When I was a boy drought felt like the tenor of the times. When the rain stopped and the grain trucks were half empty times were tough. The lines at the CES got longer and the number of job cards got less. Tractor mechanics and silo workers would leave town. Kids away at Red Bend or Kings would suddenly return to the local primary school. The summers felt longer and hotter and the sun more blinding. The curtain and craft shops would close. Rather than buying a new Statesman or Camira graziers got their VH or VK Commodores fixed up. Roads would go potholed and unrepaired. Sheep and cattle would be found desiccated and entangled in barbed wire fences, fences that were themselves in need of repair. Waterholes famous for summer beer and bbq evenings would become sinkholes of dried mud and decaying fallen casuarinas.
Malcolm Fraser’s hat, a weathered flathead akubra, spoke to me of the powers that be and their powerlessness in face of the fact it hadn’t rained for a fair while. As the Prime Minister and a pastoralist he was exactly my image of the landowning class, a relic of the squattocracy fighting a losing battle against the sun. The recession that paralleled the 82/83 drought set the tone, you could feel the economy contracting as the dirt was ever more dust. When the next drought came in the early nineties it was the same story, there was no hat of course, rather Keating’s squint in dry Canberra sun. Everyone was talking record interest rates and the recession we had to have but I knew that it wasn’t about microeconomic reform or international competitiveness or the balance of payments. It was about the drought. To my mind, recession and drought went together like cream and scones.
When times were good, when the rain fell, the eucalypts towered and frothed, the little strip of shops would be fitted out, the carpark at Shooeys would be full to bursting on Thursday nights, and the Country Women’s Association would sell the most perfect coconut ice outside the Council chambers on Saturday mornings. The football team would actually field a reserve grade team, instead of just having reserves. Combine harvesters would roll into town, and their crews into the pubs. Fruit pickers would arrive by bus and doss down in a bed of azaleas in Palmerston Park. Occasionally a government minister would visit to announce something about fixing up the highway or the hospital. When times were good the grass was green and the tristar thorns were buried under its thatch, waiting.
The tunes and rhythms of drought left me when I came to the city. When the next big drought came, aside from producing a knicker-twisting anxiety about dam storage levels, it didn’t really matter so much. It was on the news and people couldn’t use sprinklers anymore, which was regarded as a bit of a downer because of all the nice garden stuff they’d just got from Bunnings. It took me many years to think this through, committed as I was to the drought-recession nexus, and eventually it kind of dawned on me (or broke like a thunderstorm, if you like) that while the drought was real (it really wasn’t raining) recession was not really real. Recession is a kind of moral and fiduciary constraint, a construct of the dismal science for the purpose of describing a relation between a now and a before. But there ain’t no boom and there ain’t no bust, just a decision about how much to spend and how much not to spend. No one decides about rain.
Listening to the government lay the foundations for substantial reductions in spending I found myself wondering if drought was coming down. But it isn’t, looking through my window I can see the sky about to rain. The spending cuts, the surplus fetish, the reallocation of resources, the shifting priorities, the departmental argy-bargy about programs that survive and those that don’t: none of it is about the rain.
It’s about the substantial reduction in the willingness of Australians to pay tax. Simply put Australians pay about 23 cents in every dollar to the Commonwealth. Austrians pay about 44 cents, New Zealanders about 35 cents, Germans about 40 cents, and Danes about 50 cents. A culture of tax cuts over the past fifteen years has led the Commonwealth to the point it can’t pay for its own education revolution. In fiscal terms this is a drought of our making.