What a funny little Nat-Lib spat it’s been over a code of conduct for fruit and veg wholesalers, all the while skating around some of the more interesting aspects of wholesale produce markets.

In the end, the Nationals have won the Cabinet battle for a mandatory code, beating the unwilling Liberal (but Toowoomba-seated) Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane’s push for a voluntary arrangement. It all comes from a 2004 election pledge.

This code business is aimed at making business between growers and wholesalers more transparent and should be seen in the context of long-simmering discontent about all the money made by middlepeople and retailers out of fresh food, compared with what the grower receives. And then there’s the bigger question of the market power enjoyed by Coles and Woolworths.

But what consideration of the code has tended to skate around or over is the reality of much of what goes on in some of our leading fruit and veg markets.

We could start with all the business conducted on a strictly cash basis – something that the ATO might delight in seeing codified. And there’s something about cash on a large scale then tends to attract less than savoury behaviour.

The big boys are able to take care of themselves, but one hears stories of smaller producers having to toe the line when it comes to selling their crop. For an entirely theoretical example, you want to start growing, say, pumpkin leaf. You might well find that when you take your first truck of pumpkin leaves to market that you will be advised to see the fella who’s unofficially in charge of the pumpkin leaf operation who might well guide you about how much you can expect to sell for what and to whom.

This could be construed as friendly and helpful advice – or something else. Given the amount of cash often changing hands, it’s all a bit messy and potentially unhealthy to try to unravel. While growers can complain about transparency and sometimes being ripped off by wholesalers, it only takes a proportion unreported cash transactions to make it impossible to go into detail with authorities. The code, mandatory or not, could prove interesting to enforce.

Peter Fray

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