RURAL AFFAIRS: by Tim CannonNews Weekly
Minister confronted by drought's human toll
, November 8, 2008
The tragic impact of drought on rural families has been acknowledged in a recent government report. Tim Cannon reports.The tragic impact of drought on farm families and rural communities has been highlighted in a recent report by a Federal Government-appointed "expert social panel".
Commissioned by the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Mr Tony Burke, the report, entitled It's About People: Changing Perspectives on Dryness
, revealed in an unprecedented way the pressures felt by farming families in the grip of a drought now into its seventh year.
While the report was commissioned to assist the Government in understanding the challenges currently faced by farming communities, the process of consultation also had the effect of helping drought-stricken farming families themselves come to terms with the personal impact of drought.Difficult circumstances
Speaking on ABC radio, Mr Burke noted that as "[the] panel went around Australia ... for example, a father found out how difficult the circumstances [of] his son were in while his son was giving evidence to the committee".
He said: "They had been asked many times how the drought affected their farm business [and] how the drought affected productivity.
"Consistently the panel was told this was the first time anyone had gone to them and said, how does the drought affect you? How does it affect your family?
"From those sorts of stories we realise that in many ways it is not just that people weren't telling enquiries; they often weren't telling each other." (ABC News
, October 23, 2008).
Indeed, the report notes that the inability of many farmers to fully comprehend the personal toll of living under drought conditions has often exacerbated the pressure. Many male farmers insist that they are coping with the harsh conditions, while failing to recognise that the coping mechanisms they employ have adverse effects on their families.
The report seeks in particular to look beyond the economic and industrial challenges of agriculture in Australia and, in doing so, identifies a culture under immense personal strain. Many families affected by drought have been forced to separate, as women are forced off farms to find alternative sources of income, often with young children in tow.
Another typical response to the drought is for boys in farming families to leave school early to try and relieve some of the pressure faced by their parents. It was distinctive in the agricultural industry, noted Mr Burke, to see "young boys being willing to forego education and their parents being willing often to endure some fairly, fairly extreme hardship, even when every economic sense might say it is time to make a different decision".
The minister commended this determination to stay on the land as being worth preserving, suggesting that Government policy "should aim to help rural families with their planning and preparation during the good times to make sure that those sorts of dreams of generation after generation staying on the land are dreams that will always be part of the future of Australia's landscape".
As the report shows, pressures faced by farmers and their families inevitably weaken the fabric of rural towns and communities. With little money to spend, and forced to invest more time working the farm, farming families are unable to keep local economies ticking.
Rural community initiatives, including sporting and social clubs, which often depend on the voluntary work of local community members, disappear when the agricultural community no longer has the time or resources to participate.
In addressing these issues, the report recommends a move away from crisis-based drought relief, and towards a policy of long-term drought protection, by providing incentives and assistance to farmers so that they can make use of productive seasons to better prepare for future drought conditions.
Given the report's personal emphasis, it recommends a policy which not only assists farmers in planning for the operational challenges posed by drought, but also helps farmers to plan for the personal needs of themselves and their families, including in health care and education.
Some farmers have criticised the report, which recommends tying future government assistance to more efficient farm management. One farmer protested, "We already are efficient... you have to be efficient to survive. That's self-evident."
Having endured the drought for seven years, he felt that the report's recommendations were out of touch, saying, "I'd love to get them out here and sit them down so they can learn what it's like." ("Drought farmer aid to get strings attached", The Australian
, October 24).
Given the report's heavy focus on consultation with the farming community, it will be interesting to see whether the resulting government policy will provide real relief from the debilitating personal pressures which the drought has created.- Tim Cannon works as a research officer with the Thomas More Centre, Melbourne.