Much of eastern Australia (particularly NSW and QLD) is experiencing prolonged drought, bringing significant challenges to the agricultural industry. The situation recently became a major point of difference between the Federal Minister for Agriculture, David Littleproud, and the Shadow Agricultural Spokesman, Joel Fitzgibbon, on the ABC’s Q&A programme aired on 6 August 2018. The Government, having committed to providing drought relief to rural communities, takes the view that the Federal Government should only assist in times of desperation. The Opposition, however, argues for greater support to prevent the disasters from occurring. In some quarters, the differing perspectives have been interpreted as vote chasing and political point scoring, rather than a genuine desire to assist farmers.
Central Queensland has experienced severe droughts for years, with relatively little media attention. Climatic extremes have always been part of the state’s agricultural landscape. Rural communities are weary of the politicisation of their day-to-day hardship. While the major parties continue to disagree and fail to come to a bipartisan approach to assisting the Australian farmer, minor parties and populist movements will continue to capitalise politically on the situation.
Currently the Commonwealth Government provides an assistance package to farmers during times of hardship, which gives them approximately $26,000 per annum. This policy was implemented under the Gillard Government in 2014, under the Farm Household Support Act 2014. It was adjusted by the Turnbull Government in 2017, through the Farm Household Support Amendment Act 2017. Due to the large scale drought crisis in NSW, currently affecting most of the state, the Turnbull government has approved a further two lump sum payments of $12,000, to provide ‘human welfare’ and for assistance with the growing concern over mental health in regional Australia.
During the episode of Q&A mentioned above, the opposing politicians clashed over their respective and contrasting approaches to the issue. Minister Littleproud declared that Australian farmers are experienced in dealing with adversity and will overcome these challenges as they have always done in the past. The Minister also attacked two big banks (Westpac & ANZ) for neglecting rural Australia and not signing up to the Farm Management Deposits Scheme (FMD) years earlier. The FMD is a Commonwealth Government relief mechanism designed to assist farmers during fluctuating periods of income. The Minister also mentioned the $580 million National Water Infrastructure Development Fund, a proposal to allow greater investment in water resources. To date, this initiative is fully committed but stalled due to disagreement between the Commonwealth and State Governments.
Shadow Minister Fitzgibbon’s alternative strategy is to “future proof” the agricultural sector through improvements in soil health and water management. Instead of building more dams and other water storage mechanisms, he calls for better soil and water management and a move to regenerative or sustainable agriculture. This policy highlights the need for soil restoration and acknowledges that soils that have been degraded for many years will take a similar period to restore. It also recognises the role of farmers as the custodians and stewards of Australian soil, who cannot be expected to bear the financial burden of managing a fundamental resource for all Australians.
The merits of both these positions notwithstanding, the perceived lack of support at the expense of rural communities is having an impact in the electorate. Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party returned to political relevance following the 2016 double dissolution Federal Election. The Party polled strongly in regional Australia, partly due to lack of support for the two major parties. During the super Saturday by-elections of 28 July 2018, One Nation polled at 15 per cent in the Longman by-election. Many voters from these rural areas find the Federal Government to be out of touch and elitist and the Opposition uninterested in rural affairs. This has resulted in a swing towards One Nation and other minor parties in the country’s more conservative rural electorates.
To emphasise the absolute urgency of this issue, national leaders need look no further than the, largely overlooked, social consequences of drought and the effect it has on the mental health and wellbeing of the rural workforce and their families. In parts of rural Australia, clinically diagnosed depression is rising alarmingly and the number of suicides in farming communities has been described as being at crisis levels. This is largely attributed to demanding market forces, smaller profit margins and hardships caused by intrinsic variables, such as adverse climatic conditions. Neither side of politics had recognised this issue until relatively recently (2014), when Independent MP, Bob Katter, brought it to public attention. When the rural community believes issues of this importance are being politicised by the major parties, they will seek their champions elsewhere.