23 August 2011

Comparing apples

When you ask a politician a question about policy that they find uncomfortable, their standard fob-off is to say "I think you're comparing apples with oranges", and then to recite the talking-points that has been prepared for them, forming a protective shell for the half-baked assumptions that you were attempting to examine with your question.

The debate over importing New Zealand apples has been fascinating for someone whose political outlook began with the whole role-of-government-in-the-market perspective, one that used to be fairly strong within the Liberal Party.

Firstly, I expected the Kiwis to be faster out of the blocks in spruiking the excellence of their apples. I thought they would present the scientific evidence that allayed the WTO in more consumer-friendly terms to Aussie consumers, in keeping with that "100% pure" image, maybe handing out free samples on Martin Place or Collins Street. WTO rulings are a start but you only get income when consumers actually stump up cash for the product. At the moment NZ need all the export income they can get.

Secondly, I expected someone in the Liberal Party to stand up for consumers (other than Mary Jo Fisher). Cheaper and better apples: what's not to like? At a time when banana prices skew the Consumer Price Index, does that not fit with notions of "easing the squeeze on Australian working families"?

Apparently not: the Liberals have no opinion on cheaper produce as any sort of bonus for consumers. To find their stance on this policy, you have to click the "Regional" tab, because apparently city-slickers in Liberal seats like me don't consume apples. People in marginal seats apparently don't consume apples. That's why they've flicked their position on the issue to the Nationals:
‘The retrograde protocols agreed today by the Gillard government to import apples from New Zealand almost guarantee the import of the disease fire blight to Australia,’ the Shadow Minister for Agriculture and Food Security John Cobb said today.
You're meant to start a press release with a statement that grabs the reader's attention. This is such bullshit that the reader is repulsed.
‘The acceptance of standard New Zealand orchard practices without on-farm checking by Australian inspectors is an abrogation of Government responsibilities.

‘The Minister in his wisdom has implemented his new secret weapon in the fight against fire blight:

“A supply chain trace-back system for apples from orchard to arrival in Australia”

‘Wow!!! The Minister has really outdone himself. This means that when Australia gets fire blight we will know which orchard it came from in New Zealand.
When negotiation fails to get you into government, use sarcasm?

Seriously though, what does this mean for a Coalition in government? Are we really going to have Australian quarantine inspectors travelling far and wide, inspecting NZ orchards and Indonesian abattoirs and Malaysian palm oil plantations? Forget the Navy, join AQIS and see the world. No wonder they hid this over on the Regional tab: Joe Hockey's search for $70b of savings is doomed once he discovers this hidden batallion of the Green Army.
‘Unlike the government the Coalition believes Australia’s robust, science-based quarantine protections must not be compromised.
That is rich: the Coalition, standing up for science and acting on the basis of its findings.

Mostly, the Coalition generate more heat than light with their blanket opposition to everything the government does. There are times, however, where you have to stop rolling your eyes and pleading for a political debate that is worthy of this country and the issues facing it - and just have a good laugh. I mean: Coalition! Science! Who is the Shadow Minister for Science anyway? Talk about laugh.
Our pest and disease-free status has been hard won and the government’s rubber stamping of NZ apples imports into Australia, without the same checks and balances applied to other countries, sets a dangerous precedent.
If the WTO were satisfied with NZ's scientific position, on what scientific basis is the Coalition not satisfied?
‘I am so concerned about the disease risk that this government presents for our nation that I have been forced to take the extraordinary measure of introducing this Quarantine Legislation Amendment (Apples) Bill 2011 to safeguard against fire blight.

‘This Bill, to be introduced on Monday 22 August ...
Here is the list of bills before parliament as at close of business on Monday 22 August 2011. Protection of the Sea, Remuneration ... what, nothing? For all their talk they really are rubbish at blocking legislation, aren't they. Why would Cobb do such a thing, break a promise in order to stand up for the science?

Oh wait, Coalition MPs are going to second-guess the scientists:
Opposition agriculture spokesman John Cobb was due to introduce a private bill to parliament yesterday ... But he said in a statement he's holding off until he and a small coalition delegation return from New Zealand.
Wouldn't it be easier just to read what the WTO said? Cobb will find NZ has scientists of its own, and people every bit as committed to stamping out fire blight as Cobb appears to be. This might be another "Wow!!" moment for the excitable Mr Cobb, and at least some Nats will get a junket in. There is no indication as to what will happen upon his return, or whether the cheap headlines of Monday 22 August will result in expensive policy of any sort.

Cobb has capitalised the Apple Industry, the first time I've seen it referred to in that way: I assume that puts it on par with the Aboriginal Industry.

All this mucking-about by Cobb and the Coalition created the perfect environment for someone to step in with a clear policy direction. Nick Xenophon represents a state with a small number of orchardists and a large number of apple consumers. You'd think he'd stand up for consumers, right? It would be consistent with every other position he's held.

Not a bit of it:
Senator Xenophon says his bill will be based on scientific evidence and will be compliant with World Trade Organisation rules ... "Fire blight is like the herpes of fruit, once you get it, you can never get rid of it, it just keeps coming back and back."
NZ apples will fuck with your mouth, eh?

If John Cobb and his junketeers can't find the science, I'd love to see what Xenophon comes up with. We haven't even addressed the whole issue of NZ as a market for >$8b of Australian exports, and their rights to exact reprisals for the sort of Cobb-lers proposed above.

Politically, the free market is down 2-0. Apart from partisan support for the government, where to turn for intellectual support in understanding what is going on?

I looked to Catallaxy to see if they had anything to say on the subject: at time of writing (and with that crucial day 22/8/11 fading into history), nothing.

I looked to the oligopolists of free market theory in Australia, the CIS and the IPA. Nothing from the IPA: the CIS had a useful summary from before last year's Australian election but that's about it. These omissions support the theory that the CIS and IPA are lobbyists rather than purely interested in free and open markets for their own sake.

The case for any sort of reform has to be made continuously by its adherents: either you believe in the idea and the benefits that flow from it or you don't. If you're going to stand against one form of restrictive trade practice (e.g. tobacco packaging) surely you will praise incidents where restrictive trade practices go down (e.g. apples), particularly measures where the technology is ahead of where it was in 1921. All the Australian apple orchardists "protected" by that measure are now dead; as are the NZ apple exporters disadvantaged by it, enacted just six years after the ANZAC bonds forged at Gallipoli.

The case for free market reform has waxed and waned within Australia's right-of-centre parties. The IPA and CIS have always enjoyed close links with the Liberals but we are now in an age where libertarians have to wonder what they get from an arrangement where they are so obviously being played for mugs.

People like Chris Berg and John Roskam keep their profile up and hope the Liberal Party will notice them, rather than offering intellectual coherence and badly-needed research capacity to a major party in opposition - a party that bears out what Hayek meant when he insisted that he was not a conservative. In Victorian Liberal preselections Roskam is everybody's third preference rather than a force to be reckoned with and accommodated, in terms of both positions and policy. A libertarian who wants to get things done must push aside the IPA and CIS, with all the dead weight of its Fellows and what have you. C D Kemp would be disgusted at this avoidance of real debate over real issues, especially with so little to show for it in terms of achievement and impact.

Whatever game the libertarians are playing, it better be lucrative - otherwise they'll have sold out with nothing much to show for it. The Coalition and Xenophon aren't going to get many votes out of apple prices either way, but a bit of relief from scaremongering as a substitute for science-led debate would have been nice. Next time farmers complain about "food security" I'm going to be sceptical, aren't you?

This leaves us with a policy outcome forced on the Australian government, an outcome that could be good for consumers or terrible for both consumers and producers in this country (well, insofar as a temporary disease-led shortage of apples might be considered "terrible"; I miss cheap bananas but let's keep things in perspective). Where do we go with this?

Public debate over policy issues is impoverished where nobody who isn't turning a dollar from one possible outcome participates in the debate. Journalism and politics both fail when it can't present quotes and stunts within that wider context. You can participate and do what you can, but you're still at a disadvantage when those who set the context are in thrall to the most hysterical advocates and especially their insistence that they are the only "players" who count.


  1. Andrew - you have a wonderful way with words. Just lovely stuff.

  2. John Cobb gave a very confusing interview on the ABC program Rural Report. It seemed he was saying that he was going of to NZ at the invitation of the NZ government. Not now, but when the apple growers say he should, that would be, presumably, when the dreaded fb is in season. I think actual mycologists may have gone through all this several years ago.

  3. Has anyone asked how the fire blight gets from the supermarket to the orchards?

  4. Really great article - I wish you would have a crack at the facts surrounding better access to mental health, your last 2 sentences would be equally at home there.

  5. Hey Andrew, have you come across The Conversation before? (http://theconversation.edu.au) It seems to me to be a pretty shining example of what you often lament the lack of in the media (ie. explaining a complex issue, why it's important, and what it means to us, in a way we can understand). Not every article there hits the mark, but a lot of them do. If you agree with me, you should give it a plug, because people like me who are interested in this blog are also likely to be interested in solutions to the problems you consistently identify.

    On another note, congratulations on a particularly good post, and on the fact that Jonathan Green obviously thought that it's a good post too.

  6. Roger & Anons, thank you.

    Daniel: it sure is. I should reference it more, and will put it in the blogroll.