Image: Wheat paddock near Wangaratta, Victoria, circa 1920s. Loans for seed wheat are one of the ways that Australian governments have assisted drought-affected farmers. Photo courtesy of Margaret Pullen.
In May 1989, the Labor government appointed an independent Drought Policy Review Task Force to identify policy options that would encourage Australian primary producers to adopt self-reliant approaches to drought management. The result, three years later, was a National Drought Policy which for the first time defined drought as part of the ‘normal’ farming experience.
This policy was acclaimed as a fundamental shift in government responses to drought.
Once again in February this year, Coalition Prime Minister Tony Abbott called his government’s drought support package ‘rather different’ to what had been offered by previous governments. Yet this package’s mix of support for ‘managing and recovering from periods of hardship’ and assistance in ‘preparedness and future planning’ is the approach that the Drought Review Task Force tried to change.
Commonwealth and state year books show that Australian governments have never simply given farmers money when droughts bite hard. The key features of the 1992 National Drought Policy and the 2014 drought relief package – an expectation of risk management, productivity growth, structural adjustment and self-reliance – have all been in evidence through more than 100 years of government response to drought in Australia.
From the Seed Advances Act in 1896 and the Advances to Settlers Act 1899 to the Rural Credit and Community Settlement Scheme in the 1920s, the Farmers Advances Acts of the 1930s and Rural Reconstruction Scheme of the 1970s, drought was considered as only one of the circumstances which made farmers eligible for credit. Even when support was specifically described as ‘relief’, such as in the Farmers Relief Acts of the 1930s and the Drought Relief Acts of the 1940s to 1960s, financial assistance was mainly in the form of loans.
Such loans were made with the long-term success of the farm in mind. The ‘main function’ of the Rural Reconstruction Board, established in 1939, was ‘to assist in restoring to a sound basis farmers in financial difficulties who [were] deemed to have reasonable prospects of carrying on’. Similarly in the 1960s, the Commonwealth Development Bank assessed loan applications on the basis of the borrower’s prospects of success rather than the amount of security that could be provided.
Actual cash advances have always been rare and they too favoured viable farms – in the 1920s cash advances were made only in exceptional circumstances and were more likely to be given when they ‘encourage[d] better farming methods’. Cash payments to farmers and their families through social security, introduced in the 1960s, co-existed – and still do – with tax incentives that encourage those farmers to invest in future drought mitigation. Together, welfare and taxation are another example of state and federal governments’ drought responses that include both reactive compensation in the face of adverse financial circumstances and assistance directed at restructuring and refocussing agricultural practice.
And this inconsistent approach in government response has been the consistent case for more than 100 years, despite the efforts begun by the Drought Policy Review Task Force in May 1989.
Dr Karen Downing is working with Dr Rebecca Jones on the Australian Research Council funded project ‘Slow Catastrophes: drought resilience amongst farmers and agricultural communities in Australia, 1880s-2000s’.