Declaration seeks new drought strategy

View From the Paddock: Declaration seeks new drought strategy

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Dr Geoff Edwards, president of The Royal Society of Queensland.

Dr Geoff Edwards, president of The Royal Society of Queensland.

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There is a general recognition that subsidies, loans and handouts, while perhaps necessary to relieve acute distress, is no substitute for a drought strategy that will prepare agriculture for a self-reliant future.

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Calls for a national drought strategy are appearing in the media one after the other.

There is general recognition that the present array of subsidies, loans and handouts, while perhaps necessary to relieve acute distress, is not an adequate substitute for a preventative strategy that will prepare broadacre agriculture for a self-reliant future.

Enter the recent Queensland Rangelands Declaration as a signpost to a way forward.

Commendably, the Queensland government has prepared its own "drought management framework".

While Canberra is responsible for foreign investment policy, Centrelink policy and most macro-economic settings, under the constitution the states govern most aspects of agriculture, land and water management, property tenure, environmental protection, local government and community infrastructure. That is, most tools to prepare for drought are in the states' hands.

What might be the preconditions for a successful drought strategy? Here are four necessary steps that might challenge the prevailing conventional wisdom.

First, let's not waste precious months arguing over the causes of climate change. Our agricultural systems are not resilient enough for even the current climatic variability, much less what science tells us is on the way. Dying townships, starving stock and dusty paddocks tell us that we need a fundamental rethink of broadacre agriculture.

Second, let's abandon any expectation that market forces can deliver sustainable prosperity. Markets are unconcerned about the welfare of individual producers. But society must be concerned, because producers manage the sources of food, fibre, water, oxygen and other elements indispensable for human life. It is essential, not optional, that we change economic policy settings to enable landholders and regional communities to prosper.

Third, let's not blame the absence of a preventative drought strategy on partisan game-playing by politicians. There are people of good intent on all sides of politics, but parliament is not an adequate forum to debate the complex challenges that drought presents.

Fourth, let's create new alliances to access knowledge wherever it lies - tapping rural experience, scientific journals, the public service and the energies of civil society groups. This will require people with different kinds of knowledge to bury past antagonisms and brokers to bridge the silos.

This is the spirit in which the Royal Society of Queensland, together with AgForce and NRM Regions Queensland, published a Rangelands Declaration in August. It included a commitment to consult widely with landholders and all other stakeholders, inclusive but independent of government.

The three signatories met a week ago and confirmed their commitment to an agenda of non-partisan dialogue and policy analysis during 2020. Since August the co-organisers have been seeking funds to speed up the rate of progress.

There has never been a better time to find new approaches to resolving 'wicked problems'. The proposal is to co-create a Rangelands Consultative Council that would take on that challenge with energy.

We have a unique opportunity to recalibrate our relationship with Queensland's open country. If you're keen to be contribute in any capacity to a new liveable future, please get in touch.

- Dr Geoff Edwards, president of The Royal Society of Queensland. These are his personal views.

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