COVER STORY: Is Canberra listening to 'the real world'?
by Peter Westmore
News Weekly, August 27, 2005
The strongest political opposition to the Howard Government comes not from the Labor opposition, but from the new intake of senators.
The resumption of Federal Parliament has been dominated by the fact that, for the first time in a generation, the Coalition parties have a majority in the Senate and can therefore expect to secure passage of legislation long blocked in the upper house.
The Prime Minister, John Howard, has put industrial relations reform, the sale of Telstra and terrorism at the top of his legislative agenda. At the same time, he has responded to the Business Council of Australia by offering to examine the corporate tax rate, reduce business regulation and increase the rate of migration of skilled workers to meet looming labour shortages.
Despite the apparent impotence of the Labor opposition, public opposition to aspects of the Government's agenda seems to be hardening. Although the Government has yet to unveil its workplace legislation, the ACTU has run an extremely effective campaign against the abolition of the safety-net provided by the existing award system.
Additionally, some 500 truck drivers drove their trucks to Parliament House, to protest against the fact that IR reform would give even more power to large transport corporations, by effectively removing the role of the unions in bargaining wages and conditions.
In rural Australia, there has long been widespread disaffection with the Coalition's focus on urban Australia at the expense of the bush.
This has been reflected in disenchantment with the Federal Government's drought-relief package, the damaging impact of National Competition Policy in many aspects of rural life, the erosion of markets by uncontrolled imports, the dilution of quarantine standards, and lack of awareness at rising costs and falling returns which are pushing many farms towards bankruptcy.
Two recent issues have crystallised this concern: the absence of effective labelling of foodstuffs, and the expected full privatisation of Telstra.
The domination of the food market by the two large supermarket chains, Coles/Myer and Safeways, has been characterised by downward pressure on prices of farm products, and an expansion of generic brands, usually cheap imported foodstuffs from countries like China, Thailand and Malaysia.
Further, multinationals such as McCain Foods are increasingly importing their products from the cheapest sources overseas.
Recently, McCain told its Australian contracted potato-growers there would be a 10 per cent cut in contracts for next year, and the prices paid will also be reduced. McCain would increase its imports of New Zealand potatoes next year to more than 32,000 tonnes.
Tasmanian potato-growers, who lost a contract to supply the fast-food company, McDonalds, with 43,000 tonnes of French fries for the Australian market, launched a convoy of tractors on Canberra, to persuade the Government to tighten food-labelling laws.
The new Minister for Agriculture, Peter McGauran, responded by announcing that he would introduce effective country-of-origin labelling by October.
However, the hard reality, as stated by Trade Minister Mark Vaile last July, is that in most competing countries, labour costs are very low or exports are subsidised. Some 33 per cent of farm income in Europe comes through the EU's farm support program, while almost 20 per cent of American farmers' income comes in direct subsidies.
However useful improved labelling laws are, they do not address the fact that rural Australia is threatened by cheap food imports from countries like China, or from subsidised exports from the EU or the United States.
On this matter, Canberra is completely silent, while Australia's foreign debt - fuelled by Government policies which encourage imports and damage exports - soars into the stratosphere.
The other issue currently gathering momentum is the government's long-planned $30 billion sale of its remaining 50.8 per cent stake in Telstra, Australia's most profitable corporation, which has just announced a $4.4 billion profit for the last financial year.
Despite (or perhaps because of) improved telecommunications services, opposition to the full privatisation of Telstra has increased over the past two years. A Newspoll survey showed that a massive 70 per cent of the population were against the full sale of Telstra, with just 16 per cent in favour.
In an effort to counter wide public resistance to the sale, the Federal Government has announced a $3 billion package to improve telecommunication services in the bush, which includes $1 billion to roll out broadband internet services in rural areas.
Significantly, the strongest political opposition to the Government comes not from the Labor opposition, but from the new intake of senators, including Family First's Steve Fielding and the Queensland Nationals' Barnaby Joyce.
As former Federal MP, Ken Aldred, has observed, the new senators are "fresh out of the real world", and are far more in touch with the community, and its growing disenchantment, than politicians and bureaucrats who inhabit the rarefied atmosphere of Canberra.
- Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.