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.