I couldn't help imagining my local bum's plaintive "spare change" request when I saw Ben Fargher (now there's an unfortunate surname), CEO of the National Farmer's Federation on the telly last night. He was talking doom and gloom, food price rises and the collapse of civilisation as we know it due to the drought. The (ABC) news then switched to pictures of parched fields with the voice-over talking about how this farmer's cotton couldn't be planted. Cotton? WTF?
The farming lobby has skillfully played on Australians' delusional self-image of being country folk for years, winning torrents of corporate welfare for themselves in the process. In reality we're one of the most concentrated urban societies in the world. You can be absolutely sure the farmers will win some more handouts in the latest drought.
The thing is, why should farming be treated like any other business? The biggest landowners in Australia are actually giant agribusinesses, hardly the image of the hard working battling cocky. Of course you won't see images of business suited agribusiness chairmen sitting around boardroom tables in anything put out by the farming lobby. Instead we'll see the Akubra-wearing cocky propping up the gate on his parched patch of dirt.
Now if I were to set up a little corner shop without doing my homework and discover there's no demand in the area for what I'm selling, I wouldn't expect a government handout when the business failed. Why is farming any different? Any business should do its research into market conditions, and for farming the climatic conditions would be one of the most important aspects. Anyone who couldn't see the writing on the wall for farming at least twenty years ago really hasn't been paying attention.
What's more, we farm absolutely ridiculous crops for our climate. What the hell are we doing growing insanely water-intensive crops like cotton and rice in this country?
The problem with further handouts to farmers is that it actively encourages poor farming patterns. Instead of penalising bad decisions, which is what our free-market government claims to want, we reward them by bailing them out every time Australia's climate turns for the worse. What's more, this pattern effectively penalises those farmers who have changed their methods to be more in tune with our climate, since they're not eligible for the handouts.
If the farmers' methods were rational, they'd be able to use standard market mechanisms like insurance and hedging (paid during the good years) instead of relying on the public purse.
Farming in Australia, and anywhere for that matter, will always be a somewhat risky occupation. But most businesses have important variables that are way out of their control, so why should farming be treated any differently?
Any handouts given during the current drought should be tied to radical changes in our farming methods. In many cases that means abandoning the most marginal lands. Don't expect these kinds of hard decisions to be made by any of the geniuses vying to win the election this year though.