Single desk slammed

Mr Wilkie’s call to rebuild the wheat single desk was met with disbelief and amusement

FINDING someone to take Independent MP Andrew Wilkie’s call for a return to the wheat single desk seriously was more problematic than locating a genuine commercial wheat grower in his inner metropolitan Tasmanian electorate.

Mr Wilkie advocated for a single desk reinvention this week as an alternative to selling Australia’s largest publicly listed agribusiness GrainCorp to US multinational Archer Daniels Midland (ADM).

At a media conference in Canberra, he stood alongside the broad shoulders of other federal crossbench MPs - Bob Katter, Adam Bandt and Clive Palmer - to oppose the controversial foreign investment deal and declare it’s not in the national interest.

Mr Wilkie said the Australian government should instead take a leadership role and find ways to increase the “muscle” of Australian grain farmers in the international market place.

“Surely the time has come to have a conversation, for example, about a single wheat desk,” he said.

“At the moment, we have a number of players, all relatively small by global standards, all trying to get the best price for Australian wheat farmers in the global market place.

“And they just simply don’t have enough grunt, enough muscle to negotiate the best price; they’re simply not big enough.

“So personally, I would advocate a single wheat desk and certainly not selling off GrainCorp to ADM.”

The Tasmanian MP’s bold stance aligned him with another political organisation - The Communist Alliance - which supported a single desk return during the 2010 federal election campaign.

“We support a single desk for the farmers and we are very much in favour of bringing this system back,” Communist Party of Australia president Vinnie Molina said at the time.

A straw poll on Mr Wilkie’s call to rebuild the wheat single desk found respondents shared a similar tone of disbelief and amusement.

An experienced wheat industry member heavily involved in the AWB business at the height of the Iraqi wheat for weapons scandal said the idea of returning to the single desk was “pure comedy gold”.

A Labor Senator with a proactive interest in the GrainCorp debate said Mr Wilkie’s call for a return to single desk, “just isn’t going to happen”.

Another federal politician who played a prominent role in deregulation of the AWB monopoly in 2008 seemed like he didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at the news.

Another key player said, “I saw Mr Wilkie’s comments but just ignored them and just assumed he didn’t know what he was talking about”.

Another observer asked how much wheat is grown in Mr Wilkie’s seat of Denison, which is the smallest of Tasmania’s five electorates measuring 289 square kilometres, or 0.4 per cent of the State, in Hobart.

The answer provided was none and that Tasmania only imports wheat, with no exports.

Another source asked where Mr Wilkie was late last year when a heated debate was raging in Canberra over removing the final legislative vestiges of the wheat single desk, to fully deregulate the Australian market.

At the time, the Coalition was forced to issue a statement declaring it had no intentions of re-inventing the AWB single desk monopoly on wheat exports, by opposing the then Labor government’s Wheat Export Marketing Amendment Bill.

The joint statement from Liberal leader Tony Abbott and National Party leader Warren Truss said the single desk was abolished in 2008 and “will not be re-established”.

SA Liberal Senator Sean Edwards asked if Mr Wilkie had been “stuck in a time warp”.

But the final word goes to the man credited with lobbying harder than perhaps any other farmer in the country to abolish the single desk over more than two decades - WA wheat grower and leading member of the Pastoralists and Graziers’ Association Leon Bradley.

Mr Bradley said the single desk was always a plan that came straight out of the die hard socialist play-book, “so why not?”

“Andrew Wilkie believes in and supports government ownership and doesn’t support free enterprise so what would you expect?” he said.

“But threatening to reinstate the single desk is not a joke for farmers who’ve experienced compulsory acquisition of grain for seven or eight decades and just come out of it.

“By any measure deregulation of the wheat industry has been enormously beneficial but if we returned to a socialist single desk system those benefits would disappear just as rapidly as they accrued.

“I suppose it shows just how reckless some politicians can be and highlights the argument as to why you’d want them to have less of a say over your affairs and not more.”

Colin Bettles

Colin Bettles

is the national political writer for Fairfax Agricultural Media
Canberra CommentFairfax Agricultural Media Canberra correspondent Colin Bettles tackles the big national rural and agricultural issues which will impact regional and rural Australians.


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