It is uncertain how long the current drought will continue, but both climate change and a global economy are with us for the long term. It is past time for us, as a country, to start making some hard choices about the future of the bush.
First, we must recognise that the drought hurts many businesses other than farming. Second, we must recognise that there is a lot more to rural and regional Australia than farming, particularly if we are genuinely committed to looking for ways to encourage more of our population to live outside the capital cities and away from the coast.
The sad truth is that there are many farms across the country that will not survive the next decade. The real choice here is not which “fightin’ words” politicians should choose in dealing with their own short-term political difficulties, such as pledges not to lose a single farm. The real choice is whether ten years’ time sees those farmers established in other jobs or areas, rather than sitting in the barren ruins of their fields or pastures.
John Howard’s statement that farmers have a special place in the psyche of Australians runs the risk of letting sentimentality freeze our nation, or our farmers, in a situation with no future. Farmers have played an important role in our nation’s history. Unfortunately not all of them will be able to continue that role into the future.
The longer we avoid this reality, the more people are at risk of being hurt through staying on too long in economically or environmentally unviable situations. This is no different to what many other Australians have had to face in recent decades with the decline in the manufacturing sector and other industries.
The suggestion to move farmers up north is equally devoid of reality and fails any test of having learnt from our past mistakes. The only reason Australia is on target to meet its Kyoto target is because we have stopped cutting down trees, which we would have to start doing again if farmers moved up north, not to mention the detrimental impacts farming would have on the biodiversity assets of the north.
Accusing those who raise concerns about the viability of a never ending stream of government emergency assistance packages of being “anti-farmer” is not only intellectually dishonest, it will start to risk community division if it is taken much further.
Almost all Australians are prepared to help people in need get through a tight spot, and there is still widespread public support for farmers. However, there is a threshold where this can start to turn to resentment at perceptions of favoured treatment, and I fear we may be getting close to that mark.
The Prime Minister’s statement that “If ever a country in a strong financial position owed something to some of its citizens, this nation owes to the farmers of Australia the support they need to get through this terrible drought” runs the risk of farmers being seen to be placed ahead of other groups of citizens who also have justifiable grievances and who also could claim to have a special part in our sense of nationhood.
Veterans and ex-service personnel who suffer as a direct consequence of their service to our nation is an obvious group that springs to mind, as are Indigenous Australians who on average have a life 17 years shorter than the rest of us.
The costs of climate change will be far-reaching and all of us will be called upon to alter our daily habits - how dramatically depends on the importance, energy and resources we devote to abating climate change now, and getting Australia onto a sustainable footing as quickly as possible.
Drought assistance is appropriate, but we should also use this opportunity to fund farmers in the transition to practices that will see out the next century, not just the current dry period. This includes recognising now that some farms and some crops are simply not realistic in some areas of Australia.
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