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Drought, the end of the right, and the Last Man

By Henry Johnston

The sight of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull embracing a distraught woman trying to make sense of drought, reminded me of a line from an old song A Pub with No Beer, made famous last century by Slim Dusty.

There’s a dog on the verandah, for his master he waits, but the boss is inside, drinking wine with his mates. He hurries for cover, and cringes with fear; it’s no place for a dog, round a pub with no beer. (Songwriter: Gordon Noel Parsons).

If a rural publican offered a Penfolds Grange Hermitage or a schooner of Reschs, Malcolm Turnbull would probably choose the former. And here is the dilemma. Public houses and other small businesses trading across rural and regional Australia can barely afford to stock and sell much of anything, let alone beer and wine. And there is nothing the bosses can do about it.

Neither market forces, innovative business techniques, trickle-down economics nor individual determination can withstand drought. No matter what the marketeers throw at it, nothing can make it rain, and a failure to develop public policies which accept the forces of nature, will likely see off this current crop of right-wing nongs.

Speaking of nongs, when Francis Fukuyama published The End of History and the Last Man in 1989, conservatives around the globe punched the air, claiming they were right all along. The Soviet Union had collapsed, communism had failed, and liberal democracy fuelled by unfettered capitalism, ascendant.

In the year Fukuyama published his drivel, Malcolm Turnbull turned 35. The great dust storm of 1983 which denuded the Mallee and Wimmera, and the Ash Wednesday bushfires which killed 70 people, had begun to fade from the national memory. But like a beaten, cowering dog, the bush remembers, and it is this stark reality which deflates the logic of right ideology, namely market forces will solve our problems.

What the bush needs more than ever are far sighted, well-financed state and federal government policies. And those who work the land need to face the fact Australia is an arid continent which cannot sustain water-hungry crops such as cotton and rice, or graze cloven-hoofed bovines or sheep.

Malcolm Turnbull is now 64. And during his lifetime communist China has become the world’s largest economy, Russia is run by a master spy graduate of the KGB, England is facing the fact its fate has been entwined with Europe since Julius Caesar, and the President of the United States looks and acts like an episode of the Sopranos.

And drought, as articulated by Dorothea Mackellar, remains an undisputed Australian truth; beyond climate change, beyond coal, and beyond the prognostications of the Institute of Public Affairs.

So there he stood; the Last Man, swallowed by an endless, wizened landscape, wearing an ill-fitting Akubra hat. Skilfully placed beside him the distraught woman, dressed in expensive R.M. Williams clobber, and as far from the image of Russel Drysdale’s The Drovers Wife, as I could imagine. She nodded dutifully as the PM said her $12,000 relief cheque must be used for household expenditures and that only and the states are responsible for funding stock feed.

Image from theaustralian.com.au

Not once did the PM mention the travails of Indigenous Australians who do the bulk of hard yakka on the big country stations, nor the need to develop innovative methods to till and graze this arid land.

Instead the PM paid lip service to the drongos of the National Party, or whatever the so-called Coalition partner is called, and reminded us of the resilience of rural people. Perhaps he should have channelled the words of Dan Sheehan, the bush poet who inspired A Pub with No Beer …

The cowards become brave and the weak become strong, the dour and the grumpy burst forth into song, if there’s aught to resemble high heaven down here, ‘tis the place of joy where they ladle out beer.

Henry Johnston is a Sydney based author. His book, Best and Fairest is available at Valentine Press.


8 comments

  1. Phil

    Market failure. Leadership failure. National failure.

    Thanks for this very thought provoking article.

    What a tragic mess conservatism and right wing politics in general has made of this country with its unique and barely imaginable lineage of some 2000 generations of indigenous people.

    How arrogant are we?

  2. Keitha Granville

    How long will it be before another century busting drought happens ? And they’ll tell us again to dig deep to help the farmers.

    I suggest to my husband every time there is a massive flood somewhere, why don’t they plan ahead for that, cos they know it will happen AGAIN – and build some big dams inland to funnel the water, or divert the river flows into channels going inland. Silly ? Maybe not. Not half as silly as constantly banging on about drought in this country as if it is a surprise. About as surprising as icy conditions on Mt Everest.

  3. Wun Farlung

    Keitha. Not in the least bit silly
    I have stood and looked at Copperlode Dam, Burdekan Dam and the Barron Falls in full food and thought why don’t we divert some of this water. The catchment for Cooper Creek is just to the west of Charters Towers.. Downhill all the way to Lake Eyre
    The Copperlode Dam has a high elevation that would be able to generate electricity
    The big gas players at Gladstone didn’t think it was silly or too expensive to construct what amounts to thousands of kms of 1 metre diameter pipes to supply coal seam gas to Curtis Island
    To do something like the Bradfield Scheme would take more than one election cycle. Ho-Hum
    You’re in good company with the man that thought it a good idea to build the Sydney harbour bridge wide enough to handle traffic in future years

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bradfield_Scheme

  4. New England Cocky

    “What the bush needs more than ever are far sighted, well-financed state and federal government policies. And those who work the land need to face the fact Australia is an arid continent which cannot sustain water-hungry crops such as cotton and rice, or graze cloven-hoofed bovines or sheep.”

    The late Bill McCarthy, former Minister for Northern Tablelands (ALP), had the solution over 50 years ago. It was decentralise government jobs to regional centres and create localised “boom” conditions. Indeed, under the Wran NSW ALP government Armidale received about 110 government jobs with their accompanying families. The Greiner NSW Liarbral National$ misgovernment removed those jobs and those families, overnight, at significant cost to the community.

    Every government job creates about 3.5 private sector jobs. Now if each government job supports Mum, Dad and two kids for example, that means 100 government jobs moved to a regional centre moves 100 x 4 = 400 persons.

    Now the private sector effect is similar; 100 x 3.5 x 4 = 1400 persons.

    So, 200 + 700 = 900 new kids for schools means 45 new teaching positions, plus 45 new residences plus support services, and so the growth spiral continues.

    As for drought, let me (once again) be seen as a skeptic for the compassionate well meaning drought fund raising by city folk to purchase bales of stock feed for distressed farmers.

    The graziers in difficulty have frequently overstocked their properties, beyond the capacity of the land to feed their animals. These farms are frequently ill-prepared for drought, with scoop holes instead of deep, high volume dams, little or limited stored hay for dry periods, limited financial resources or alternative income sources to carry the graziers through the drought.

    Some may say that this is a self-inflicted wound.

    So, the drought appeal funding is spent purchasing stock feed in a limited market for these poor graziers, pushing up per bale prices and reducing availability for graziers who have been diligent managers during the season, and rewarding the poor managers.

    During the 1983 drought a wizened senior grazier, my mate, laughed when I said I was looking for stock feed. “Why buy feed? Why not sell cattle and wait out the drought?”

    “At the end of the drought all the cockys will be broke from necessarily paying too much for drought feed, and so re-stocking will be relatively economical. And you won’t have busted your guts during the dry.”

    Sadly, my mate was proven correct during the intervening years, including all the droughts since.

  5. paul walter

    I’m glad for that last para re Aborigines. Things began going downhill with Howard, as they did for environmental educational and other public goods.

    Watching the Intervention, after all the other damage done to both aborigines and non-agribiz farmers on behalf of big miners and “big farmer” was tough going and things never really recovered for battlers, especially after Labor got itself ousted over its pointless internal feuding.

  6. totaram

    “… and a failure to develop public policies which accept the forces of nature, will likely see off this current crop of right-wing nongs.”

    You wish and so do I! However, that requires understanding of a higher order than most people have, so I’m not very hopeful.

  7. Stephengb

    Never ever forget that it was Bob Hawke who instigated the Neoliberal Agenda in Australia. You could say he didn’t do it on purpose because it was called “Economic Rationalism” then, but this man is a Rhodes Scholar he is not stupid, he knew exactly what he was doing!

  8. Josephus

    Yet Adani was promised 60 billion litres of free water, having previously poured coal dust laden water into protected areas, and thence into the seas. Yet fracking is permitted , which poisons groundwater. No water, no life.

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