” 

Sticking to their guns

The government has denied accusations of pork-barreling, with Drought Minister David Littleproud telling ABC Radio all reports on the drought would be made public in the coming weeks. 

“Our response is responsive to the situation at hand … To outsiders, it might look ad hoc, but it’s actually targeted,” Littleproud said, adding it was the state’s responsibility to look after animal welfare, freight and fodder, and the federal government’s responsibility to look after farmer welfare. The suicide rate for farming men is about double the general male population. 

The Department of Infrastructure says it stands by the data and methodology used. “The Department applies a consistent methodology in assessing the eligibility of LGAs under the Drought Communities Program. While many of the rural and regional electorates most severely impacted by drought are held by Coalition members, party affiliation is absolutely not a factor in departmental eligibility assessments,” a spokesperson said.

Peter Fray

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