AWB shares seem to be enjoying a last hurrah this morning, up 9 cents in the first hour of trading, on the thought that Canberra will give it one last bite of the wheat export monopoly pie for the coming harvest as it dithers between various unpalatable decisions.

John Howard knows whatever choice he makes today and unveils to the joint parties tomorrow will be wrong either politically or economically, possibly both.

Among the Canberra press gallery, Michelle Grattan has taken the closest interest in the AWB saga. She’s tipping one more AWB harvest, but beyond that can only offer a range of camel-shaped possibilities that maintain a monopoly for someone. The Oz is saying much the same thing — a single desk run by anyone but AWB.

And so the Government appeases the majority of wheat farmers who know no better, is seen to punish naughty AWB, and betrays its economic ideology and the future of the industry by disadvantaging the best growers. It’s a fine example of Ken Henry’s warning of bad policy during an election year — I bet Treasury’s opinion, if it was sought, would be for abandoning the single desk. 

The only good news for the Government is that the Labor Party has gone to water on the single desk as it is even more scared of offending anybody by making a decision based on principle. Much better to run off harpooning Japanese whalers for a headline — none of them votes. There is a certain irony in this. Kevin Rudd spent most of last year attacking the Government on AWB, but offers no solution to the consequent problem.

Leaving the decision to an opinion poll of wheat farmers (with the smallest unviable farmer apparently given as much weight as the industry’s leaders) is like leaving industrial relations policy to trade unionists. But some politicians would like to do that too.