On these pages recently Judith Sloan attacked the Nationals for proposing “protectionist” policies such as a code of conduct for the sugar industry. The code has been proposed because cane growers often cannot supply anyone but the closest mill. The proposed code would provide for a mediation and arbitration process to resolve disputes between growers and millers.
Before Sloan was a columnist she was a commissioner at the Productivity Commission. While there she presided over a report into international cargo shipping and recommended “independent dispute resolution process involving arbitration and provisions to ensure the parties to the negotiation are bound by the results”.
Attacks such as this on the Nationals are not uncommon, but often miss the mark and fail to understand the true nature and history of the party. They are often written by people who have little to no contact with Nationals MPs.
I could not find one colleague who had spoken to Sloan before her column. If such conversations had taken place, she might have realised that putting any ism — protectionism, agrarian socialism or anything else — on the Nationals would not fit well. Nationals do not look to some wise Ming-type ruler and say: “What would he do?” Instead, we have one unifying principle — we will do whatever best works for our people.
So when the Country Party — predecessor to the Nationals — was formed it was ardently free trade because high tariffs hurt farmers who wanted to export. Indeed, Earle Page — the first major leader of the Country Party — made it a condition of forming a Coalition government in 1934 that 465 items of machinery would be made tariff free.
Overall, however, the Country Party failed in its bid to move Australia towards free trade. Both the Liberal and Labor parties advocated higher tariffs to protect manufacturing industries. The Country Party was left in the position that if you can’t beat them, you have to join them, leading them to advocate protection all around, including for agricultural industries. As Black Jack McEwen summed up, “You cannot logically protect one section and not protect other sections, given basically similar circumstances.”
Most trade restrictions have been removed but that does not mean farmers operate in fully free and competitive markets. It is not a free market when farmers overseas can employ labour without the protections and costs imposed on our employers. It is not a free
market when large retail companies can demand non-contractual payments from suppliers to maintain relationships, as revealed in the Federal Court last year. It is not a free market when Australian governments can unilaterally and without compensation take away a farmer’s right to manage their trees and vegetation. And it is not a free market when snails and frogs are given greater rights than human beings.
A case in point is the long-running saga of the proposed Nathan Dam. First proposed in the 1920s, the dam, about 400km west of Hervey Bay, has received steam in the past two decades as a way to expand cotton production and underpin the development of coal mines in the area. It has hit a barrier, though: 850 boggomoss snails were found near the dam site and the federal environment Department ordered that they be “translocated” before any work could progress. Not long after, more than 18,000 snails were found nearby so the dam builders assumed they could proceed. Not so fast! The environmental experts are now saying the original 850 snails is an important “sub-population” and must be protected.
The Nationals have been behind a push to throw away this ideological madness and put forward practical, environmentally sustainable ways of building more dams. The Coalition has already committed to building dams and the agriculture white paper puts more meat on this skeleton.
The Nationals are the second oldest party in parliament. They have had more reported deaths than the average house cat but in five years they will celebrate 100 years as a party. They have survived this long by being a pragmatic party that puts what works
ahead of what is ideal. As for Deng Xiaoping, so for the Nationals: it is not whether the cat is white or black, it is whether it catches mice.
This article was published in The Weekend Australian on 11 July 2015.