In 2014 the Coalition government announced a 320 million dollar package for drought-hit farmers. In describing this initiative as a â€œhand-upâ€ not a â€œhand outâ€ Prime Minister Tony Abbott encapsulated more than 150 years of tension over whether government drought response should be unconditional limited relief or conditional longer-term assistance. This paper considers the long history of drought assistance in Australia as seen through government legislation, year books, newspapers and personal papers. It argues that despite changing political and social circumstances, contradictions in the approach to government drought response, as well as in public and personal reactions to those policies, have remained remarkably consistent. We further suggest that lack of consensus over the inherent nature of drought is not sufficient to explain the dilemma.