October 18, 2019

Like a Bush Rat in the Scrub Python’s Embrace

Like a bush rat in the Scrub Python’s embrace, this week the rest of Australia woke up to find drought is choking the life out of us.

After years of “beating the drum”, I have mixed feelings about what has unfolded. Drought became this week’s crusade. It seems everyone had something to say. Some of it useful; a lot of it, less so. All of it was a bit late.

Drought is a Natural Disaster

Cyclone, flood, bushfire and storms - like drought - are all part of the natural cycle of Australian life. We recognise that the first four events can become so huge that they must be treated as natural disasters, especially in a modern context.

Any thoughtful person knows that drought is just as much a natural disaster as flood, fire and storm. The difference is that it creeps up on us because it unfolds over long time-scales. It is this difference that handicaps our response.

The Bush Rat Sees the Head but not the Tail

Like the poor old bush rat, who sees the snake’s head but not the tail, we have no reliable prediction of the length of a drought. So by the time we recognise the scale of the disaster, government responses are too late and too clumsy.

In 2015, I told the Queensland Parliament that this drought was of epic proportions – but I had no proof. I asked for specific responses and was not granted them; not even a Drought Appeal or drought response co-ordinator.

Reviews without Responses

Exactly a year ago today, I made a written submission to the Queensland Government’s independent panel reviewing Drought Relief Assistance. I was then invited to give testimony in person, which I gladly did. Nothing has come of it. It has sunk without a trace.

My submission covered many issues that western parts of Gregory were already contending with, as well as issues like stock route management which are not working as intended. But my key point was that drought be recognised as a natural disaster and that a Drought Scale be developed.

A Drought Scale? What Would that Change?

It would change everything because it would change the way we think about drought, plan for drought and administer to droughted communities.

Look at Cyclones

When Cyclone Tracy hit in 1974, northern Australia had no idea. Cyclone response was haphazard and as for preparations, we didn’t even have a building code that considered cyclones.

Today, when a Category 5 Cyclone crosses the coast, government – at federal, state and local levels - know from that ranking what response will be required. In other words, having a simple scale of the size of the event ensures the response is apolitical, and more robust because of that.

This is the key reason we are getting better and better at cyclone preparations. Today, we enforce a cyclone building code. We have public shelters. We have mobile power plants that help get water and power back on as quickly as possible. We have set protocols for evacuating aged care facilities. Emergency Departments in affected areas plan for injuries and loss of power. Even ports and airports have cyclone protocols they can trigger. The list goes on.

Bushfire rankings trigger practical responses

Bushfire rankings also trigger practical responses, like fire bans. When bushfire danger is catastrophic, all levels of government scale their preparations and relief appropriately. While we currently have a lot to do in regard to better bushfire preparation, at least we have a policy foundation.

Flooding too

The same can be observed in flood events – possibly the most precisely measured and predicted of our Aussie natural disasters. Our predictions include the size of the event and that triggers responses at all levels. And we have learned that in recovery, we should rebuild to mitigate, not just replace – be it roads, bridges, air-strips etc. We are also improving our flood mapping with each event.

So What Do We Do About Drought?

Well there is plenty we can and should be doing but at the moment legislators and administrators act as if it is just too hard to think about.

At the moment, we have an “all-or-nothing” system for droughts. You are either drought-declared or you are not. This means government response is much slower, clumsier and less useful than it should be.

Worse still, it triggers no practical response from landholders, bankers or even molasses suppliers.

How Do We Scale a Drought?

If we could devise a way of rating droughts – possibly combining measures of rainfall deficit with the length of time there has been a deficit - then we could prepare and respond agilely.

If we use the bushfire model, then drought rankings could trigger a series of practical responses as districts move through the rankings. For instance, landholders could be encouraged through freight subsidies to purchase silage when hay is cheap and plentiful.

When a district enters a Category 1 Drought, it would be a clear signal to protect pastures by using the silage. As the District’s drought moves up the scale it may trigger other practical responses like de-stocking and changes in government policy.

A Drought Scale Helps Us See the Full Impact

In cyclones, fire and flood, everyone recognises that local economies are at stake. Everyone realises that the personal lives of individuals become a daily struggle.

Apparently, this is not obvious with drought. If it was, then you would not see The Guardian reporting - as if it was a scandal - that Winton Council invested funding from the federal Droughted Communities program into staging the “Way Out West” festival.

This festival brought thousands of tourism dollars into the local economy. Furthermore, this investment has created a legacy event that will continue to help Winton prosper in good times and dry times.

This isn’t a scandal. This is smart.

The Challenge for Government

It is a challenge for government to get their response to drought right. Like everyone else, we can’t see the tail of the snake.

But if we tied government assistance to triggers in a drought scale then you would not see households losing their Farm and Household Allowance in the eighth year of drought, when they have had no income for years.

Making the Money Neutral and Apolitical

If we had a Drought Scale that reflected the severity of events, I hope that you would not see the Queensland Government closing agricultural colleges in the middle of a drought, you would not see them reneging on a promise of $5 million in matched funding to Desert Channels Queensland for prickly acacia control.

If we had a drought scale then you would not see the Queensland Government playing politics with water. They would not dare to obstruct the construction of dams – as they have with both the Rookwood Weir and the Emu Swamp Dam. They would not – in the middle of an epic drought – be releasing more than 100,000 mega-litres of water and lowering a dam wall as they are with the Paradise Dam. And they would not be slow to release Queensland’s portion of matched funding for the next round of Great Artesian Basin piping and bore capping infrastructure.

A Formal Scale Always Leads to Better Policy

In my opinion, a formal scale not only leads to better policy, but it can also lead to a commitment to constant improvement. We can see the effect clearly in the Queensland performance on cyclones and floods. We just need to bring that transparency to bushfires and drought.

How to Contact Me

Thank you for reading. I always love to hear your thoughts on this or any other issue. You can contact me simply by replying to this email. If you prefer to ring, my Emerald Office is 07 4913 1000 and the Longreach office is 07 4521 5700.

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Kind Regards,

Lachlan Millar MP
Member for Gregory and
Shadow Minister for Fire, Emergency Services and Volunteers.