There is a considerable frustration in
challenging the government’s loyalty to the wheat single desk thanks to an
unwillingness to engage in any questioning of the efficacy of the export
monopoly. That farmers receive a $13 a tonne premium from having a single desk
has become an act of faith – but that might not last.

Your humble correspondent chaired Mark
Vaile’s Outlook session this morning and thus tried to balance the presentation
by putting a bit of free market to him
along these lines:

Minister, without pre-empting the Cole
Inquiry, the credibility of AWB and the single desk’s governance structure has
been destroyed. You can’t believe anything AWB has told you, including its
self-justifications for the monopoly – don’t we need an independent inquiry
into what, if anything, the single desk is really worth?

Brick wall. The Americans subsidise the
hell out of wheat, so do the Europeans, the single desk is the only equaliser
we’ve got.

Minister, I can’t help remembering John
Kerin who gave the wool farmers what they wanted with the floor price scheme.
Kerin knew it was wrong, but he still gave it them and it was a disaster for
the farmers, the industry and the country. Aren’t you giving the wheat farmers
what they want even if it’s bad for them, the industry and the country?

Brick wall. The Americans subsidise the
hell out of wheat, so do the Europeans, the single desk is the only equaliser
we’ve got. The Iraqis don’t have a problem with Australia,
just AWB, and they love us for the Cole Inquiry.

From the floor of the conference came a
question from the vegetable industry about how tough they’re travelling, which
prompted another question:

Minister, if the single desk is such a good
thing for the wheat industry, why don’t you institute something like that for
every other arm of Australian agriculture?

Well, everything else, like the beef
industry, is going really well, so why would you change it?

That of course begs the question about how
good wheat growers might evolve without the desk, but time was up.

And the single desk might still be, despite
Mark Vaile’s firm denials. There are whispers from the other side of
the Coalition about maybe setting up some sort of task force to examine
the single
desk after all. It is yet possible that some hard, independent analysis
of the
export monopoly’s working could yet occur. If the vested interests
don’t nobble
it, that could be embarrassing for the AWB, the somnambulant Wheat
Authority, plenty of wheat farmers and
the National Party members still thinking about the 1930s.