Many years ago, a letter was published in the Sydney Morning Herald that purported to be a letter to Bert Kelly M.P., from his cousin Otis, a farmer in Nebraska. It went something like this;
“…we have enjoyed a good season this year. As you would know from your visit several years ago, we usually turn off about five hundred hogs a year, as well as farming eight hundred acres of corn. Farming over here, though, has changed, and this year the government has paid us for not producing five hundred hogs and for not growing eight hundred acres of corn. As a result, we have had a reasonably successful year. So much so, that we are thinking of buying some more land and not raising more hogs and not growing more corn.”
Silly as it may seem, though, it is an accurate reflection of the foolishness of government farm policies in many countries of the world. Still, the very fact that some countries actually have a farm policy is enough to make Australian farmers envious. Here, the only policy seems to be, in the words of the National Farmers Federation, “Get big or get out” and, as a result, the number of Australian farms has halved since the 1960’s with devastating consequences to country towns. Farmers can only get big, you see, by buying out other farmers and that usually results in more debt for the farmer and fewer people for the community. Thus, the farmer, faced with reduced commodity prices and rising costs, including from July 1st a GST, is obliged to overproduce on his land while the community, faced with fewer people as a result of farm buildup, sees the continued existence of important social institutions such as police, schools, hospitals and banks come under threat. This, we are told, is part of the cost of achieving the “level playing field” that is so essential to our economic survival.
Looking across to the other side of that “level playing field” though, we see a different approach being followed by a number of countries that compete with us in international commodity markets. France, for example, is typical of the European Economic Community countries and EEC farm policies. The average farm in France is about 80 hectares, meaning a closely settled rural sector supported by villages and towns with excellent transport, postal, health and social services. The entire farming community is totally dependent on government subsidies and, were they not available, it would necessitate a massive exodus to the towns and cities, resulting in serious social unrest.
But European governments understand how important it is to ensure that their rural areas remain populated knowing from experience that a denuded countryside might invite the envious scrutiny of overcrowded neighbours. Australia’s politicians, on the other hand, seem totally unconcerned, one might even say “relaxed and comfortable”, about the inherent danger of Australia’s empty interior. Or perhaps they think that the second verse of our national anthem – “for those who come across the sea, we’ve bounteous plains to share” – means that the thousands of illegal immigrants from the Middle East are somehow justified in their invasion.
In any event, European governments are happy to pay the price to keep their rural communities going, and who can blame them? That price includes a vast system of rural subsidies that not only keeps farmers on the land, but ensures that they can successfully compete against Australian farmers in commodity markets, and, adding insult to injury, even export into Australia’s domestic market against local products. Hence, a French sheep farmer on good land will receive a subsidy of 140 francs ($35) per ewe carried while, if he is on poorer country, he will receive more. Similarly, a French wheat grower receives a subsidy of 2300 francs ($575) per hectare for soft wheat and 3250 francs ($812) per hectare for hard wheat. Once again, regional variations exist to make up for poor country.
This, we are told, is the “level playing field”. European farmers, and United States farmers, are subsidised to compete with Australian farmers in our traditional export markets, while there is no protection against their dumping subsidised products on to our own domestic market. Australian farmers, on the other hand, have gradually suffered the loss of all forms of rural assistance and the removal of protection against unfair trading practices and dumping. Mind you, we do not advocate farm subsidies, but we do feel that protection against unfair competition is justified, as are income equalisation schemes and tax breaks on capital investment. Direct Government subsidy leads to government control and the loss of individual liberty, and it is a poor bargain at best to exchange independence for government control. But the Australian farmer would be unwise to pin his hopes on these bizarre farm policies in Europe ever being altered. The closely settled nature of the European countryside means that farmers there have real political clout and Governments will ignore them at their peril.
All of this, of course, only serves to remind us that, if we are to have a future in the bush, then we must create it ourselves. We can no longer rely on governments or big business to come to our rescue and that’s probably a good thing. Too much dependence leads to apathy, and the loss of initiative and freedom. That’s what has happened to Australia in the last thirty years, a period in which we have seen increasing government controls over the lives and behaviour of citizens, enormous expansion in the size and cost of government, the replacement of private enterprise with international monopoly capitalism, the delineation of Australia into social classes based on materialistic measurements and the loss of our economic and political sovereignty.
If we can still say that our future is in our own hands, then there is some hope for us. It means, though, that we have to go back to the beginning and, once more, build our communities and their economies ourselves. Our forbears did this, suffering more hardships and facing more obstacles that we have today. In fact the biggest obstacle we have, probably, is our own lack of faith, courage, vision and self-belief.
We need, firstly, to recover some of the spirit of our pioneering ancestors and be willing to believe that the job they did is not beyond us. But the real task for us is to break the habit of thinking that only governments and multinational corporations can help us out, that their interests are ours, that we can’t do it on our own. The reverse is true. If we can’t find, in our own communities, the resources in terms of vision, money, skill and commitment, to re-build our own economy and control our own lives, then we don’t deserve to survive and we probably won’t. It’s up to us.