Watching the tractors and harvesters roll off the Tasmanian ferry in Melbourne was enough to make one think they had come in search of vehicles capable of more than ten kilometres an hour. In fact they were on a mission to link up with Victorian farmers to protest at decisions by major food buyers, including supermarket chains and McDonald’s, to buy a larger proportion of their produce from overseas, whether it be New Zealand (for McDonald’s potatoes) or China (for supermarket fruit and vegetables). The direct action was admirable, but the demand — for a ‘Buy Australian’ labelling initiative — was lame. To put one’s hope in a patriotic super-vigilant consumer is to sell your own cause out: the contemporary shopping experience is all about minimising the time and torture of the activity itself, via supermarkets and, eventually, online ordering. The farmers have in mind an earlier era when shopping was a daily, neighbourhood-based act of social exchange, not the mass hauling of bulk-bought supplies. The only shoppers likely to shop in such a manner in any sustained way are environmentally conscious label readers, likely to be only partially sympathetic to the farmers’ plight.
Yet what else could they do? For years, farmers large and small have supported the NFF, and for years the NFF have slavishly supported the National Party, and for years the National Party has told its constituency that free trade will ultimately be to its benefit. That may be true for the whole sector quantitatively, but it ignores the social devastation of rural Australia that will occur in the coming shake-out of the agricultural sector. In this era, the interests of small farmers, larger agribusiness concerns and pastoralists diverge utterly, and it is the first of these that will suffer the most, simply because there is no living level at which they will be able to compete in the wake of an AustraliaÐChina free trade agreement. They are currently being fed with fantasies of specialisation and niche markets, with no acknowledge that our relationship with China will be asymmetrical, to put it mildly.
What such farmers need to argue for, loud and clear, is a measure of protection, on the grounds that it is necessary for any region or community that wants to maintain its independence to have a viable and diverse agricultural sector. They should argue that slightly higher prices for all are necessary for this social good (and that most purported savings would, in any case, rarely reach the consumer). But of course it is impossible to come out for the virtues of protection when their peak bodies have spent so much time knocking them down in manufacturing and other areas. The rural sector is still seeing the new world through the categories of the old. They will realise eventually that their interests lie more with the increasing numbers of people being deemed socially redundant, (including the workers they scabbed on during the waterfront dispute) than with pastoral combines. They are ripe for a new politics — as Labor realised when it developed its ‘country Labor’ brand. But the Greens could also make headway if they were to send out organisers — possibly with a differently named organisation and devoid of the inner-city sartorial style and cultural baggage — and make connections over rural decline, viable community, OHS and more. If small farmers are hoping to survive by appealing to the better instincts of the globalised shopper, then they haven’t yet begun to realise what is about to happen to them.