|Issue 38, April 2006|
|The Green Drought|
© all rights reserved
On 2 October 2002 a photograph of Lucy Geddes appeared on the front page of Sydney's tabloid newspaper the Daily Telegraph. Two year old Lucy's weary face looked out of the front page, her red hair wisping in the wind, her white tee-shirt remarkably clean for a child clinging onto a weathered fence post, in a flat, dry, brown home paddock. Lucy Geddes became the face of the 2002 drought in New South Wales. Her picture on the front page of the Daily Telegraph heralded the launch of the Farmhand Appeal which sought to raise funds to provide charity assistance to drought affected farmers, farm families and farm contractors, and to investigate ideas for the future drought-proofing Australia (Benson and Scala 2002a, p. 1). Lucy's portrait provided a human focal point for an ecological event, her image awakening cultural memories of colonising an unpredictable landscape, while simultaneously embodying the immediacy of the then current drought.
Lucy's image was explicitly referred to by various individuals and groups who became prominent in the public drought discourse in 2002. Radio 2GB presenter and Farmhand Appeal spokesman, Alan Jones, made a passionate appeal for governments and the general public to support drought relief measures and controversially called for rivers to be turned inland to drought-proof Australia. In turn, his comments sparked the formation of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, who also referred explicitly to the Daily Telegraph photograph of Lucy in announcing their arrival in the public debate about drought in 2002. In an interview with Nick Grimm on ABC national radio on 11 October, the morning after the dinner that convened the Wentworth Group, CSIRO scientist John Williams used the image of Lucy to highlight the ecological, rather than the human impacts of the drought.
The Wentworth Group's main purpose was to counter the Farmhand Appeal's call for drought-proofing Australia. They clearly proclaimed that Australia "cannot be drought-proofed" and "[w]e need to try and live with the landscape, not try and fight against it all the time" (Ampt 2002; Cameron 2002). The arrival of the Wentworth Group, as environmental scientists making a clear contribution to public discussion of the drought, prompted some elements of the media to nominate 2002 as the "green drought" (Sheehan 2002a; Wahlquist and Megalogenis 2002).
The drought of 2002 provides a useful point for assessing the status of popular discourse about the relationships between people, land and water in Australia. A review of newspaper reporting of the 2002 drought in New South Wales highlights a discursive richness, which in some instances indicates a heightened ecological sensibility among journalists and the people whose stories they report, while in other cases shows the continuity of a battler culture struggling against an unforgiving land. Beyond the battle between Farmhand and Wentworth, media discourse reflects the high degree of complexity and subtlety in the way contemporary Australians negotiate the challenge of learning to live in Australian landscapes. These nuances of culture, identity and meaning are often overlooked in expert critiques of popular drought discourse, to the impoverishment of ecological politics in Australia. Through a systematic review of drought reporting in the Daily Telegraph (the Telegraph ) and the Sydney Morning Herald (the Herald ) in the second half of 2002 our aim is to highlight some of the diverse voices contributing to popular drought discourse, which are lost in the focus on crisis ridden rural politics that tends dominate immediate policy responses.
Part of Life
Ecologically sensible management of Australian land requires acceptance of drought as part of life in this continent. The degree to which Australians accept drought cycles as a normal feature of the climate is contested, as is the definition of a "normal" versus an "exceptional" drought (Alston and Kent 2004, Higgins 2001). Tim Bonyhady's (2001) analysis of media and other sources relating to the Federation drought (1895-1902), shows an emerging acceptance of drought as a regular feature of Australian landscapes, amongst more prominent discourse about the efficacy of prayer for drought-breaking and visions of engineered river systems designed for flood protection and drought-proofing. West and Smith's (1994) analysis of media and political sources over a 100 year period from the late nineteenth century shows that on the whole drought is treated as an unexpected disaster in Australia and fulfils the sociological function of a moral panic, uniting disparate social groups against a perceived common danger. Journalist Åsa Wahlquist 's (2003) analysis of media reporting of the 1994 drought does not find substantial evidence of an acceptance of drought as part of life amongst journalists or the farmers and politicians who inform their stories. She concludes:
As one of the journalists present at the initial meeting of the Wentworth Group, who favourably reported their recommendations for neo-liberal reform of water and land management and policy, Wahlquist, with George Megalogenis in the Australian, subsequently wrote of the 2002 as the "green drought". It seems that in the eight years since 1994 significant sections of the media had come to an understanding of drought as inherent to Australia. In 2002 newspaper reports provided substantial evidence of acceptance of drought as part of life by editors, journalists and the people whose stories they reported.
Opinion columnists devoted themselves to the task of convincing readers that drought is part of life, particularly in the Herald where Ross Gittins wrote on 16 October:
The Telegraph also contained opinion pieces and editorials along the lines of "drought as part of life", drawing on historical and scientific references to remind readers that the present drought, whilst causing extreme hardship, was not unprecedented. At the end of an article on 4 October about the struggles of farmer Greg 'Muscles' McMullen from Brewarrina, the Telegraph reminded readers that CSIRO biologist Francis Ratcliffe warned in 1938:
Stories about the impact of drought on farmers and other people in rural New South Wales provided the clearest evidence that the media and the people whose stories they report consider drought as part of life rather than as a disaster. For example, the White family of Belltrees in the Hunter Valley were the subject of two articles in the Telegraph by Carly Chynoweth (2002), who wrote on 5 October:
The Telegraph's stories of farmers' responses to drought also included Tim Hughes' (2002a) report of the Frend family from Matteson near Glen Innes. Echoing neo-liberal policy discourse of drought as a risk to be managed by individual businesses (Higgins 2001), both Hughes and the Frends explicitly rebut the definition of drought as disaster:
Further evidence of the acceptance of drought as part of life is provided by a number of reports relating to what Walquist (2003) would term "survivors": farmers who manage their land and businesses in ways that make them resilient to extreme climatic events such as drought. The Whites, the Frends, Bruce Maynard at Narromine, Graham and Cathy Finlayson near Brewarrina, Ken Baldry near Young, rabbit farmers at Dungog, and dorper sheep farmer Barwon Staggs from Gilgandra, all featured as "survivors" in the Telegraph (Benson and Scala 2002a; Scala 2002a; Scala 2002b; Tsavdaridia 2002). In the Herald Peter Andrews in the Hunter Valley, Kate Fraser near Scone, and Kevin Edyvean near Wagga Wagga were depicted as farmers who survive drought through careful farm management (Grant 2002; Kershaw 2002; Sheehan 2002a; Stephens 2002).
Living with Drought
While press coverage of the 2002 drought generally depicted it as a part of life, many newspaper reports nonetheless represented the task of living with drought as extremely difficult. Consistent with recent social research on the impacts of drought (Alston and Kent 2004; Gray et al. 1998; Stehlik 2003), a number of reports of farmer practice indicated that irrespective of how well a farm is managed, farmers and the communities in which they live are profoundly affected by drought. The daily experience of continued dryness, decision making under uncertain conditions, the implications of those decisions for land and business management, concerns for animal welfare, the politics of accessing scarce water supplies and pasture, the stress on communities where farm owners and managers work longer hours while farm workers and contractors are laid off to reduce labour costs, and the physical ardour and dirtiness of farm work during a drought: all contribute to the difficulties of living through drought for even the best prepared farmer.
Reflecting its more general attention to human interest stories, the Telegraph had more reports about the domestic implications of drought than the Herald. Stories in the Telegraph included women speaking about travelling to town to do the laundry (Carter 2002), the Brewarrina pub offering their washing machines to help patrons conserve diminishing farm water supplies (Benson and Scala 2002b), the importance of maintaining green lawn and gardens around the homestead as an oasis from the brown dustiness of the rest of the farm (Carter 2002; Chynoweth 2002), and the smell of domestic water polluted by dying animals (Scala 2002c). Human interest stories in the Herald included reports of families separated by thousands of kilometres as women sought off-farm work while men remain to manage the property under deteriorating conditions (Bradley 2002).
Reporting of affective responses to drought mixed classical language and imagery of Australian rurality with the language of modern farm management and social policy. This was most pointedly evident in reporting of the mental health status of farmers and other "rural battlers". Many stories about farmers living through drought talked about the depression and stress of drought, or the importance of maintaining a positive outlook in the face of depressing circumstances. The image of the stoic Aussie battler persists in the reporting, but in a number of articles the battler is reconfigured as at risk for depression, anxiety and suicide, which are medicalised through reports of increased call for counselling services and the Royal Flying Doctor Service.
Rural - Urban Connections
As drought most dramatically affects agricultural production and land management it is predominantly a rural event. However, the metropolitan newspapers also covered the urban impacts of the 2002 drought, drawing attention to the connections between rural and urban Australians that are supposedly strengthened during drought. Stories about the urban experience of drought included significant coverage of water restrictions and suggestions for domestic water conservation. Stories which "bridge the urban-rural divide" included reports pointing out the flow on effects of rural drought to the urban economy, and the relationships between urban tax payers, charity donors and rural recipients of financial assistance.
Water restrictions in Sydney and other urban centres were a strong theme in the reporting, and discussion of water saving techniques and technologies, including grey water reuse, rainwater tanks and water conservative gardening were strongly reported, particularly in the Herald (see for example Sheehan 2002b; Peatling 2002a; Peatling 2002b). Occasionally these reports drew on the rural experience and imagery of drought to re-enforce the idea that Australia is a dry continent and that Australians need to use water conservatively in urban as well as rural environments.
Food prices provide an important link between the urban and rural experience of drought. The specific issue of rising food prices was a significant sub-theme which extended economic analysis of the drought to highlight the material connections between urban and rural places. Underlying the economics was a reminder that cities depend on their rural surroundings for food, and a basic effort to bridge the "urban-rural divide" (see for example Vaughan 2002; Scala and Hudson 2002; Wade and Bradley 2002).
The strongest point of connection between urban and rural Australians during the 2002 drought was financial support provided to farmers. This theme was strongest in the Telegraph through its promotion of the Farmhand Appeal. During October 2002, articles about the impacts of drought usually finished with a notice of the Farmhand Appeal details, encouraging urban Australians, insulated from the full force of drought, to "lend a hand" to their rural counterparts.
Reports linked to the Farmhand Appeal often portrayed rural Australians as the "real Australians", the essential "Aussie battlers". In this regard the Telegraph operated in a similar manner to Rockhampton newspaper the Morning Bulletin, as analysed by Mules et al. (1995). In their analysis of Central Queensland local press, drought is an event that heightens the importance of a coherent rural identity, and that media reporting of drought is an active constituent of the process of self-representation of rural communities and the maintenance of the symbolic order that preserves rural identity. In promoting the Farmhand Appeal and in reporting both the hardship of farmers and the generosity of urban donors to the Appeal the Telegraph served to stabilise the "battler" identity of rural Australians and the "mates lending a hand" identity of urban Australians who are insulated from the full effects of drought but remain economically and culturally dependent on agriculture and rural society.
While the Telegraph was a major sponsor of the Farmhand Appeal and also provided extensive reporting of government assistance for farmers, the Herald consistently reported and editorialised on the backlash by urban Australians against providing charity or industry assistance to drought effected farmers. On 8 October Padraic McGuinness (2002) wrote in the Herald :
On 4 October the Telegraph's environment reporter Steve Benson (2002a) quoted CSIRO scientist Steve Morton predicting increased scrutiny of the ecological performance of farmers who seek government or charity drought assistance:
These two themes - the mythologising of rural battlers and criticism of economic support for drought affected farmers - highlight discursive ambivalence in media reporting of drought. Traditional conceptions of the relationships between urban and rural Australia were simultaneously reinforced and challenged within reporting of the 2002 drought, reflecting changing demographics, government policy, a growing awareness of the ecological impacts of agriculture, and economic restructuring, as well as the mobilising power of long-standing cultural icons.
Drought and the Economy
The economic impacts of the 2002 drought were a prominent theme in newspaper reports, with significant attention focused on the state of the farm economy and agricultural industries, agribusiness corporations, regional employment and, as the drought intensified, the impact on the national economy. Reflecting the traditional styles of broadsheet and tabloid newspapers, economic reporting was more prominent in the Herald, especially in their business section, than in the Telegraph. The Herald's reporting focused on the impacts of drought on corporations and national economic growth, while the Telegraph's economic reporting focused on the impacts on farm businesses and rural industries.
The corporate responses to drought represented drought as a normal risk to be managed by agri-businesses, including farm enterprises. A report on the wide ranging impacts of drought on corporate profits included a corporate version of the "drought as part of life" discourse, quoting ABN Amro analyst Sophie Mitchell:
The reporting of the impact of drought on the national economy intensified towards the end of 2002. Initial reports of speeches by Treasurer Peter Costello downplayed the impact of drought on economic growth, due to strength in other sectors of the economy. Drought was reported alongside the "fragile global economy" as an external factor which the strong Australian economy had endured (Wade 2002). However, as the drought continued, Costello acknowledged the impact of reduced agricultural exports and other drought effects on the economy, demonstrating the Australian economy's limited capacity to manage the risks of drought.
The Telegraph's economic reports focused on the impacts of drought on agricultural industries, ranging from avocados to wheat. These reports often mixed summaries of the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics predictions with stories of the impact of the drought on individuals' farms and their business management practices. Reports of the impact of drought on industries such as poultry and dairy, particularly the impacts of high feed prices due to the drought, helped build a picture of an interconnected rural economy, bringing to light some of the less obvious impacts of drought on the rural economy.
Drought-proofing provided a major and highly contentious theme in the newspaper coverage of the 2002 drought. Most prominent in the reporting was the debate between Farmhand Appeal proponents and their aim of investigating measures to drought-proof Australia, and the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists who claimed that Australia cannot be drought-proofed and who instead urged Australians to learn to live in the landscape, not fight against it (Wentworth Group 2002). This debate, particularly the Wentworth Group's deliberately simplistic contributions (Cullen 2004), circulated a particular, fixed meaning of the concept "drought-proofing", arising in reaction to calls to "turn the rivers inland". However, newspaper reports demonstrate a diverse public understanding of drought-proofing, a concept whose meaning remains fluid.
Raising funds to investigate drought-proofing strategies for Australia was the second objective of the Farmhand Appeal, following the distribution of charity donations to drought affected farmers, farm contractors and their families. The Farmhand Appeal was launched in October following a meeting of business leaders and media personalities in Sydney who felt compelled to act in response to the "growing crisis" of drought (Benson 2002b). The subsequent launch of the Wentworth Group was reported in the Herald by Deborah Cameron (2002) on 12 October in an article titled 'Let the rivers run... expert eight say the nation can't be drought-proofed'. The article reported spokesman Peter Cullen saying that the group was formed explicitly in opposition to the Farmhand Appeal and that "Australia cannot be drought-proofed" (p. 3).
Despite the clear pronouncement of the folly of drought-proofing by the Wentworth Group of scientists, our analysis shows that some Farmhand members had a more nuanced understanding of drought-proofing and its limits than the Appeal spokesman Alan Jones, who famously proposed "turning the rivers inland". Comments by Kerry Packer at the launch of the Farmhand Appeal on 4 October demonstrate an understanding of drought and drought-proofing which does not equate with the ideas promoted by Jones.
Later reporting of comments by the Chairman of the Farmhand Foundation, Bob Mansfield, further indicate that drought-proofing as criticised by the Wentworth Group was not drought-proofing as the Farmhand Appeal understood it. He was quoted in the Telegraph as saying:
Mansfield's focus on farm management practices indicates a more prosaic use of the term "drought-proofing" than was acknowledged by the Wentworth Group. Newspaper reports show a number of different meanings for drought-proofing, many of which demonstrate clear ecological reasoning in stark contrast to drought-proofing ideas which involve re-engineering river systems.
Traditional visions of drought-proofing by controlling rivers and ground water persisted in reports of the 2002 drought, but were by no means dominant. The Herald, for example, reported ideas for drought-proofing from an irrigator near Bourke (Lewis 2002a) and the Telegraph reported on the possibility that bores be used to supply ground water during drought (Hughes 2002b). Other engineering based drought-proofing measures, such as cloud seeding and dam building, were tabled during the parliamentary inquiry into rural water supplies and reported in the Herald (Lewis 2002b).
Although the direct debate between the Farmhand Appeal and the Wentworth Group about drought-proofing was recorded in both newspapers, they also reported alternative meanings of drought-proofing. These included a report of the Nature Conservation Council urging "farmers to better drought-proof their properties instead of demanding handouts" (Lewis 2002c), farmer Ken Edyvean saying that "[l]ong-term practices have virtually drought-proofed us" (Stephens 2002), a story about how the town of Bourke has "drought-proofed itself by diversifying into tourism" (Lewis 2002d), and corporate farm managers claiming that "[s]ize and diversity helps you drought-proof". Prior to the Wentworth Group statement against drought-proofing Bob Carr, the Premier of New South Wales was even quoted promoting drought-proofing, in the context of his idea for a federal government levy to help improve the ecological performance of Australian farms (Lewis 2002e).
While the overall direction of federal government drought policy, which treats drought as a risk to be managed by farm businesses rather than a natural disaster, remained basically consistent during 2002, negotiations between the state and federal governments, and farmer lobby groups, notably the New South Wales Farmers Association, were highly contentious and provided an important theme in the media. Government assistance was a more prominent news story in the Telegraph than the Herald, which directed its attention towards the economic implications of the drought.
Drought is a major political issue, especially in an environment of state and federal governments of opposing political parties. Reporting of drought policy issues clearly reflected the complex processes that Linda Courtenay Botterill (2003) analysed in the 1994 drought, as policy makers navigated between neo-liberal discourses of farmer self-reliance and risk management, and traditional rurality discourses of farmers deserving a helping hand in dealing with exceptionally difficult circumstances.
Drought provided opportunities for state and federal governments to trade blame for delays in providing relief to farmers, but overall drought politics was presented as a state based issue. New South Wales Farmers Association president Mal Peters regularly commented on the impacts of the drought on farmers, calling for increased assistance for farmers and discussing the merits or shortcomings of proposed relief schemes. New South Wales agriculture minister Richard Amery also featured regularly, alongside Premier Bob Carr, in presenting the government's response to drought.
Beyond their headline calls to learn to live with the land the Wentworth Group also achieved political prominence, meeting with the Prime Minister to present their 'Blueprint for a Living Continent'. The pragmatism of the Wentworth Group is evident in the five key points from the blueprint which were largely consistent with neo-liberal policy discourse (Cullen 2004) calling for market based reforms to water management, environmental costs to be including in food prices, paying farmers for ecological services, restoring environmental flows to major rivers, and ending broadscale landclearing (Wentworth Group 2002). In addition to the five key messages, the Wentworth agenda also included a reform of natural resource management governance to "cut red tape" and to establish regional authorities at the expense of central government agencies (Wentworth Group 2002). As environmental historian George Main (2004) has pointed out, the Wentworth Group's (2002) calls for "radical and fundamental reform" remain firmly within dominant political ideologies and reinforce modern deferral to universal knowledge and "world class science" rather than encouraging intimate re-negotiation of relationships between people and rural places.
Analysis of newspaper reporting of the drought of 2002 shows a richness of understandings about how Australians live in landscapes prone to extended periods without rain. Just as in Tim Bonyhady's (2001) account of the drought at the end of the nineteenth century, Australian popular responses to drought and landscapes are far from unified. In a significant departure from previous analyses of drought in the media, newspaper reporting of the 2002 drought shows an increasing understanding of drought as part of life in Australia, not as an unexpected disaster (Wahlquist 2003, West and Smith 1994). However, acknowledging drought as part of life is not to deny that drought is a difficult part of life. In reporting the lived experience of drought a diversity of discourses on rural culture and politics emerge, a discursive subtlety frequently overlooked in expert and policy debates about drought.
Australians are more capable of dealing with the complexity of living in the landscape than is often assumed. Newspaper reports of the 2002 drought showed the lively, often desperate struggles of people coming to a viable way of living in Australian landscapes. Accounts of daily life on drought affected farms, the risk management strategies of agri-business corporations, devices for saving water in urban households, the politics of drought assistance and the reconsideration of drought-proofing visions provide just a few examples of the sites of engagement in this complex task.
Whilst reminders that drought is part of life are important in moving towards more ecologically viable ways of living in Australian landscapes, the diversity of meanings attributed to drought in the media discourse in 2002 indicates a popular readiness to move debate beyond the bifurcation of colonising domination or neo-liberal agricultural risk management. Newspapers reported the Wentworth Group calling for Australians to learn to live with the landscape, not fight against it, while simultaneously reporting the daily struggles of rural and urban Australians actively engaged in this task. Grappling with the questions of precisely how should Australians live in a land where drought is part of life raise further challenges for rural and ecological politics in Australia.
Accepting drought as part of life has so far been translated into the neo-liberal policy doctrines of market based distribution of resources and individual management of risk, evident in federal government drought policy and the Wentworth Group's blueprint (Wentworth Group 2002, Higgins 2001). Without sensitivity to the human and social costs of managing drought as just another risk and water as just another resource these styles of reforms risk political backlash (Alston and Kent 2004). Accepting drought as part of life in Australia need not require accepting drought as merely a business risk and water as merely another agricultural input. Newspaper reporting of the 2002 drought demonstrated a lively diversity of understandings of what it means to live in a land prone to drought. Translating these diverse meanings into political discourse and policy decisions is an important task in moving towards more sustainable relationships between people, land and water in Australia.
Sarah Bell is a lecturer in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at University College London. Her current research addresses the relationships between technology, engineering and society as they relate to urban water sustainability, including responses to drought.
Michael Moller is a lecturer in the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney. His research interests include masculinity and sports cultures and he has published several articles investigating the nexus of masculinity, sport and ethics.
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