It was with a weary feeling of déjà vu that I heard on ABC Radio National this morning that we are to have a new agricultural assistance policy to replace the Drought Exceptional Circumstances framework, a new policy that will emphasise encouraging farmers to be prepared for drought rather provision of assistance after disaster strikes.
Wear déjà vu because that is exactly what we thought we had achieved in the Department of Primary Industries and Energy in 1997, the second year of the Howard Government. After months of hard work and inter-departmental consultation by folks like Ken Matthews and Vanessa Tripp, National Party Leader and Minister for Primary Industries and Energy John Anderson put a submission to Cabinet which emphasised farmers accepting more responsibility for managing the risks involved in a business which is by definition prone to the vagaries of the weather and to natural disasters. The leitmotif of the submission was that farming is a business, not a lifestyle choice, and managing the business is in the first instance up to the farmer. Accordingly, the focus of Commonwealth policy would be on creating financial instruments which would enable farmers to even out their highly variable income from year to year, assisting marginal farmers off the land, and providing training and counselling for those who were forced to move off their farms.
One of the stellar achievements (we thought) was that Cabinet agreed that we would no longer be in the business of providing interest rate subsidies, spectacularly bad public policy which disproportionately channels funds to the most highly indebted farmers, some of whom should no doubt be assisted to move off the land rather than being assisted to remain on it.
Unfortunately this part of the package was blown away by President John Howard when it faced its first test. I say President because Prime Ministers are as their name suggests first among equals, people who run a Cabinet and consult their colleagues before making any important decision, after giving their colleagues due notice and giving them time to obtain advice from their departments; Presidents don’t need to bother with all that bureaucratic stuff, they get things done, they just issue Executive Orders.
Soon after the policy was adopted President Howard donned his Akubra and his elastic sided boots and went off to survey flood damage on the Namoi – in the heart of John Anderson’s electorate of Gwydir. At his caring and concerned best he spoke on camera to a local farmer and asked him how the Government could best help him. “We are really going to need an interest rate subsidy” said the farmer. “Done” said President Howard, with John Anderson standing at his side.
So we were back in the business of interest rate subsidies, but now we are going to change all that.
La plus ça change, la plus le même chose.