History of drought policy

The Australian Government’s current approach to drought policy has been informed by its history.

States and territories have primary legislative and administrative responsibility for natural resources and agriculture. This includes:

  • land use
  • water management
  • drought response and planning.

However, all levels of government, industry and the community play a role in drought management and resilience.

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National Drought Policy

Drought policy in the middle of the 20th century focused on attempts to ‘drought proof’ agriculture by expanding irrigation. In 1971, government policy shifted to recognise drought as a natural disaster. This allowed  affected people to be helped through joint Commonwealth-state Natural Disaster Relief and Recovery Arrangements.

In 1989, drought was removed from the Natural Disaster Relief and Recovery Arrangements. A review found that previous drought policy was:

  • poorly targeted
  • distorted farm input prices
  • worked as a disincentive for farmers to prepare for drought.

The response to this review was the National Drought Policy, announced in 1992. The objectives of the National Drought Policy were to:

  • encourage primary producers and other sections of rural Australia to adopt self-reliant approaches to managing for climate variability
  • facilitate the maintenance and protection of Australia’s agricultural and environmental resources base during periods of climatic stress
  • facilitate the early recovery of agricultural and rural industries, consistent with long-term sustainable levels.

The policy set up these assistance programs:

  • Rural Adjustment Scheme. It offered grants and interest rate subsidies.
  • Drought Relief Payment. It provided income support for farmers within declared Exceptional Circumstances (EC) areas.

In 1997, these programs became the EC Interest Rate Subsidy and the EC Relief Payment.

Between 1997 and 2012, EC arrangements were the main way farmers were supported. For a drought to be declared an exceptional circumstance, it had to:

  • be rare and severe (must not have occurred more than once every 20 to 25 years and must be significant)
  • have resulted in a rare and severe downturn in farm income over a prolonged period (over 12 months)
  • not be predictable or part of a process of structural adjustment.

Over time, the EC arrangements were shown to be inequitable. Eligibility was determined by ‘lines on a map’. Some farmers who experienced the same drought as their neighbours were located on the other side of a boundary line. This meant they could not access support.

The decision to close the EC programs was based on successive reviews of drought policy which found that EC assistance was ineffective and could result in farm businesses being less responsive to drought conditions. On 30 April 2012, the last EC declarations lapsed. There have been no EC declarations since.

Between 1996 and 2000, these programs were introduced:

National Review of Drought Policy

In 2008, Australian, state and territory primary industries ministers agreed that drought support based on EC was no longer appropriate in the face of a variable climate.

The Australian Government commissioned a national review of drought policy to guide decisions on how it could better support farmers. The review found that drought conditions in Australia were likely to occur more often and be more severe. It  also recommended that drought assistance programs be restructured  to help farmers prepare for drought rather than waiting until they are in crisis to offer assistance.The review was informed by climatic, social and economic assessments of drought and drought assistance.

Exceptional Circumstances Report

The Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO assessed the likely future climate patterns and the EC standard for drought as a 1-in-20-to-25-year-event.

Changing perspectives on dryness

An expert panel examined the social impacts of drought on farm families and rural communities. The 7-member panel delivered the final report in September 2008.

The report concluded there needed to be a new national approach to living with dryness, rather than dealing with drought. It suggested focusing support services on early intervention and the ongoing wellbeing of farm families, rural businesses and communities.

Download the report

Document Pages File size
It’s About People: Changing Perspectives on Dryness, A Report to Government by an Expert Social Panel – September 2008 PDF version PDF 168 2.6 MB
It’s About People: Changing Perspectives on Dryness, A Report to Government by an Expert Social Panel – September 2008 - Part 1 Word version DOC 57 2.4 MB
It’s About People: Changing Perspectives on Dryness, A Report to Government by an Expert Social Panel – September 2008 - Part 2 Word version DOC 38 1.3 MB
Appendixes 1-7 Word version DOC 19 3.0 MB
Appendixes 8-11 Word version DOC 55 1.8 MB

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Inquiry report

The 2 previous reports informed a Productivity Commission review into the economic assessment of drought support measures.

The Commission inquiry report was released in May 2009.

The report:

  • found that EC declarations and related drought assistance programs did not help farmers improve their self-reliance, preparedness and climate change management
  • recommended that farmers facing hardship should have access to a farming family income support scheme, regardless of drought
  • placed primary responsibility for managing risks, including climate variability and change, with farmers.

WA Drought Pilot

From 1 July 2010 to 30 June 2012 the Australian Government partnered with the Western Australian Government to trial measures to support farmers and rural communities preparing for future drought rather than rely on assistance during drought.

In 2011, an independent advisory panel conducted a review of the initial pilot. The review confirmed that a move to programs with a focus on risk management and preparedness was appropriate. Another report was published in 2013 after the expanded pilot program ended. The pilot provided evidence to support the design of programs under the Future Drought Fund.

Download the documents

Document Pages File size

Drought Pilot Review Panel: a review of the pilot of drought reform measures in Western Australia 2011 PDF

145 1.7 MB

Drought Pilot Review Panel: a review of the pilot of drought reform measures in Western Australia 2011 DOC

145 2.7 MB

Working Group: Pilot of Drought Reform Measures in Western Australia Final Report 2013 PDF

59 1.6 MB
Working Group: Pilot of Drought Reform Measures in Western Australia Final Report 2013 DOCX 59 682 KB

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Intergovernmental Agreement on National Drought Program Reform (IGA)

In May 2013, the Australian, state and territory primary industries ministers agreed the Intergovernmental Agreement on National Drought Program Reform (IGA).

Download

Document Pages File size

Intergovernmental Agreement on National Drought Program Reform PDF

8 338 KB

Note: This document was not prepared by the department and may not meet Australian Government accessibility guidelines. If you have difficulty accessing these files, visit web accessibility for assistance.

The IGA outlined the roles and responsibilities for implementing the new approach. The IGA recognised that farm businesses needed to prepare for drought, rather than rely on governments’ response as an exceptional circumstance.

In 2013, the Australian Government also announced the delivery of the farm assistance package which included access to:

In 2017, a working group comprising officials from all jurisdictions conducted a review of the IGA to assess its effectiveness. It received 14 submissions.

The review saw the IGA replaced. In 2018, the Council of Australian Governments signed a new National Drought Agreement.

The Agricultural Competitiveness White Paper

The 2015 White Paper set out the Australian Government’s roadmap of practical actions to grow the agriculture sector. The White Paper aimed to help farmers prepare for drought, not only from a business perspective but through better social and community support. The White Paper included initiatives for:

  • improved seasonal forecasting
  • tax measures and farm insurance advice
  • risk assessment grants.

Funding was also announced for continued access to:

Advice of the Coordinator-General

In 2019, the former Coordinator-General for Drought advised on how to:

  • drive a comprehensive drought response
  • help inform a long-term drought resilience and preparedness strategy.

The Australian Government took specific actions to address the Coordinator-General’s report and released a Drought Response, Resilience and Preparedness Plan the same year.

Download the report

Australian Government, 2019

Document Pages File size
Drought in Australia: Coordinator-General for Drought’s advice on a Strategy for Drought Preparedness and Resilience PDF 64 1.3 MB
Drought in Australia: Coordinator-General for Drought’s advice on a Strategy for Drought Preparedness and Resilience DOCX 64 362 KB

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Need help?

Check current drought and rural support we provide.

Find services and support near you from governments, charities and other organisations.

Call the Farmer Assistance Hotline on 132 316

Last reviewed: 17 September 2021
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