RURAL: by News WeeklyNews Weekly
Anger at NP inaction over low farm prices
, April 8, 2000
Mounting resentment at the failure of the Federal Government to address the problems of primary producers in coastal Queensland threatens to boil over into a loss of seats to independents or the Opposition at the next election.
Among the industries most severely affected are sugar cane, mangoes and tobacco grown on the Atherton Tablelands in North Queensland.
Two hundred delegates from New South Wales and Queensland at the National Cane Farmers' Association warned the Federal Government that they would vote with their feet in the next election.
Its President, Warren Martin, warned that there was an angry mood sweeping rural Australia, reflecting widespread disillusionment with the Federal Government.
A large protest meeting held at Mareeba early in March carried a number of resolutions unanimously, calling on the Federal Government to provide urgently needed support for rural industries in North Queensland.
These included calls for the Federal Government to place a floor under the domestic price of sugar, and make available low-interest loans to primary producers with long-term debt problems.
For cane growers, the imposition of world parity prices on raw sugar has meant that Australian sugar producers are at the mercy of world markets, which are currently about $180-$200 a tonne, their lowest level for many years.
This meant that sugar cane farmers were being paid around $17 a tonne for cane, which is below the price of production.
Despite the supposed benefits of deregulation of the Australian sugar market, the cost of refined sugar in supermarkets has actually risen to around $2.30 per kg, which is over ten times the price of bulk refined sugar on world markets.
Speaking at the Annual Conference of the Australian Cane Farmers Association in Brisbane last week, Warren Martin said Australian sugar producers received Third World prices, but faced First World costs.
He contrasted the low price received by Australian cane growers, with high prices paid to subsidised producers overseas: $315 in Brazil, $545 in Thailand, $632 in the US, and $1090 a tonne in Europe.
Other industries face a similarly depressing future. Mango farmers have just completed a disastrous year, with prices of boxes shipped to Brisbane as low as $3; and tobacco growers on the Atherton Tablelands barely struggle to survive. Some had diversified into tea-tree oil production; but the oil is now virtually unsaleable.
As is the case in other parts of Australia, access to water at reasonable prices has become a simmering issue.
The availability of supplies of plentiful water is necessary for Australian agriculture, particularly in the tropics. But water supply is now governed by National Competition Policy guidelines, which prohibit any financial assistance in the provision of water to farmers.
The Emerald Creek irrigators group has warned that unless something is done in terms of long-term funding of irrigation in the Atherton Tablelands, the areas will go to the wall. The Queensland Labor Government, however, has been completely unmoved.
Recent events show that governments of both persuasions are not listening to the anguished pleas from rural and regional Australia. It was exactly this arrogance which brought down the Kennett Government in Victoria last year.