02 November 2012

Grist to the mill

By the time wheat makes its way to Sydney it is pretty well processed and refined. It's easy to take it for granted as a commodity and to underestimate the politics involved in making and selling it.

If you want to be Prime Minister, and especially a Coalition Prime Minister, you have to get your head across the politics of wheat. The idea that you should rise to a senior position without having done so is negligent.

Wheat was grown in small and feeble quantities in early Sydney. The Indian strain ruti was grown on a hill to the west of the city that is still known as Rooty Hill, but from which all trace of agriculture has since been lost. When the vast lands to the west of Sydney were exploited by the British it came to be grown in vast quantities; later vast quantities were grown in Western Australia due to subsidies channeled from gold revenue.

Government involvement in wheat-growing took off after the 1930s. It had become one of Australia's key industries and was then labour-intensive. One of the first impacts of the Depression on Australia came with the drying-up of wheat markets, when agents and brokers and other bulk-purchasers went broke and/or slashed their prices, leading to real and immediate impacts on jobs and liquidity generally. Government took over the selling of wheat with the aim of insulating the economy from that degree of shock, offering to pool wheat output and sell it through a "single desk" - with the consequences you'd expect, really, in a neoliberal age.

Firstly, wheat farmers have generally received an even but rarely grand income, as highly regulated as any award employee.

Secondly, the politics of selling wheat has gone way beyond mere hypocrisy and gone into the kind of dissonance that causes mental illness in individuals:
  • Coalition MPs who made bloody denunciations of communism were happy to flog Australian wheat to the Soviet Union, and the People's Republic of China (until Whitlam the communist regime in Beijing was not recognised as the official government of China, the Guomindang government of Taiwan was regarded as "China");
  • The Howard government sold Australian wheat to Iraq despite UN sanctions against that country. There was a royal commission into the private sector's role in this, but the role of the then government has not been examined to the same extent. I expected the Rudd government to square that circle, but no;
  • When you factor in government involvement in selling Australian innovations such as Synroc and Securency you have to concede that, in certain situations, libertarians have a point.
Basically, wheat farmers in Western Australia want to privatise the profits where prices are high and production is abundant, while wheat farmers toward the east of the country are prepared to stay under government protection to better ride out slumps driven by prices (set by overseas markets and competitors) and production (i.e. droughts, floods etc in Australia). When the government proposed to abolish Wheat Exports Australia (the latest label on the "single desk"), the Coalition found itself wedged:
  • Eastern-states Coalition MPs were instructed to vote to keep the "single desk" in some form, and did so;
  • Tony Crook, whose presence in Coalition ranks was always tenuous, voted with a calmly united Labor in the expressed interests of his constituents;
  • Julie Bishop, the Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party, was mocked by some old has-been in her attempts to get Coalition MPs to all vote one way on the issue, and in a way that embarrassed the government;
  • Mal Washer and Dennis Jensen, two long-serving MPs who had relied on government incomes before entering parliament, decided they would play libertarian in abstaining from voting either with their Coalition colleagues or with the government (if moderates had done this, the Liberal right would have gone apoplectic); and
  • For their (non-)efforts, both were denounced by the Coalition spokesperson on agriculture, John Cobb. Cobb showed his genius for agricultural policy over New Zealand apples. He managed to harvest rural anger when the government banned live cattle exports to Indonesia, without a clear idea what he'd do given the breadth and force of opposition within Australia to Indonesian abattoir practices. Cobb pointed out that Jensen and Washer were not part of "the farming community", by which he means the agrarian socialist shakedown that makes people like him possible. 
Cobb's record of political and policy failure remains intact and ripe for rural independents to take advantage of. More broadly, the Coalition looked like a rabble in the lead-up to that vote, during it, and since in taking it to the government in Question Time (in the hope of uniting people deeply divided on matters of principle and what it means to represent the community's best interests).

Julie Bishop was used to brokering deals among fractious Western Australians, but this just proved too hard. Instead of focusing on policy, and taking the initiative away from the government, she instead focused on reacting to whatever the government did and making MPs toe an increasingly silly line.

MPs representing wheat-growing areas tend not to be party hacks with little direct experience in private-sector production, unlike most Coalition MPs. Simply cracking the whip and making these people do what they are bloody well told was never going to work, and nor would once-talismanic but no longer relevant input from Mark Textor jabbering on about elites. The main political tools of people like Bishop, and Abbott, were completely blunted in the face of a political issue that is, as it were, perennial as the grass.

Since his momentum has been slowed by sexism and misogyny, Abbott has been kept above the fray. The Coalition has realised that there is no further advantage for Abbott in his "junkyard dog" role. Bishop has taken over the role but she is no good at it. Pyne has disappeared from view and this is a good thing, nobody wants to or should have to hear from him. Hockey needs to be Mr Policy Substance but somehow he has been drafted into parliamentary theatre. Having abandoned his frontline role, Abbott sits there like his vision of the monarch: to advise, counsel, and warn.

The trouble for Abbott is that role is taken by Howard. His advice and counsel is not that valuable and his warnings have no impact. He sits in Question Time shuffling through papers like Kevin Rudd in 2007 - Rudd was a much more successful Opposition Leader and Abbott could do worse than emulate him more than he did. The difference is that Rudd probably read those papers, they were less likely to be the empty props that they are for Abbott. He will not become more Prime Ministerial by rising above the fray, but irrelevant in comparison with the hands-on Gillard.

The reason why you work on policy in opposition is that you can deal with "sudden" issues like this, complicated by an additional self-imposed requirement to gainsay whatever the government puts up. The Coalition reacts to events rather than demonstrating their capability in managing them. Pissant compromises are all very well for issues that come and go - but wheat is not an issue that disappears from Australian public life for long. The Abbott-led Coalition is not demonstrating that it is ready for government because it is not ready, therefore its criticisms of the incumbents will lose traction, and the Coalition will not be elected to replace them.


  1. “If there was ever an individual so totally undeserving of high office then that person is, unquestionably, Tony Abbott. We don’t need a negative, 19th century trogdolyte as Prime Minister of this country.”

  2. Abbott voting against wheat regulation reform makes a mockery of the Conservative-blue blooded free market ethos.

    The IPA would be privately livid about this, but publicly they will find a way to spin it to the affirmative.

  3. Old Slipper made the most of the absurd hypocrisy.
    The WA wheat farmers are ropable and being denied the right to free trade flies in the face of basic Liberal values
    This is a political stunt by Abbott who is delaying the de regulation on the limp excuse that Labor can't be trusted to do it effectively, in the meantime WA wheatfarmers are out of pocket in the millions.

  4. I think it IIs safe to use a bigger font for:

    'Tony Abbott will never be Prime Minister of Australia.'

  5. Wow!!!

    Watching homocon on The Contrarians today talking about Tony going in nice and hard against the mysoginy claims with our pm

    God forbid what insidious crap they would do with this one

    Scary and crazy organisation

  6. A pleasure to read. More background and breadth of view than the Oz has in a month.

  7. "The Coalition reacts to events rather than demonstrating their capability in managing them."

    What more can one expect from the most reactionary bunch ever to (dis)grace Parliament.

  8. Why has Mr Pyne gone silent? He's never been camera shy before. Is he planning something with Mr Hockey?

  9. Michelle Grattan again pleading with her Tone to do a better job. This time she's telling him to, and I kid you now, smile more.

    Our media have long passed even pretending to be neutral. Their desperation is depressing.