05/07/2005 - 22:00

Protectionist tactics from another era

05/07/2005 - 22:00


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I’m always fascinated how the pendulum finds its natural balance in politics.

I’m always fascinated how the pendulum finds its natural balance in politics.

An example is the situation in the federal sphere, where the agenda of the conservative John Howard-led Liberals is being challenged from within due to the weakness of their Labor opponents.

We have already seen a softening of the Howard line on refugees, now we are witnessing a major push from the Coalition’s junior partner, the National Party, to use its increasing clout to further insulate the bush from change.

So despite years of conservative rhetoric about free trade and opposition to welfare, we are hearing increasing noise about protecting Australian farmers.

The biggest, noisiest issue is the privatisation of Telstra, now thought probable with the conservative domination of both houses of federal parliament.

But getting senators from the National Party to agree with that seems fraught with difficulty.

A new issue to arise is concern about food imports, with major retailers and fast food chains accused of being ‘unAustralian’.

It seems just as the feds have softened on refugee policies, our xenophobia is being refocused on those nasty multi-nationals which dare to buy their spuds from overseas – the Tasman Sea in this case, where those naughty New Zealanders are going to send our farmers broke.

It is a message I agree with, but I don’t believe regulation or interference is a way to solve it.

Cocooned as I am in my urban comfort, I have been to the country enough to know what it is all about, and I simply don’t buy the line that rural Australia is something that requires government preservation or protection.

It only leaks out occasionally but Australia’s farmers are sounding more and more like their brethren in Europe and the US when it comes to seeking to retain their lifestyles by more than their own means (which allows me to briefly mention again the French farmer I once met whose subsidies helped pay, each year, for three months’ travel and three months of protesting in Paris).

I respect that many rural communities face an exodus to the cities as jobs and opportunities dry up. This is a massive challenge but I don’t see how forcing a buy-Australia policy or getting sensational mobile phone coverage is going to change that.

Without issues of potential national interest (food production crisis or huge population shifts), the problem boils down to whether the rural lifestyle should be artificially preserved.

The short answer is no.

While this country was said to have ridden on the sheep’s back, those days were relatively few and long since past.

Folklore might have us all familiar with the pastoral heydays of early Australia, but this nation does not owe the descendants of our spectacularly successful farmers anything.

Australia’s rural people benefited greatly from entering agriculture just as the industry peaked in importance. Agriculture is millennia old, but it was industrialisation that has changed the world and it was the demand from the weaving mills of Britain that made our farmers rich.

Last century, cropping slowly overtook wool in importance to Australia but in comparison to energy or minerals, it is a second class citizen.

Yet this waning sector demands the right to stop privatisations, interferes in free trade agreements, wants to resist competition from free-trading neighbours, clings on to a wheat purchasing monopoly and generally behaves like it belongs on the left side of politics. Dare I use the word socialist here?

Farmers are let down when it comes to issues such as power and services. That’s because they have been led by self-serving politicians to expect parity with urban Australia in everything except voting rights (which arrived in Western Australia only months ago). That simply isn’t possible without costing the rest of Australia too much.

Why should the miners – who don’t enjoy too many luxuries – pay for the lifestyles of rural Australia, whether they eat McDonald’s or not.

What happened to the farmers I remember who used to force their way through union pickets at the wharfs and celebrated their individualism and resilience in the face of hardship?

It is ironic that we are being asked to preserve this notion of the iconic bush existence when, arguably, it no longer really exists.


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