The failure of autumn and winter rains across much of eastern Australia, particularly New South Wales and inland Queensland, is causing deep distress for many thousands of farming families, and the communities in which they live.
For many farmers, this is the time when most of their annual rainfall occurs so, effectively, it means that there has been no significant rainfall since 2017. Moreover, the Bureau of Meteorology has forecast an el Niño event, meaning there may be no relief until 2019 at the earliest.
Paddocks that are normally green at this time of year are dustbowls, creeks have not flowed and many dams are either empty or dangerously low. One sign of the crisis is the record number of sheep and cattle in country saleyards.
We also have visits to country areas by politicians rarely seen outside Canberra and the capital cities, announcing new relief packages on affected farms, always accompanied by television crews and the rest of the media pack. No surprises there!
However necessary drought relief may be to meet an emergency situation, it obscures the chronic problem facing rural families, which is that, after meeting running expenses, repayment of interest on bank loans and compulsory payments to banks, most farms have no net income.
Many rely on off-farm income as school bus drivers or contractors to keep their heads above water. Even wives and children are away working in nearby towns.
What this means is that most of the farmers who produce the food we eat, and the wheat, wool, cotton and beef we export, are actually working for nothing.
Such conditions elsewhere ‘intolerable’
This would be regarded as utterly intolerable in any other sector of society, but is apparently acceptable for rural Australia.
This is never discussed in the city media, and rarely heard on country radio or TV programs. The closest they come to it is to highlight the fact that the lowest income levels are found in rural Australia; which also sees high levels of psychiatric illness, including suicides. But the deeper causes are never examined.
The chronic crisis facing families in rural Australia is the main reason why there is a lack of financial resilience in the face of the droughts that are a recurring feature of Australia’s history.
It is often said that farmers must prepare for droughts, as they must prepare for floods and bushfires. Many do so through maintaining emergency supplies of grain and fodder, and have put dams into all paddocks. But without at least some years of profitable farming, it is impossible to put anything aside for bad times.
Perhaps the momentary media interest the drought has caused will prompt some attention to solutions that would alleviate the deeper problems facing our rural communities.
Throughout most of the 20th century in Australia, governments, aware of the vagaries of farming, assisted through the provision of statutory marketing bodies that ensured that some rural industries, including grain and dairy, were not exploited. But governments of all political persuasions have abandoned these supports in pursuit of the free market economic agenda.
It is interesting to note that Australia’s major trading partners – the United States, the European Union and Japan – all vigorously support their rural industries and communities, usually through direct subsidies, which are anathema in Australia at present.
The multibillion-dollar U.S. Farm Bill, the Common Agricultural Policy of the EU, and Japan’s New Basic Law on Food, Agriculture and Rural Areas, are all designed to ensure the sustainability of agriculture, and the provision of income support for farm operations.
In the long term, if Australia’s primary industries are to survive and thrive, we will have to look at the policies that have been shown to work in comparable countries overseas, and apply similar measures in Australia.
But many things can still be done to deal with the underlying financial crisis in rural Australia.
Governments should make unemployment benefits available to farmers whose net income falls to zero, providing a safety net to prevent them, and their families, falling further into poverty.
Separately, banks and other financial institutions should be required to provide a moratorium to farmers in declared drought-affected areas on capital and interest repayments.
It is unconscionable that financial institutions should not have to share the burden of drought and other natural disasters that affect their customers.
If this were done, it would also encourage more prudent lending by banks and financial institutions that rely on the fact that, if farmers fall behind in their debt or capital repayments, regardless of circumstances, they can foreclose and recover their money though selling the farm asset.
Relentless financial pressure is the main cause of psychiatric illness in farming families, and no amount of money provided for counselling – a favourite solution offered by governments – will solve the crisis.
If the current drought leads to changes to resolve the chronic crisis of agriculture, something good can come from the farmers’ suffering.
Peter Westmore is publisher of News Weekly.