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"No intention of becoming Third World farmers"

The Guardian, Australia

"No intention of becoming Third World farmers"

By Tom Pearson

8 March 2006

Just one year into the free trade agreement (FTA) with the US, Trade Minister Mark Vaile - who signed the FTA - may agree to dump the Australian Wheat Board (AWB) single desk system. The system was set up in 1939 when growers pooled their wheat to protect their incomes.

"There may come a day when we no longer need a single desk for Australian wheat farmers", said Vaile last week. "That day will only come if the world agrees to free up agricultural trade through the Doha [World Trade Organisation] round [of negotiations]."

Dumping the single desk was the plan all along: the FTA is about opening Australian agriculture to the highly subsidised US agricultural monopoly. The single desk represents Australian wheat growers, including the smaller growers. It means that the smaller, individual growers are not competing on international markets and being beaten down to below cost prices.

Using the wheat-for-oil scandal, now under investigation by the Cole inquiry, as the lever to tip out the single desk, Vaile is in sync with the President of the US Wheat Associates, which represents 80 percent of US wheat farmers, who has hypocritically called the single desk "unacceptable".

Vaile is also singing the same tune as the US Under Secretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services, who last week took the opportunity to use the wheat-for-oil business to attack the AWB and call for an end to the single desk.

But the corrupt AWB board members were appointed by the Government, which refuses to accept any responsibility for their actions.

That corruption is in fact an extension of the Government’s fundamentally corrupt nature. Day after day, ministers, including John Howard, are revealed to be deeply implicated in the whole affair, including that Howard’s office was told as early as 2000 that "allegations of irregularities" in wheat contracts with Iraq by AWB officials were being investigated by the UN, the Cole inquiry has heard.

Howard, again, simply denied everything. "... no knowledge in relation to alleged bribery by AWB Ltd was in the possession of members of my government - in my possession or any of my colleagues - at the time these offences occurred."

Scrapping the single desk will let the monopoly agri-businesses rule the roost to the detriment of the rest of the wheat farmers. In a letter to the Business Review Weekly, Victorian grain grower Michael O’Callaghan made clear what the single desk means for farmers:

"Wheat growers are the real owners of the single desk. Marketing maximises the price for our quality wheat in the international grain markets that are distorted by subsidies" he said. "There is no level playing field.

"Australia supplies only 16 percent of the world’s wheat trade; it goes to more than 100 buyers and 40 countries. The system is not a monopoly in the big global market. The assertion that barley growers have benefited from deregulation does not ring true when we have had daily price falls of $20 a tonne in the recent harvest. The farmers did not benefit.

"We have no intention of becoming Third World farmers."