The lack of rainfall across NSW, which has led to $1 billion in farmer assistance from the state government, isn’t a severe drought by historical standards, according to a climate expert.
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian claimed last week that 99 per cent of the state was in drought and “there isn’t a single community that isn’t feeling the pinch when it comes to the drought”.
Experts say that there is no official drought definition and it often depends on how long a region has been without rain.
Although this has been a particularly dry winter in NSW, over the past three years rainfall has been average across most of the state and some parts of Western and South Australia have recorded record rain, according to the Bureau of Meteorology.
NSW announces emergency drought response funding
“A failed season here or there is not really a drought for me,” said Anthony Kiem, a hydrologist at the University of Newcastle. “For me a drought is not really a drought until it has persisted for three or four years. In Australia we have droughts all the time.”
The lack of rain has led to heavy media coverage of the plight of some farmers, creating political pressure for assistance. The NSW government last week said it would subsidise the transport of livestock, water and feed, and pay councils to fix roads.
“This drought has caught some people out,” said Niall Blair, the NSW Minister for Primary Industries. “In some places no-one can even remember not having a winter crop before.”
Some farmers say the measures are designed to help the Coalition win next year’s state election.
“Drought is not a function of climatic condition,” said Ed Colless, a crop farmer at Walgett in northern NSW. “It’s the climax of a political condition.”
A drought policy expert at the University of Canberra, Linda Botterill, questioned why the NSW subsidies aren’t being means tested. The Department of Primary Industries confirmed that farmers who earned $10 million last year would be allowed to claim $20,000 cash back for transport costs.
Professor Botterill also asked why there was no requirement for farmers to access money held in officially sanctioned tax shelters before receiving extra government assistance.
There is around $6.6 billion of these shelters, which aren’t taxed until the money is withdrawn, allowing farmers and other primary producers to smooth their income over time and reduce their income taxes.
Last week Ms Berejiklian offered $190 million for transport subsidies, $110 million in waiving state charges, and $150 million for the Farm Innovation Fund, which offers farmers cheap loans to build water tanks, fences, storage sheds, plant trees and install solar panels, and other measures designed to make farms more profitable over the longer term.
The federal government has said that it is providing farm communities with $1.3 billion in assistance.
Federal Agriculture Minister David Littleproud successfully pressured the Commonwealth Bank of Australia to grant credits to business loans based on deposits held in the tax shelters, which are known as farm management deposits.
After the minister said “they’ve made a lot of money out of agriculture and it’s now time to give back”, the bank said on Friday it would provide a “credit adjustment” on business loans for last financial year.
Policy in haste
Experts have long said that drought policy shouldn’t be developed during droughts because the political pressure to bail out farmers is too great to resist, prolonging farms that should be allowed to go broke or sold.
“These are previously recurring episodes and they have been recurring for all of Australia’s past,” said Tom Nordblom, an agricultural economist at Charles Sturt University in Wagga.
A national drought strategy designed to treat lack of rainfall as a regular feature of farming fell apart under the Gillard and Abbott governments. Last week the Labor opposition promised to renew a federal-state agreement on drought relief if elected.
In most places hit by low rainfall in NSW farmers have missed out on one or two crops. But many farmers see droughts as a normal phenomenon and accept they may have to go several years without income.
“We make 80 per cent of our cash flow in 20 per cent of our years,” Mr Colless said.
Climate scientists say Australia has suffered three main droughts: the Federation drought in the late 1800s and early 1990s, the World War II drought from 1935 to 1945, and the Millennium drought in the late 1990s to 2010.