The drought afflicting Australia’s Eastern Seaboard grows worse. Forecasters provide no reason to be optimistic about substantial rains this coming summer, or even beyond. What began as a big problem for our farmers has become a crisis for them, for too many rural communities and indeed, for the Nation.
The line between alarmist predictions and alerting people to the potential calamity we now face, is a fine one. It’s easy to believe it will rain because it always does, eventually. But what if it doesn’t? Or not much? At what point in time do you concede it might not rain, and act accordingly? I believe that time is now.
Generals don’t wait for the battle to begin before drafting their battle plan. They know what the potential scenarios are and they have a strategy for each of them, well in advance of war. They also develop strategies for shaping dynamic situations. Sadly, sometimes they have to decide what must be defended to the last man, and what cannot be.
Our Government has no formal drought scenarios document, no battle plan, and no strategic responses. The Morrison Government is not entirely without responses – to suggest so would be unfair. But to the best of our knowledge there is no national, overarching strategic plan.
This is a problem because it may be that we are facing a challenge akin to a war-time situation; a scenario which could require substantially more government investment, the movement of people and animals, and the deployment of every applicable emergency service and defence asset. If we don’t secure meaningful rain over the next two years, we may be taking people to water rather water to people. New dams can’t help under this scenario because they can’t be built overnight and in the absence of rain, they’ll sit empty. That horse has already bolted.
This is why Labor has proposed a “Drought Cabinet”, a body modelled on the “War Cabinets” chaired by Menzies, Curtin and Churchill in the United Kingdom. If hard decisions need to be made, it’s best they be taken on a bipartisan basis, just as they were in the dark days of the Second World War.
We know there is a limit on how much a government can invest but it must be substantial because the cost of inaction will be much greater. We know that under the worst case scenario – let’s say little rain in three years – there’ll be some things the Government can do and some things it won’t be able to do. There may also be some staple and essential agricultural products that must be saved, and some not so crucial.
One person who knows a bit about battles and crises response is Major General Stephen Day. To his credit, Malcolm Turnbull recruited the senior and respected military officer to be the Coordinator-General for Drought. I had a number of conversations with General Day and was impressed with the thought, energy and commitment he brought to the task. What did he conclude were the likely scenarios and correct responses to this drought? We don’t know because the Morrison Government refuses to release his final report, and we don’t know
why. Maybe there is a secret battle plan. I hope so but there is little to suggest it.
For six years the Government has worked with the idea that “every day is a day closer to rain”. It’s a courageous optimism you will find in almost every farmer. But our Prime Minister’s responsibilities extend well beyond any one farm gate. It’s a heavy burden to carry and Labor has reached across the aisle in an attempt to lighten the load and to reduce the political risk inherent in such a challenging task.
For the good of the Country, he should take up Anthony Albanese’s offer and form a Drought Cabinet.
This piece was first published in the Australian Financial Review, Wednesday 23 October, 2019.