Authors Name: 
Daniel McKay
University: 
Australian National University
Category: 
History
Award winner

Dust and Bluster: An historical evaluation of the political discourse on drought in Australia

The experience of drought has long had an influence on the Australian consciousness, as so powerfully evoked in Dorothea McKellar’s famous poetic description of Australia as a “land of droughts and flooding rains”. Yet droughts are more than just climatic variations, and can be defined in terms of their impact on human systems and patterns of life. Since colonisation the gulf which existed between the expectations and assumptions made by Europeans about the Australian environment and the reality of its capacity to sustain those expectations - has led more than once to tragedy. As this essay examines, the political response to the ‘Federation Drought’ of 1895-1903 and the ‘Big Dry’ of 1982-3 reflect both continuities and changes of this paradigm. It is argued that political responses to drought can be primarily characterized by ‘bluster’ and a superficial search for popular and short-term solutions, like ‘nation building’ schemes. Yet, at the same time the historical record shows that the limitations of these responses have resulted in an evolution of the political discourse on drought in Australia, responding not just to broader trends - but a growing consciousness of the Australian environment and a change of attitudes to what we can expect of it.