Major General Stephen Day, DSC, AM: Coordinator-General for Drought, Part One

22 August 2019 Geoffrey Craggs, Research Analyst, Northern Australia and Regional Development Research Programme Download PDF

Key Points

  • Most Australians know that drought is having a significant effect on farming and agriculture. Many do not appreciate or understand, however, the downstream effects on consumers.
  • Australians are proud of their farmers and appreciate the work they do in producing healthy, high quality food.
  • In the past, many farmers have not thought about or adequately prepared for drought, in the belief that government would be there to assist them.
  • Communicating with farmers requires articulating the information and the science in a way that it can be welcomed and understood.



In 2018, in response to Australia’s worsening drought situation, the Commonwealth Government established a Joint Agency Drought Taskforce to review and assess the effects that drought was having on Australian agriculture. Selected to head the Taskforce was Major General Stephen Day, a former senior commander in the Australian Army. General Day’s Terms of Reference required that he engage with drought affected farmers and communities and endeavour to understand the issues they were facing. That knowledge was intended to advise and inform the government on developing long-term strategies that will address Australia’s drought preparedness and resilience.

The Joint Agency Drought Taskforce ceased operations in late June 2019. FDI was recently afforded the opportunity to interview General Day about his work and what he learned from speaking with the many farming families and community representatives in his travels across Australia.



FDI – Do people understand the drought issue that Australian farmers are facing?

Major General Day Can I start with some context before I answer the question specifically? I was asked by the Prime Minister to pull together the national response to drought. The concern was there was a lot going on in Australia: The Commonwealth Government was doing a fair bit; State governments were responding in varying degrees; charities were involved; and representative bodies, such as the National Farmers Federation, were involved. But it was un-coordinated and voices of those who were suffering were getting louder and louder and the message was ‘this is getting worse and the government isn’t doing anything’.

The Prime Minster tasked me to bring coherence to the national response and to calm things down a little in order that people could think about things more rationally. He wanted me to produce advice on a long-term strategy for drought preparedness. That is what I was trying to achieve.

To your question, does everybody know about drought, its effects and what communication do we need? I think the first thing to be said is the critical mass of Australians know there’s a drought on; regardless of whether they live in the suburbs or the most remote parts of our big country. What people who live outside of rural areas don’t really understand is the impact drought has on farming communities and the towns that rely on agriculture to survive. It’s like a lot of things in life – when things are difficult, it tends to be only those that personally experience the difficulty who understand the impacts.

I think Australians are proud of our farmers, they know they are experiencing some difficulties and want to help them. As the drought wears on, those who live in the cities who might not have felt the effects hither to, will start to. The price of meat has been going up; lamb in particular. The price of beef is starting to rise and we’re about to reach the stage where the number of cattle being slaughtered will be reduced because there aren’t enough cattle for consumption and those left are being used as breeding stock. This is going to affect consumers in the second half of this year. It’s also likely to affect our beef export market, which will be in direct competition with the Australian domestic market. We can only wait and see how this drought plays out but, and the bottom line is, there is going to be an effect, for example, on the availability and affordability of meat for Australian citizens.

The effect from drought that is now starting to be felt by city folk, in Sydney, is water restrictions. This keeps foremost in peoples mind that there is a drought on. I understand also, in Canberra, the ACT Government is talking about needing to implement water restrictions this summer – people are going to start to feel the effects of drought.

I think the real issue though is our farmers and how they think about and prepare for drought. During the last big drought (the Millennium Drought), Federal Government policy was underpinned by the idea that it was drought of exceptional circumstance which required an exceptional response from government. At that time the government was in a solid Budget position and they injected money into a variety of programmes that supported the agricultural community and country towns. They subsidised loans; farmers with debts received a direct subsidy from the government to help them make the repayments. Some farmers had an expectation that, when they were in a drought as bad as the current one, the government would reinstate “exceptional circumstance” like programs to help them “ride it out”. They were mistaken.

At the end of the Millennium Drought the government sat down with the States and industry representatives and conducted a “lessons learnt”. They determined that the policies in exceptional circumstances would not be the way of the future. Firstly, some of the policies were expensive; the subsidies paid to support farm debt repayments cost the Federal Government roughly $1.2 billion. Secondly, it created division in communities where some people, who genuinely needed interest rate relief, got it. Some people who didn’t really need relief also got it. And there were some people who needed it, but didn’t get it. The policy became divisive. The challenge for “exceptional circumstances” was accurately targeting those who were in drought and in need. There was also a view that up to 20 per cent of people in the agricultural industry either lacked the agricultural knowledge and/or the business skills to be successful. The “exceptional circumstances” funding served to prop up and keep those people in business when actually they probably should have been doing something else.

Governments decided that the policy should shift from being responsive and helping people during drought to getting people to prepare for drought. This then became the key idea that under-pinned the National Drought Agreement that was signed in 2013, on the back of learning from the Millennium Drought by the Commonwealth and all State Governments. They would help farmers prepare.

In 2018, five years after that agreement was signed, when I became the Coordinator General, my ‘on ground’ experience was that the majority of farmers did not understand that there had been a philosophical shift from response to preparedness. Drought affected farmers were calling for governments to respond just as they had in the past, and asking why weren’t they subsidising our interest repayments, for example? This created some tensions.

I had concluded that, after water, information was the next most valuable resource in this drought. The Prime Minister agreed to hold a National Drought Summit which he hosted in November last year. A summit objective was to bring the voices of the nation together, both the experts and those who were being directly affected, so that they could all be heard. They could inform how I was going to go about my work and how the government would deal with drought policy decisions that it would be confronted with in the months that followed. The National Drought Summit also served to bring the drought to the attention of the nation.

Perhaps the biggest challenge in drought, in my experience this year, is communicating to farmers. Our farmers are wonderfully independent, which is a great strength. Their great weakness, however, is they are wonderfully independent. A lot of them spend all of the daylight hours alone working on their properties. As they and their wives tell me, the harder it gets on the land, battling drought for instance, the more time they spend out on their own. So, getting information to them is a challenge. When I ask farmers how they get their news, their information, most say it used to be through government extensions services and the ABC radio. But today, like many other citizens, most get their information through disparate social media channels, Facebook is popular. Some farmers still listen to ABC Radio, some read The Land newspaper, popular in NSW but less so in other parts. Some read Country Life, which is popular in Queensland.

In other words, the way farmers receive their information is very fractured so it is very difficult to reach them easily; I’m not sure we will ever, really, solve that problem. Rumours, misunderstandings, half-truths abounded. We recommended the Federal Government establish a one-stop information portal for farmers. They did that by creating Farm Hub, in a joint venture with the National Farmers Federation. It was designed by farmers and written in farmer language. Users are able to find almost anything that is available and relevant to farmers from government programmes, to national representative bodies, to charities. I hope it is something that lives on for a number of years.

There is a second point to communicating with farmers. Most farmers I spoke to say that the climate is changing. They’ll have records that are broadly consistent with the available science. I think there is less agreement amongst them on the cause, but that wasn’t something that bothered them much; that the climate was changing and how they would respond was what they focussed on. Yet I found climate change was a very sensitive topic in farming communities and farmers were reluctant to speak about it in “public forum”. It was common for me to meet with 10, 12 or 20 farmers, but in those sorts of forums they didn’t want to talk much about climate change. In our society we seem to have segregated people into “believers” in climate change and “deniers”. These are the sort of descriptions we normally reserve for discussion about religion. Farmers were looking for less emotionally charged conversations about climate and were not confident it could be found in public forums, so they avoided discussing it.

I spoke to farmers about regenerative farming and most, privately, agree on the need to manage the Holy Trinity of soil, water and vegetation, and some add biodiversity in there as well. Yet in public forums, when the subject of regenerative farming was raised, I saw that most farmers would look away. Many felt that they were about to be subjected to a sermon; regenerative farming was the best and only way of the future. When you have a combination of language that judges people by putting them into groups of “believer” or “denier”, and when people have great ideas, but the way in which they articulate them feels like sermonising, then it is difficult to get your message across. Communicating with farmers requires not only good science, but appropriate articulation as well. It is an area where we need to spend more time to understand.


In Part Two of this feature interview Major General Day will discuss steps that will need to be taken to prepare for future droughts.




About the Interviewee:

Major General Stephen Day brought extensive experience in leadership, governance and strategy to his role as Coordinator General for Drought. He has commanded and led at every level from Lieutenant to Major General, planning, managing and leading complex operations in highly challenging and changeable environments. He has been on operational service in Namibia, East Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan.

General Day helped plan and negotiate the transfer of security responsibility from coalition forces to the sovereign Government of Iraq. He coordinated the implementation of the Federal Government’s $1.6 billion program to improve the protection of Australian forces serving in the Middle East. And he led work on a strategy to guide the Australian Defence Force over the next 25 years.

He established a reputation as a distinguished and compassionate leader and has been formally recognised for his leadership where he was presented the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) and was made a Member of the Order of Australia (AM). He has been twice made an Officer of the United States Legion of Merit and is an Officer of The French Order of National Merit.

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