1. How should climate change alter the way we address drought policy?

The Federal Government’s drought policy approach has always understood and acknowledged the continual need to manage the complex social and economic realities of the climate in a pragmatic way.

This is always evolving and The Nationals – more than most – are acutely aware of this priority because we live with the every-day challenges of the veaguries of the weather, alongside the farmers, families, farm businesses and communities we represent.

Rather than using the recent drought as an opportunity to score political points and scare others into thinking farmers are doomed, we’ve been getting on with the job of addressing the real issues and taking positive action to provide considered and measured relief, when and where it’s needed most.

Our sensible response has been driven by the high level attention and action it deserves, from the Prime Minister through to all levels of Government.

We’ve engaged in a consistent and pragmatic conversation with farmers and key stakeholders about the specific tools they need to manage the multiple, diverse challenges Mother Nature throws at them; not just this season but well into the future.

Whether this is another tough season that’s too wet or too dry, the key to success is giving farmers the backing they need to mitigate the many risks they face – many of which are beyond their control – to remain profitable and sustainable.

2. What sort of policy measures could make farm businesses more resilient?

Critical to advancing drought policy is maintaining the bipartisanship which has underpinned recent reforms and is one which accepts that when our farmers are doing it tough, they want a hand-up from Governments, not a hand-out.

A prime example of the this ongoing, pragmatic support is the scientific research conducted by Rural Research and Development Corporations, co-funded through industry levies and government budget allocations, valued at hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

This long-running research includes exploring initiatives – potential tools for farmers – such as new varieties of drought tolerant or frost resistant crops and those which can produce higher yields but with less water, in changing climates and on variable soil types.

Following a Productivity Commission review in 2009, a national reform process was started by the former Labor Government which ultimately removed Exceptional Circumstances policy and placed greater focus on drought preparedness and resilience.

One of the core planks was shifting away from the farm sector’s reliance on Government subsidies, which exerted artificial influence on agricultural markets and prolonged tough decisions by farmers in areas perceived to be exposed to greater risks of a changing climate.

These changes saw the Farm Household Allowance scheme introduced to provide immediate cash support for farming families, based on their individual circumstances, rather than declaring particular regions or communities in drought, through a hit and miss ‘lines on maps’ policy approach.

In 2015, the Federal Liberals and Nationals’ Government built on these reforms through the Agricultural Competitiveness White Paper, where drought preparedness remained a decision-making priority.

The White Paper initiatives included funding to build water infrastructure to boost agricultural production and help drought-proof communities while driving economic resilience, which remains a high priority of this Government’s policy platform.

This Liberal and Nationals’ Government has committed almost $2.6 billion to assist State and Territory Governments to undertake major water infrastructure projects

The White Paper also provided new funds to improve seasonal forecasting tools and the assessment of a potential Multi-Peril Crop Insurance scheme to help farmers mitigate production risks.

While Government can’t make it rain, or predict the weather 100 per cent accurately next season or 50 years into the future, we can certainly make a real difference by maintaining on ongoing dialogue with our farmers to produce a responsible and practical policy response to drought.

3. What practical measures could make farming practice and systems more resilient?

We’ve been getting on with the job of fine-tuning drought preparedness policy, by listening to what farmers and farm stakeholders are saying about the problems they need solved and how.

In response to the current drought, one of the worst on record in some parts of Queensland and NSW, the Federal Liberal and Nationals’ Government has provided additional $1.8 billion funding in recent months to support farmers and farming communities.

This funding over three tranches has provided immediate drought relief for communities, while building on the existing suite of drought resilience and preparedness measures, as mentioned previously.

For example; red tape has been cut to improve Farm Household Allowance delivery; Rural Financial Counselling Service officers and mental health services have been bolstered; additional funding has gone to local infrastructure projects in drought-affected areas through the Drought Communities Program to keep regional economies ticking over; and National Drought Coordinator Major General Stephen Day was appointed to work across various state and federal agencies and stakeholder groups to enhance targeted support.

Delivery of low-interest drought support loans has been improved through the Regional Investment Corporation and popular taxation measures have also been enhanced or extended – such as instant asset write-offs for farm assets and Farm Management Deposits – to strengthen drought preparedness and resilience.

Last week around the Canberra Drought Summit, the Federal Government also revealed the $5 billion Future Drought Fund which will have a strong focus on strategic water infrastructure projects to boost drought resilience.

This new Fund will also be used to support strategic drought recovery efforts for farmers and communities.

This investment will put money away, for a non-rainy day, which we know happen all too regularly and we know in any given year, some part of Australia is experincing dry conditions.

Another $15 million was announced for the Regional Drought Communities Small Grants Program to be managed by the Foundation for Rural & Regional Renewal to further enhance drought resilience through community-led initiatives.

This week, State and Territory Governments were invited to apply for a share of $72 million in water infrastructure funding for drought affected regions, via the National Water Infrastructure Development Fund, which advances this drought resilience agenda.

Farm groups have also expressed support for building water infrastructure and storages and welcomed other moves to strengthen the Intergovernmental Agreement on national drought reform through the Council of Australian Governments process, which evolved through this recent policy debate.

A Drought Finance Taskforce has also been established to examine ways to provide further financial support for farmers and small businesses and share critical information more effectively as well as other policy initiatives to build on what we’re doing, to be led by Federal Agriculture and Water Resources Minister David Littleproud.

4. What’s standing in the way of better drought preparedness policy?

Rather than creating division by sparking an ideological debate, we have been moving forward with practical policy which makes a difference to real peoples’ lives.

Farmers are our best environmentalists and use every drop of water responsibly and maximise its benefits and they are among the most adaptive to innovations and technology of all industries in our country.

In this ongoing conversation about drought policy measures, farmers, farm leaders and experts are clearly saying they don’t want Government interfering needlessly in their businesses, no matter how well intended that help may be.

Therefore the Government’s drought policy response must always strike the right balance, to ensure there are no unintended consequences of their actions; especially on land values which ultimately underpin all farming operations.

One farmers’ drought is another ones profit opportunity and seasonal fluctuation risks are best managed by those who can bank some money during the good seasons and invest wisely, to ensure they survive the bad ones which will inevitably arrive.

Our Government understands the unique balance that’s required to give our farmers greater certainty and to be the best producers they can be, without hindering their potential and adding undue risks.

Our farmers are some of the most resilient and innovative farmers in the world and the very best environmentalists by nature and by necessity, because their success is intrinsically linked to the quality of their soils.

We should not allow the naysayers – those who want to ban or place undue pressure on certain farming practices, but don’t live with the impacts – to dominate and distract the debate on drought policy, to the agricultural sector’s disadvantage.

Farmers also face great uncertainty due to variable input costs such as fuel or fertiliser which fluctuate from season to season, due to external factors while similar market volatility also impacts the prices they receive for the crops, livestock and other commodities they ultimately produce.

What we don't want to see happen is bad policy driven by misinformed debate and farmers being lectured to by a Labor and Greens Government; despite their ingrained, natural expertise.

Farmers don’t need and should not be told; where they can farm; what they can farm; and how they should farm.


Published today:

Shane Manning