Jul 22, 2019

Opinion – Time to subtract politics from drought debate – Daily Telegraph – Monday, 22 July 2019

At Thursday’s Daily Telegraph Bush Summit in Dubbo I offered Labor’s support for drought funding for communities suffering from the devastating impact of this disaster.

I spoke of the tragic human consequences and praised the resilience of our farmers. I pointed to the need to respond to the science of climate change, better manage water and provide both short-term assistance and a long-term drought strategy.

I offered Labor’s support and urged the Morrison government: “Don’t play politics with this. It is too important. Just stop it. Provide funding with appropriations as you should and we’ll back it. Any level you want. Done.”

I couldn’t have been any more bipartisan.

However, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has since doubled down not on drought funding, but on playing politics.

He is offering to create a new standing Drought Fund to help farmers – but only if it is funded by abolishing the existing Building Australia Fund, which is used to fund new infrastructure projects, including in rural and regional Australia.

Projects funded by the BAF in NSW include the duplication of the Pacific Highway and the Hunter Expressway.

What is the link between the Drought Fund and the BAF? There is no link.

The BAF was created as an important economic reform. It is used to fund rail, road and other infrastructure projects including – in the ultimate irony – water infrastructure projects.

In order to receive BAF funding, projects must be assessed by the independent Infrastructure Australia as priority projects that will add to economic growth.

Put simply, the purpose of the BAF is to build public confidence that the decisions about new infrastructure investment are made on the basis of the national economic interest, rather than political interests.

The BAF is a critical component of the Infrastructure Australia objective of depoliticising the infrastructure debate. Or to put it more crudely, the BAF was designed to stop pork-barrelling.

Over its three terms, the Coalition has tried four times to abolish the BAF to fund other programs – even including the National Disability Insurance Scheme. And now, once again, Mr Morrison is tying its future to drought relief.

He is also trying to overturn parliamentary rules to fast-track Drought Fund legislation, despite having failed to even put it to a vote in the Senate during the last Parliament, even though it was announced last October.

The government didn’t bother to include it in the dozens of Bills that were introduced in the new Parliament’s first week.

This is the kind of approach that turns people off politics.

Mr Morrison is saying that if you support the BAF and oppose pork-barrelling, you oppose the disabled, or farmers or something else.

This is pathetic. And it should stop. Australians want solutions, not arguments.

How about this for an idea: let’s support farmers on the basis of the merit of their need.

Let’s not tie support for rural communities to infantile political wedges or the pursuit of unrelated political objectives.

The objective evidence is clear the people of regional and rural Australia are in real trouble.

They don’t need political posturing. They need our help.

This opinion piece was first published in The Daily Telegraph on Monday, 22 July 2019