Local government in Queensland says it needs to be recognised as part of the answer to coping with drought in the state, and has prepared an eight-point action plan to back that up.
The plan, still to be ratified at a Local Government Association of Queensland executive meeting next week, emphasises the close connection that councils have with their communities, and the many job-creating possibilities they already hold.
It calls for a new, science-based system of drought declarations, for councils to prepare drought management plans, and for financial assistance to be made available to all drought-affected businesses, not just primary producers.
Speaking on behalf of the LGAQ regional development advocacy team, Kirsten Pietzner said well-meant drought policies and programs will continue to be ineffective unless local government leadership is given proper recognition and support by state and federal governments.
Such recognition would include funding for drought resilience coordinators as the point of coordination for deploying federal and state resources.
Ms Pietzner said things like this had to be written in to a plan because local government was often invisible.
"A council in Melbourne does things very differently to one in rural Queensland," she said. "Governments don't understand the breadth of responsibility we have, where state and federal governments aren't in the space."
The effectiveness of councils in regional Queensland was demonstrated over and over again in the north west during February's monsoon disaster when their intimate knowledge of a situation helped on urgent decision-making occasions.
Ms Pietzner said part of the mindset around drought that councils would like to influence was the notion that council areas were either in or out of drought.
"We think they should look at the impact on a community," she said.
"Just as every flood isn't a disaster, depending on where the water goes, in droughts farmers know to sell their animals and so on.
"But after six or so years, they just can't manage the impact on their own and so they get government support."
A drought severity index would provide triggers for landholders to prepare for worsening conditions and allow for government interventions in a proportional, timely way.
It would always need judgement overlaid, interpreting things such as green droughts, Ms Pietzner said, which is where local knowledge came into its own again.
Another of the points calls for federal tax incentives and federal and state drought programs to be expanded to assist both farm and non-farm businesses.
Despite the theory, Ms Pietzner said money given to landholders wasn't having the trickle-down effect that was predicted, because people weren't spending on service industries or employing farm workers.
To combat the resulting population decline, the LGAQ suggested the Farm Household Allowance Scheme and the Farm Management Deposit Scheme could each be adapted to assist non-farm businesses.
More money and better coordination for natural resource management was mentioned specifically in the eight-point plan, given that local government is the biggest investor in weeds programs in Australia and therefore likely to have a large impact on outcomes.
"Weeds are in a weakened state in droughts," Ms Pietzner said. "You get a payoff environmentally and economically."
She acknowledged that Coordinator-General for Drought Major-General Stephen Day had put a lot of time into listening to similar issues but said they had not "seen the fruits of his labour" yet.
"Local government hasn't traditionally been involved in drought policy but we had a resolution at conference last year, asking that we have input to the national drought taskforce," she said. "This is an accumulation of that research."
The eight-point plan:
- Partner with local government
- Reform drought governance arrangements - introduce drought severity index
- Support communities to better adapt to drought
- Increase support for all drought-affected businesses
- Continue to drought funding to communities
- Improve coordination and invest more in natural resource management
- Restore financial assistance grants to local government
- Make a sustained, increased investment in our regions