The PM opened the gates to drought reform today, but he’ll have to reign his horses in after they bolted off in different directions.
Scott Morrison unveiled his $5 billion Future Drought Fund at Old Parliament House in Canberra today, pledging $100 million in annual payments for in-drought support and resilience from 2020.
The PM and his Deputy PM, Nationals Leader Michael McCormack outlined a long-term approach to drought policy. They spoke about a need for new infrastructure, agricultural research and building resilience in regional communities.
Mr Morrison said he called the summit to get stakeholders “on the same page” to support communities and businesses, and to respond to climate variability.
“The drought future fund will provide a sustainable source of funding for drought resilience works preparedness and recovery,” Mr Morrison said.
“Dealing with drought and a changing climate is a top priority for our government.”
However, Drought Envoy Barnaby Joyce emphasised the ongoing need for ongoing public subsidies.
“It’s adirector public good to keep people on the land,” Mr Joyce said. He compared to government-supported public transport in urban areas.
Meanwhile, state and national farm groups have highlighted a need for national drought policy, and plans to address increasing climate variability.
They’re responding to advice such as that provided by the Bureau of Meteorology, which warned attendees that the drought is yet to peak in eastern Australia, and Mr Morrison announced an additional $100m in in-drought support measures:
The National Farmers’ Federation has led a push for measures such as farm income insurance, an extension of the existing government incentives for on-farm investment in drought preparation and mitigation, and an intergovernmental agreement to move away from ad-hoc drought policy initiatives and get the states pulling in the same direction.
BoM director of meteorology Dr Andrew Johnson said average temperatures for eastern Australia between January and October were the third hottest on record, and forecast the heat would persist into the new year, exacerbating the already record-low soil moisture levels.
ABARES executive director Steve Hatfield-Dodds warned that in drought support measure risk creating subsidy dependence and undermining preparedness and longer-term climate change adaptation.
Drought summit attendees entered a roundtable discussion over lunch, attended by federal ministers, state premiers and agriculture ministers, community and farmer representatives, charities, bankers and bureaucrats.
Agriculture Minister David Littleproud praised the PM’s initiative before proceedings kicked off today, but was notably absent from official proceedings.
The PM will make a statement following the discussion.
Fairfax Agricultural Media reported plans to develop multi-peril farm income insurance would be announced, but it remains to be seen if plans for a national drought policy are canvassed today.
State governments, represented at the summit by premiers and primary industries ministers, only got their first look at the federal government’s new policy today. Much hinges on their response.
Already, Queensland Labor Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk criticised the timing of cash coming from the Drought Future Fund.
“Queensland has battled drought for six years. 2020 seems a bit far off when our farmers are struggling now,” Ms Palaszczuk said.
The federal government has committed $1.8b to the current drought effort.
Labor’s federal agricultural spokesman Joel Fitzgibbon said the summit was just a talkfest.
“The trouble is this is just an accounting trick, designed to generate a big dollar headline for the Government,” Mr Fitzgibbon said.
He compared the drought fund to the ‘Barnaby Bank’ – the Regional Investment Corporation established by former Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce – which had $2b committed to it, but is yet to issue the subsidised loans it was set to distribute.
The Drought Future Fund was modelled on the Medical Research Fund.
It is funded with money that sat idle after the Coalition walked away from Labor’s infrastructure initiative – the Building Australia Fund.
Farm representatives, rural charities and industry groups today welcomed the Future Fund and the praised the PM’s leadership on the drought response.
New in-drought support announced today
- $30m for charities to help families pay food and utility bills
- $50m for water infrastructure,
- $10m for mental health services
- Extending the drought communities program from 60 to 80 local councils