Bush Matters Op-Ed – “Drought: A War of Attrition”

3 April 2015

Drought forces the landholder to examine even their most basic order of beliefs:

That the family should be on the land; that a simple focus on good laws and good luck will lead to progress and prosperity; that years of research and billions of dollars to improve Australia’s land-use strategies are benefitting agriculture.

Drought throws once-tightly held beliefs and turns them into questions.

When driving through most parts of Central Western Queensland these days you could be forgiven for mistaking it for a moon landscape.

A flat and barren land covered with black dirt and red rocks scattered as far as the eye can see.

It is also an eerily quiet and lonely place, with about 25 per cent of my state of Queensland now completely de-stocked.

As an old timer farmer has said, “there’s not enough feed around to keep a lean goose alive.”

There is still an artificial oversupply in the cattle market due to the drought conditions, with graziers continuing to make the difficult decision to place excess breeding stock into the slaughter market and even the live export market.

The economic depression has seeped into the bush towns, with school numbers falling, shops closing and local council work stagnating.

Whenever there is a drought, rural Australia struggles to find the right words to explain to city people just how destructive it can become.

Wanting to remain independent and not looking for handouts, people in the bush try to manage as best they can and hope improved fortune is just a few downpours away.

Oftentimes, as the drought lingers, the city people lose interest in the issue altogether.

Drought is not an easy sell to the media – it does not provide the action-packed viewing of a cyclone, flood, fire or volcano.

Instead, watching grass grow (or disappear) is a slow grind. Drought is sometimes compared to a war. Every day is another struggle. All too often it is one long battle.

Last week I stood before my colleagues in the Federal Liberal-National joint party room in Canberra and tried to find the words to explain why the people in rural communities across my state were growing more desperate with each passing day without rain.

I tried to explain that rain, and plenty of it, might still be what the bush really needs right now.

But where and how any new batch of government assistance is focussed equally matters when determining whether the worst off can be saved from wreck and ruin.

It is a challenge to explain to people with little or no rural experience that drought recovery is not simply about grass in a paddock but also rebuilding a breeder herd, the frustrating wait for calves to be reared to generate cash flow and how to best plan to assist graziers pay off debt accrued during these bone dry years.

I must admit, I was not unhappy with the response from what is generally a tough crowd. But I also understand it is a long battle, a slow grind, to achieve further remedy for the bush.

In researching this column I came across a speech delivered in 1902 by another politician, W.N Willis, the member for the far-Western NSW parliament seat of Barwon.

Mr Willis’ address was delivered at a Melbourne town hall meeting, organised by the Lord Mayor at the height of the Federation drought (which our current drought has been compared to).

The meeting aimed to provide city people with an understanding of the impacts of the Federation drought.

But rather than go to deeply into the drought detail, Mr Willis began to rage about the fact there were only about 260 people in attendance, compared to 25,000 that attended a bicycle race in Melbourne a few days earlier.

He said there were lessons we needed to learn from the Federation drought. He spoke about how farmers needed to be better at explaining how droughts wreak destruction across the bush.

And yet, more than a century later, despite all our media capabilities in an information age, we are still finding it difficult to explain our message about drought and why the suburban shopper should pay more attention.

Climactic downturns will affect all our livestock regions at different points and it ultimately impacts on the farm gate prices of the entire nation, so it is in the best interests of our sector there is a coordinated approach to tackling the worst affected areas in this current drought.

But such a coordinated approach needs to include a strategy to better take our message to the major population centres.

City-dwellers should be included in the discussion so they understand that drought builds resilience in rural communities and a strong agriculture sector is a pillar that props up the wealth of the nation.

As one anonymous person wrote in a tribute to farmers in a letter to the editor in The Sydney Morning Herald in 1902:

The men who have fought the drought for the last five or six years have gained an experience that will be of lasting benefit to them and the State. They are veterans, have fought a good fight, and thoroughly deserve the fruits of victory.

The fruits of victory in the long battle against drought do not appear anywhere on the near horizon for graziers across the Central West.

But when they come through it, their tough experience will prove of lasting benefit to the nation.

In the meantime, more needs to be done to better equip these people. And we need to better explain this problem in the cities.

Because the people sitting on drought ravaged farms should not be left to think they have been forgotten.