Rebuilding resilient communities amid climate-induced drought and bushfires

We need alternatives that can empower people to take control over their communities and, in the process, rebuild something money cannot buy — self-respect.

The federal government is pouring billions of dollars into its attempts to deal with the worst impacts of a climate crisis it prefers to ignore. But this money will never achieve its stated aim nor reach those who need it most.

The federal Coalition government’s Drought Response, Resilience and Preparedness Plan, released in November last year, sets out its proposal for dealing with the most severe drought in living memory — one that has been made worse by the climate crisis.

The government is offering $50 million for an On-farm Emergency Water Infrastructure Rebate Scheme to improve on-farm water management and $36.9 million over five years “to improve water security and drought resilience in the Great Artesian Basin through increasing artesian pressure and reducing wastage”.

The plan also proposes to spend about $3.5 billion on a national water infrastructure plan that will take even more water out of river systems.

Meanwhile, after initially denying the recent East Coast bushfire catastrophe was anything out of the ordinary, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has set up a National Bushfire Recovery Agency.

The agency is set to receive $2 billion, which comes on top of the more than $100 million in disaster recovery payments and allowances that have already been disbursed.

Wrong priorities

Of the $2 billion it has pledged, the government is set to spend $76 million on a "tourism recovery package".

Tourism is one of Australia's biggest employers in regional Australia. In the financial year 2014/15, tourism represented 3% of Australia's GDP and contributed $47.5 billion to the national economy, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

However, most of this money will go to advertising campaigns, including $20 million on convincing Australians to travel within the country and $25 million targeting the global market.

Another $9.5 million will go to Tourism Australia to bring international media to Australia and $6.5 million to support Australia’s largest annual business-to-business tourism event. No doubt Scotty from Marketing will be there to press the flesh in person.

The message the government wants to send is clear: Australia is safe to visit and open for business — at least those parts not impacted by fires or drought.

What is left unsaid is that tourists will not be visiting burnt out communities. While bushfire grants are available to those whose homes or businesses were destroyed by fire, for those who have lost all their income due to the collapse in tourists numbers, there is nothing.

Tourists are even less likely to visit the ever-growing list of towns that have officially run out of water due to the drought.

And as the farms that help keep communities functioning become unproductive, there is increasingly little left to keep these communities alive.

Assistance

According to the Productivity Commission’s review of government services, Australia has suffered a 10% decline in the number of volunteer firefighters over the past decade. Most volunteer firefighters are farmers, retirees or pensioners.

Despite this, the unemployed can become ineligible for the dole if they are out fighting fires.

Most farmers are also ineligible for the dole due to the fact it is means tested.

The Farm Household Allowance (FHA), which is set at an equivalent amount to the dole, is difficult to access. Moreover, FHA payments are available for only four years out of every 10. But the drought has been going on for more than 8 years and land management costs continue, whether food is produced or not.

While small farmers struggle with little to no help from the government, money spent on drought mitigation is largely going straight into the pockets of corporations.

Dams and pipelines are being paid for from the public purse. Rivers are being turned into eroded canals so corporations can speculate with water and divert it from farming to mining uses.

The industrial logging of rain-making forests in the Great Dividing Range and New England tablelands is set to expand further. And there is pressure to open National Parks to logging in the name of "hazard reduction" rather than restore funding for more rangers.

Better alternatives

There are clearly much better ways this money could be spent.

The introduction of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) — a government payment to all citizens set at the equivalent to the minimum wage — would help ensure the survival of rural communities devastated by fire, drought and other climate catastrophe.

Ensuring a living wage for locals so they can afford to stay will, in turn, mean services like schools, hospitals, post offices and railway stations can survive. This is the kind of solid foundation needed to truly rebuild resilient communities.

But what about the cost?

At the moment we face a situation where more and more people are being forced to leave regional areas, leaving fewer people behind to manage land, fight bushfires and carry out other vital services.

Those who move are finding themselves in cities where infrastructure and services are already crumbling under the pressure to keep up with demand.

Helping to keep people in regional areas is a much cheaper option.

The mining industry, which is increasingly reliant on fly in-fly out workers and automation, is no alternative for communities when it comes to livelihoods — and much less so for the environment.

The government is promoting loans as a means for people to rebuild their businesses, as it cuts welfare payments and rolls out ration cards like the Cashless Debit Card for the poor.

But how are small businesses in regional communities going to pay off loans — no matter how low interest rates are — as insurance rates skyrocket and the next climate disaster is waiting in the wings to wipe them out again?

And who will shop at their business if locals are forced to use cashless cards at chain stores?

A UBI payment set at the level of the minimum wage would ensure those currently struggling to survive on Newstart would receive a substantial rise in their payments.

It would enable people to start their own businesses, become artists and craftspeople, support their communities, rescue native wildlife, exterminate feral animals and weeds or be emergency service volunteers — all while being able to pay the bills and keeping money circulating in communities.

Most importantly, it would empower people to take control over their communities and, in the process, rebuild something money cannot buy — self-respect.

[Elena Garcia is a regenerative marginal country grazier in the Condamine catchment, Queensland.]

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