Waste of cash: The tide turns against money for farmers caught out by the drought. Photo: Andrew Meares
Australia is more the ''food thimble'' of Asia than food bowl, and poorly designed drought aid could lead to funds being diverted from crucial research to boost competitiveness and improve farm resilience to extreme weather, agriculture experts say.
Federal Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce said he expected a hard sell to win over cabinet colleagues when he presents his drought relief plan as soon as Tuesday.
Mike Stephens, the chairman of the Australian Institute of Agricultural Science and Technology, said it was ''crazy'' for Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Mr Joyce to describe the drought covering more than two-thirds of Queensland and half of Victoria as a natural disaster.
''Drought is part of doing business in Australia,'' he said. ''There's a major drought somewhere in Australia one year in three.''
Mr Stephens said he had great sympathy for farmers doing it tough, having managed a large sheep property near Bendigo during the major drought in the early 1980s. Even so, poorly designed farm aid would mean ''we prop up farms that have no future'', spending less on research and hurting the whole of agriculture.
Australia's food export prospects were often over-hyped, he said.
''If we increase agricultural production fivefold, we would feed 3 per cent of Asia.''
Linda Botterill, a professor in public policy at the University of Canberra, said the government ran the risk of repeating policy errors made in earlier dry spells.
''If you only focus on the disaster response, farmers don't prepare,'' Professor Botterill said. ''You get people who are marginal at best when it rains and who get bailed out when it doesn't.''
While retaining the former exceptional circumstances support would be helpful, Mr Joyce said it cost more than $1 billion for the drought year of 2007-08.
''We, as a nation, can't afford it any more,'' he said.
He declined to repeat his call, made during last weekend's tour of three regions of NSW and Queensland with the Prime Minister, for an increase in low interest rate loans to $700 million from $420 million.
A key push will be to expand access to the Transitional Farm Family Payment scheme, paid at the Newstart Allowance rate.
''You have to deal with the immediate requirements of the house, to maintain the dignity'' and help the family replan, Mr Joyce said.
Mr Stephens said farmers needed to prepare for Australia's changing climate, making the natural variability even more erratic and less predictable.
A farmer in an area with an average rainfall of 600 millimetres should learn from good farmers in regions with 500 millimetres as ''that's the climate you're going to get in 15 years'' for many areas that relied on winter rain, Mr Stephens said.