The drought short survey was issued in conjunction with the October survey (Wave 5). The results reveal a very confused and disjointed (and, for this farmer’s daughter, confronting) public understanding of what drought is and who is responsible for helping farmers deal with it, and an equally mixed range of views on media coverage of drought. The comments were long and detailed, with no clear theme – many smaller, warring themes can be identified but not one clear message.
The level of complex engagement and yet misunderstanding about drought is on par only with immigration and refugees in the subjects we have broached so far. This really surprised me, and I did have to work very hard to check my own ‘researcher bias’.
(My father – John Crosby – is not ‘just’ a farmer – not that any farmer is ‘just’ or ‘merely’ a farmer – he’s a former NFF and NSWFA Senior Vice President and President of the Agribusiness Association, among a long list of other titles. So I acknowledge I come to this subject with a lifetime of baggage that is difficult to set aside, and not typical ‘farmer’s kid’ experience, but exposure to high level ag politics – but this is what we do as researchers, suck it up and leave it at the door. I did consult with Dad on the questions for this survey and am grateful for his input – he was right.)
538 people took part in the drought survey and the only reason there weren’t 538 different answers to the first question of ‘what does drought mean to you’ is that 21 people did not answer the question. That’s not quite true: ‘lack of rain’ was given by 7 respondents, and 5 said ‘climate change’. Here’s a selection of other responses, in no particular order, to give you an idea of how diverse the responses were:
“…Some farmers are beginning to realise that droughts will be exacerbated by climate change. Shocking responses by Govt over recent IPCC report.”
“…Politicians are using it as an emotional, political tool instead of actually doing something about it.”
“…need to have mitigation including climate change policies”
“…used by some to enhance the global warming lies”
“…playing into the mythology of Australia as a place filled with Clancys of the Overflow or shearers. It’s also weirdly disconnected from a discussion of climate change.”
“…it has got to a point where politicians can no longer ignore it. When they start talking about caring, many people in rural locations have either already been broken or are on the edge”
“…Impact on farm production, impact on food supplies, impact on the economy, and of course impact on the farmer which is so very important.”
“…I think of central Australia farmers struggling in arid land, wondering at the value in publically funding an unprofitable enterprise.”
“…I suspect it is an over-used word”
“…A very complex problem that requires a vast array of solutions.”
“…my son is hand feeding cattle, so I think the drought is a major issue, but I think politicians use it for their own ends”
“…Handouts for farmers. Climate change is real, get used to it, plan for drought or get off the land.”
“…Food security and help for farmers is important”
“…Dying livestock, struggling farmers and rural communities many of whom struggle with mental illness. Subpar drought relief.”
“…As someone who has grown up on a farm through 3 droughts and still have a majority of my family on the land, politically for it just means that it’s the last resort before for sale signs go up and suicides escalate.”
You get the idea.
There were a couple of warring themes that could be identified.
- The first is climate change:
- some see climate change as the real issue, and drought just a symptom;
- others see climate change as contributing to or worsening drought;
- yet others see climate change as nothing to do with drought.
- Next set of warring themes is who it affects:
- farmers (and by extension their crops and livestock);
- farmers and rural communities, others reliant on agriculture etc.;
- everyone, including our food supply and the environment;
- only the environment and the farmers are bad people who should get off the land.
- Thirdly, the handouts vs help split is a bit more simple to identify.
- Lastly, the cynics vs hopeful, or those who believe the politicians are only in it for votes or political points, as opposed to those who believe the government is acting because it is right and necessary.
Those who work in ag or come from a farming background like me may have already picked up on what I mean by confronting. The belief by some (but by no means all) that dealing with climate change will somehow ‘fix’ drought is going to be increasingly hard to combat, and it indicates that drought – the most predictable, inevitable, natural disaster farmers know they have to deal with and plan for – is being well and truly dragged into the most politicised square footage of climate change. Not where some farmers would like it to be – in the ‘droughts are worse because of climate change and we need to do this better’ space, but in the ‘you need to get off the land because you broke it’ space. Even the more moderate answers were talking of ‘mitigation’ rather than ‘management’.
The second question started with the information that different departments and agencies have different definitions of drought, and asked respondents how they would define drought. A lot of respondents skipped this question, or deferred to a higher authority.
“…whatever the BOM says”
“…if the farmers say its drought, I believe them”
“…beyond my pay grade.”
Fair enough too. There is no universal definition of drought, because what constitutes drought in one place is not the same in another place, and many commented to that effect. Those who had a bash at it were equally diverse in their responses as the answers to the first question. Some thought it meant no rain:
“…Any dam under 60%, no rain for more than 5 months”
“…When rainfall has been absent for 6 months or more”
“…Two years without rain.”
Some low or below average rain:
“…Rainfall less than 25% median for three months or more.”
“…Very much below average rainfall figures for a period in excess of 6 months.”
“…When rainfall over a year is less than 20% of the long term mean”
“…More than 12 months of rainfall 50% below average”
“…An extended period of low rainfall, around 3-5 years or more.”
“…More than 30% below average for 5 consecutive years”
Some not enough rain to do what we do:
“…Insufficient water for agriculture and/or basic needs for the majority”
“…Rainfall is below a level to sustain agriculture and replenish dams and reservoirs”
“…rainfall is deficient enough that storages are depleted”
And some defined it not by rain, but by other factors:
“…When farmers cannot plant crops or feed stock and there is no end in sight”
“…Quadruple bottom line unsustainability of well-managed agriculture-based businesses.”
“…When the grass is dead and animals are dying “
“…When the land cannot sustain the people then we are in drought.”
“…Average farm income in an LGA drops by more than 50% for more than 6 months.”
The lengths of time suggested of less than optimal conditions for it to tick over to ‘drought’ were all vastly different, ranging from 3 months to 7 years.
The upshot of all this is that when we talk about drought, we aren’t talking about the same thing. If 3 people are having a conversation, and one of them is interpreting it as ‘no rain for one year’, another as ‘two standard deviations below average rain for 3 months’, and the third as ‘no meaningful rain for five years’, the conditions that they would be talking about would be substantially different – environmentally, economically, socially, all of the above – which results in no likely path to agreement, action, and wildly different reactions to news or announcements about drought related issues. This is a problem.
PERCEPTIONS OF DROUGHT
We asked what proportion of Australia’s farmers respondents thought were currently affected by drought.
Again, a mixed bag. Trying to find a correct answer on this by googling is also nigh on impossible. The ABARES reportto the recent drought summit in Canberra says 49% of agricultural land in the south east of Australia is affected by drought, but that’s not number of farmers. States – who do the declarations – generally declare by local government area (NSW does it by parish and has different grades of drought – see more), and a particular farm may have had very good rain but be in an area that hasn’t. Or vice versa. Alternatively, if you interpret ‘being affected by drought’ as affecting the business of a farm… then you can be on a feedlot in an area with above average rain, and be affected through increased price for feed… so it all links back to the problem of ‘what do we mean by ‘drought’?
The next question does have a somewhat correct answer. Technically, State governments have constitutional responsibility for all things land and water, so drought management is in their court. The Federal Government’s role in providing income support to those on low incomes is no different than it is for anyone else in society, drought or no drought (although the paperwork of assessing asset rich, cash poor, no income in sight farmers affected by natural disaster can be tricky). The reality is of course disconnected from the constitutional delegations due to the federal government having the cash.
Responses to the survey indicate perception of responsibility is again all over the map. Most of the ‘others’ argued no level of government is responsible for assisting farmers with drought and farmers should manage it themselves.
MEDIA COVERAGE OF DROUGHT
We asked a series of interlocking questions about media coverage of drought to gauge to what extent people believed, and were satisfied with, media coverage of drought in Australia. Two of these questions had a bit of a preamble to make sure we were clear on what we were asking about, which I’ll note for transparency can have a bit of a question bias effect (be a bit leading), but given the difficulty of getting everyone on the same page indicated by the questions above I’m now confident it was the right call.
Firstly, we asked how accurate people believed the stereotypical portrayal of drought in the media is.
A very high level of ‘others’ here were mostly saying it is accurate for some, and not for others, with a number of references to ‘green drought’, and/or that it doesn’t tell the story of the impact of drought on rural towns and businesses.
We then asked people to describe in their own words how they felt about the current media coverage of drought, and the top response was emotive. The respondents split again into a range of groups:
- those who thought coverage was poor, didn’t tell the full story, or focused too much on the politicians;
- those who thought the coverage was good but heartbreaking; and
- those who wanted more detail and less sensationalism – facts not fluff.
There were multiple comments that drought is a long term and complex problem and the media will only be around for a quick story, and some wanted to know why there was not a deeper investigation of why farmers were not better prepared for drought. The ABC, in particular Landline and 4 Corners, were praised for their coverage. Some respondents, particularly in WA, were unaware there was a drought at the moment, which is understandable, given it is largely a eastern states – and really mostly NSW – issue.
The final media question was probing something which has been happening for a while, but Scott Morrison has a particular habit of, which is tumbling all kinds of farming issues into one ball of ‘farmers need help because of all these things’, and whether people thought that was ok or not.
They’d prefer it didn’t happen, in short. The ‘other’ comments that couldn’t be coded were a bit off the subject returning to climate change, or a bit of a vent about how the media or politicians always treat us as dumb.
DROUGHT AFFECTED THEM PERSONALLY
When asked how people feel the drought will affect them directly, there were very clear divergences between rural and city people.
- City people either thought it would have no effect, or spoke of rising food prices and water restrictions, perhaps expressed concern for people they knew on the land or that their veggie garden might die.
- Rural people spoke of the toll on local businesses and people, and
- Farmers spoke of the direct impact on their land and businesses and the long road ahead, with details such as they aren’t able to buy hay, or are already buying in water or destocking.
There is also a palpable level of anxiety about a bad bushfire season ahead from rural people and those on the bushfire prone edges of urban areas. The Tasmanian and WA respondents often began their answers with ‘we’re ok here but…’ before expressing concern for friends, family or farmers generally in the eastern states, and an ‘if it gets worse then’ clear indication they know what happens if the big dry spreads.
There are votes in this issue, but there’s a whole lot of people that don’t care at all, or at least, they aren’t thinking about it when they think about who to vote for. The ‘others’ for this question were almost universally those saying ‘only as it is a factor if climate change’.
In summary: there is no clear understanding of what drought is: either as a term, or as an issue, nor what is to be done about it, but a good half of respondents think either the wrong thing is being done, not enough is being done, or that it is being done for the wrong reasons. From a political communications perspective, these results indicate drought is all kinds of trouble, the making for an emotive lose/lose issue. From a voter advocacy perspective, if anything can be certain from such a diverse array of responses, it’s that voters want more detail, facts; less emotion and sensationalism – a clearer conversation, good action rather than just being seen to be doing something.
Thanks so much to everyone who responded. This was the most illuminating short survey we have done and more work needs to be done here.