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Time for the cities to stop bailing out farmers

By Russ Grayson - posted Monday, 4 November 2002

Will an urbanised and increasingly coastal-dwelling Australian population be willing to bail out farmers suffering hardship in years to come? The question has been raised by social analysts who point out that the bush is no longer the determinant of Australian culture. The suburbs are. And, increasingly, the developing 'coastal culture' identified by demographer Bernard Salt, and confirmed in the 2001 census, will be.

This means that the sympathy shown to farmers suffering drought, flood and bushfire could decline. Increasingly, urban people ask why they should bail out farmers suffering misfortune when other businesses in the same situation do not (the automobile industry is an exception). After all, farmers choose a rural life and participation in an industry subject to the whims of nature.

Distasteful though some might find questioning the orthodoxy that farmers are somehow the backbone of the Australian nation (that role started to decline with the onset of postwar industrialisation in the early 1950s) I must admit to being surprised when I first encountered the idea that they should no longer be bailed out of difficulty. That was when I read a letter to the editor in the Sydney Morning Herald some years ago in which the writer, a city dweller, was complaining about government largesse to farmers. His argument was that farmers choose a life on the land but why, with the climatic difficulties of rural Australia now well known, should they receive assistance when conditions detoriorate when other do not?


Farmers garner public sympathy by playing on the passe and romantic notions of their role in Australian culture. Fading those notions might be, it is clear that there is still some mileage in the mythology even though it bears little resemblance to contemporary Australia.

But is this public sympathy soon to end? Summarising the questioning of supplying assistance to farmers recently was the somewhat right-wing Sydney Morning Herald columist (and youthful London anarchist, many decades ago), Paddy McGuinness. In an article entitled "Farm support: remember the lie of the land" (SMH 8.10.02), Paddy alluded to the fact that farmers receive a type of welfare through government handouts and public donations that are not available to other deserving Australians.

"Here we go again," Paddy writes. "Once again there is grandiose talk of ‘drought-proofing’ Australian agriculture... Not to mention vast amounts of relief to farmers who have been and will, most of them, be in the future better off than the recipients of welfare in the cities ... They (the farmers) work hard but stupid. Then they put out their hands to their brethren in the cities to help them out and preserve their equity in the farm. In the longer term it would be kinder to give them a hand to sell their equity and move into another industry. It would also be fairer to the genuinely poor."

For Paddy, farmers have failed to adapt their management and financial practices to the reality of the Australian continent:

"Surely we have learnt by now that the pattern of rainfall in our country is cyclical, affected by factors such as the El Nino phenomenon, and drought is as much a fact of life every few years as flood and bushfires ... There is a basic underlying factor in the periodic convulsions of our agricultural and pastoral industries. This is the chronic undercapitalisation of most farms. There are many farmers in the middle of the drought-affected areas right now who are doing all right, not suffering at all, because they have sufficient capital to ride out the fluctuations of the weather, which are not annual but which come at irregular intervals and often last for several years. These are the farmers who have gone into the business with their eyes open and aware of what our weather is like and act in anticipation of the duration of any period of drought... The trouble is that many of our farmers are obsessed with their family history on the land but have never had a serious conversation with a financial adviser who understands the environment."

Surprisingly, Paddy – usually a severe critic – credits environmentalists with being right about the nature of the continent's climate. "Why is it that we listen credulously with gaping mouths to environmentalists when they talk apocalyptic science fiction and ignore them when they are demonstrably right?" he asks. His remarks were reinforced by an article by Herald economics writer, Ross Gittins, a day later. Gittins said that giving handouts to farmers was a great way to encourage them to repeat their economic mismanagement and environmental destruction.


A changing culture

Paddy's critical remarks most likely represent a growing but largely silent body of opinion in the cities. They are indicative of the demographic change Australia is going through, change which will continue through at least the first half of the 21st century. This is demographic changes that is now giving rise to the increasing urbanisation and 'coastalisation' of our culture and which will increasingly reflect the economic reality of the country, that knowledge-based industries are the money spinners of the future.

There's another strand of thought that proposes that subsidies only be provided to farmers prepared to adapt their agricultural practices to the climate and to the periodic swings it goes through, from flood to drought. The notion of 'sustainable' agriculture has been with us for a couple decades now and some changes have been made. Yet many farmers have not changed and continue to use agricultural methods no longer appropriate to the realities of our country.

Agriculture, of course, will not go away. We need to eat although an increasingly large portion of our diet is produced by farmers in other countries. But it must be asked: should the increasingly urban Australian public bail out farmers yet again, or should public money reward those farmers converting to farming systems more in tune with the vagaries of the Australian climate and those introducing new, environmentally-sustainable cropping and animal systems? It is my assertion that we should support the innovative, not those welded to the practices and attitudes of the past.

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About the Author

Russ Grayson has a background in journalism and in aid work in the South Pacific. He has been editor of an environmental industry journal, a freelance writer and photographer for magazines and a writer and editor of training manuals for field staff involved in aid and development work with villagers in the Solomon Islands.

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