Will an urbanised and increasingly coastal-dwelling Australian
population be willing to bail out farmers suffering hardship in years to
come? The question has been raised by social analysts who point out that
the bush is no longer the determinant of Australian culture. The suburbs
are. And, increasingly, the developing 'coastal culture' identified by
demographer Bernard Salt, and confirmed in the 2001 census, will be.
This means that the sympathy shown to farmers suffering drought, flood
and bushfire could decline. Increasingly, urban people ask why they should
bail out farmers suffering misfortune when other businesses in the same
situation do not (the automobile industry is an exception). After all,
farmers choose a rural life and participation in an industry subject to
the whims of nature.
Distasteful though some might find questioning the orthodoxy that
farmers are somehow the backbone of the Australian nation (that role
started to decline with the onset of postwar industrialisation in the
early 1950s) I must admit to being surprised when I first encountered the
idea that they should no longer be bailed out of difficulty. That was when
I read a letter to the editor in the Sydney Morning Herald some
years ago in which the writer, a city dweller, was complaining about
government largesse to farmers. His argument was that farmers choose a
life on the land but why, with the climatic difficulties of rural
Australia now well known, should they receive assistance when conditions
detoriorate when other do not?
Farmers garner public sympathy by playing on the passe and romantic
notions of their role in Australian culture. Fading those notions might
be, it is clear that there is still some mileage in the mythology even
though it bears little resemblance to contemporary Australia.
But is this public sympathy soon to end? Summarising the questioning of
supplying assistance to farmers recently was the somewhat right-wing Sydney
Morning Herald columist (and youthful London anarchist, many decades
ago), Paddy McGuinness. In an article entitled "Farm support:
remember the lie of the land" (SMH 8.10.02), Paddy alluded to the
fact that farmers receive a type of welfare through government handouts
and public donations that are not available to other deserving
"Here we go again," Paddy writes. "Once again there
is grandiose talk of ‘drought-proofing’ Australian agriculture... Not
to mention vast amounts of relief to farmers who have been and will, most
of them, be in the future better off than the recipients of welfare in the
cities ... They (the farmers) work hard but stupid. Then they put out
their hands to their brethren in the cities to help them out and preserve
their equity in the farm. In the longer term it would be kinder to give
them a hand to sell their equity and move into another industry. It would
also be fairer to the genuinely poor."
For Paddy, farmers have failed to adapt their management and financial
practices to the reality of the Australian continent:
"Surely we have learnt by now that the pattern of rainfall in
our country is cyclical, affected by factors such as the El Nino
phenomenon, and drought is as much a fact of life every few years as flood
and bushfires ... There is a basic underlying factor in the periodic
convulsions of our agricultural and pastoral industries. This is the
chronic undercapitalisation of most farms. There are many farmers in the
middle of the drought-affected areas right now who are doing all right,
not suffering at all, because they have sufficient capital to ride out the
fluctuations of the weather, which are not annual but which come at
irregular intervals and often last for several years. These are the
farmers who have gone into the business with their eyes open and aware of
what our weather is like and act in anticipation of the duration of any
period of drought... The trouble is that many of our farmers are obsessed
with their family history on the land but have never had a serious
conversation with a financial adviser who understands the environment."
Surprisingly, Paddy – usually a severe critic – credits
environmentalists with being right about the nature of the continent's
climate. "Why is it that we listen credulously with gaping mouths to
environmentalists when they talk apocalyptic science fiction and ignore
them when they are demonstrably right?" he asks. His remarks were
reinforced by an article by Herald economics writer, Ross Gittins, a day
later. Gittins said that giving handouts to farmers was a great way to
encourage them to repeat their economic mismanagement and environmental
A changing culture
Paddy's critical remarks most likely represent a growing but largely
silent body of opinion in the cities. They are indicative of the
demographic change Australia is going through, change which will continue
through at least the first half of the 21st century. This is
demographic changes that is now giving rise to the increasing urbanisation
and 'coastalisation' of our culture and which will increasingly reflect
the economic reality of the country, that knowledge-based industries are
the money spinners of the future.
There's another strand of thought that proposes that subsidies only be
provided to farmers prepared to adapt their agricultural practices to the
climate and to the periodic swings it goes through, from flood to drought.
The notion of 'sustainable' agriculture has been with us for a couple
decades now and some changes have been made. Yet many farmers have not
changed and continue to use agricultural methods no longer appropriate to
the realities of our country.
Agriculture, of course, will not go away. We need to eat although an
increasingly large portion of our diet is produced by farmers in other
countries. But it must be asked: should the increasingly urban Australian
public bail out farmers yet again, or should public money reward those
farmers converting to farming systems more in tune with the vagaries of
the Australian climate and those introducing new,
environmentally-sustainable cropping and animal systems? It is my
assertion that we should support the innovative, not those welded to the
practices and attitudes of the past.
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