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May 26, 2016

Rundle: the price of milk is the first real issue in this elitist sideshow election

Part of the reason why, to everyone's surprise, so much attention has suddenly turned to the price of milk, and the world that goes with it, is because it's one of the only things that feels real in this damn election.

In the spirit of the old SNL announcement that “Generalissimo Franco is still dead”, the election continued to fall apart yesterday. The government’s budget “black hole” in Labor’s spendings was nothing of the sort; as m’colleague Keane noted, this is the latest in a long history of budget “black holes”, beginning with a real one in 1987 — “an actual counting error”, as Keating gleefully said as he announced it.

The 2016 “black hole” was nothing of the sort — simply the biggest number you could get from the most absurd assumptions (costing anything Labor had ever said about anything anywhere, and throwing it in, as well as assuming they’d restore every program the Coalition has cut), and it appeared to have backfired by the end of the day. But by now, it appears to have become compulsory, a folk activity, like clog dancing. Except no one’s heart appeared to be in it. Finance Minister Mathias Cormann was so laser-like focused on it, he endorsed Bill Shorten while trying to talk up, y’know, the other guy, his leader.

“Bill Shorten is very caring and very much in touch and Bill Shorten every single day is promoting our national economic plan for jobs and growth, which of course is exactly what Australia needs.”

That is not a coincidence. No one forgets the name of their own leader unless the whole process has become so uncompelling that it is literally impossible for someone at the centre to keep his mind focused on it.

Elsewhere, Nova Peris quit the Senate after two-and-a-bit years; those who are criticising her for letting Labor down might reflect on whether it’s an act of loyalty. And the Liberal candidate for the seat of Whitlam (Throsby as was), quit, saying that the party wasn’t supporting her, and that she didn’t even think the Liberals should be standing for the seat.

The day ended with another David Speers car-crash interview, one in which Labor’s David Feeney played the parts of both victim and airbag, the Batman MP unable to answer some basic questions about party policy: “You’d have to refer to our relevant shadow.” Batman and the Shadow. That’s where we’re at. He could have tripped over the lighting cables as he left, but he didn’t. Instead, he left Labor’s campaign briefing notes in the waiting room.

You can say that all these things are disconnected, but I would disagree. This is an election that can barely be kept on the road; even its key participants cannot keep up the charade that this is a vital and gripping chapter in our et cetera.

Surely this is not just me? Surely other people are seeing this? Or is there some actual election campaign going on that I’m not being told about? Or is this some vast conspiracy, like a spy movie in which whole cities, nations are sharing in the pretence?

Whatever, I’m still not buying it, and I’m really not sure they can keep this up for another five weeks. If the biggest story of the day is Barnaby Joyce’s stray suggestion that there was a link between asylum seekers and the ban on live exports, we’re still in deep trouble.

Yet amidst all this, something emerged, something that had the ghost of an actual issue about the way we live. Not the thing itself, but what it represented: the price of milk. That, too, is a hardy perennial. It is now almost a century since dairy farming was a ticket to prosperity; for decades now, dairy farmers have been protesting at a gradual and relentless squeeze on their conditions.

The industry once supported tens of thousands of farms and supported whole regions. The disappearance and consolidation of many of these farms leaves a sort of “present absence” in many rural regions, such as Gippsland, or parts of the Hunter Valley. They couldn’t all survive, of course, or even a majority of them. But the fact that some do keeps parts of rural Australia more viable than it would otherwise be.

Dairy farming is one of the few things you can do in Australia, on a modest-sized farm, so it helps anchor rural communities. The current problems besetting the dairy industry are scarcely a simple process of idyllic dairy dells being oppressed by the supermarket big two. The current crisis is a product of an opening of the global markets, the rise and then fall of an expanding Asian market, the over-extension of advances by the big two distributors — and then their sudden, and retrospective revision downwards, leaving farmers with a huge bill.

Critics of the farmers say that they should have been more circumspect about the prospect of ever-rising prices; even allowing for that, a sudden retrospective charge is a brutal and destructive thing to do, a punishment to many for the everyday sins of human nature.

Nor do we need have any illusions about the $500-plus million rescue package, an expression of our hallowed conservative two-party settlement. Yet whatever else you can say about it, it’s clear that such a package has mass public support. The Liberals might want to repudiate it; even if they were not tied to the Nationals, they might well be loath to, given the groundswell of support for the farmers.

Few people know the exact details of the jam that the sector has got itself into, which makes support for them all the more impressive. They have a vague sense that the supermarket duopoly is squeezing down the wholesale price to subsidise their loss-leader milk, and also that dairy farming is something worth holding onto. That seems to be enough for most people to express their support for some sort of bailout package. If most people did know how stupid the market proposal was — that farms of decades-long duration should be suddenly destroyed because they misjudged and/or were actively misinformed about the sector’s prospects over the next few years — then I suspect they would be all the more supportive of the farmers’ case.

Most people recognise, implicitly or otherwise, that dairy farming is not merely an industry, but a way of life — and, in its mix of connection to nature, to family and community, what we call a “form of life”, a distinctive pattern of existence that has unique features. Yes, even small and family dairy farms use a fair bit of technology these days. But they also remain significantly hands-on operations on a relatively human scale. In some ways, small dairy farming has a direct continuity with the very beginnings of agriculture, of humanity “being with” animals and land.

I think this is at the core of why so many people don’t need much persuading about such a proposal — where they might have a lot more misgivings about large-scale manufacturing protection. The counter-push against a dairy package has been that this is yet more featherbedding, a free gift to people who already own some not-unlucrative property, and structural inefficiency.

Yet this misses the point about the things we want to preserve and the whole nature of what “efficiency” is. Nothing we value for the thing itself is efficient, but deficient; life is lumpy, particular and can only be assimilated to the abstract principle of efficiency by removing all its distinct features. Efficiency, in the context of market forces and commodification, is always nihilistic, concerned about the abstract features of the entity. That may be necessary or desirable in many areas of life, but not in all of them — and if it is extended to all of life, in the assumption that the particular qualities of this or that will be preserved, then the result is a general annihilation of meaning.

In the case of dairy farming, the “this” and “that” is a working countryside, its sense of place and being sustained by real work and production.
What is lost when part of what remains of older ways of life is permitted to be ground down? Not merely the activity itself, but much of the incommensurable and “embedded” qualities that go with it. In the case of rural life, whatever efficiencies may be created in winnowing it down may well be lost in paying to mop up the after effects, in extra social costs.

Part of the reason why, to everyone’s surprise, so much attention has suddenly turned to the price of milk, and the world that goes with it, is because it’s one of the only things that feels real in this damn election.

We are not alone in that.

Across the Pacific, the crazed campaign of Donald Trump is based, in large part, on appealing to people whose lives have been subject to various forms of “efficiency”. When you destroy people’s life worlds, leave them with not much, they will flock to someone who can fill that void with magic words and simple and pernicious explanations.

Given that we’ve so far avoided this wave of hatred, mystification and resentment that’s sweeping the world, it might be a good idea to learn from other people’s mistakes. And recognise that, among the bluster and bullshit of a power elite trying to keep the show on the road, people have found something worth standing up for, a way out of the black hole.

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29 comments

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29 thoughts on “Rundle: the price of milk is the first real issue in this elitist sideshow election

  1. Bobalot

    Guy Rundle doesn’t think that manufacturing towns have a way of life worth saving but country towns do.

    Why?

    1. CML

      You took the words right out of my mouth, Bobalot!
      Why is it okay for taxpayer’s money to be used to save the dairy industry …but NOT okay to save the car (and other manufacturing) industry?
      Is there something more ‘noble’ about agricultural pursuits??!!

      1. bushby jane

        I think it it ok to save the car industry and other manufacturing pursuits. However, this govt will not save the dairy industry, just put them in more debt. There needs to be something done about the retrospectivity (withdrawal of payment) in the farmers’ contracts.

      2. Charlie Chaplin

        We should have saved the car manufacturing industry: all those jobs.
        I get sick and tired of the catch cries “efficiency”, “competitive”, “productivity”, “free market” as our politicians pick and choose which mates -and marginal electorates – they will subsidise and save.

  2. zut alors

    ‘Critics of the farmers say that they should have been more circumspect about the prospect of ever-rising prices….’

    Would these critics apply the same argument to our bloated real estate prices? Many Australians still regard residential property as a rock solid investment – just as the farmers did when pouring money into their family business.

    1. Dog's Breakfast

      Times 2 Zut!

  3. Monas Bretta

    If we want people to live on the land we need to make sure that there are viable industries. Otherwise who will stop the land filling with noxious weeds and the creeks with silt?

    1. AR

      Monas – small point, creeks silt up as a result of soil mining, aka traditional euroid farming methods.
      Same with the noxious weeds – guess how they came here.
      Unless you have been fooled by the National Socialist argument about ‘tree weeds’.
      Left unviolated, the arid Interior would, eventually recover and become a treescape again. Not in my lifetime unfortunately, nor that of anyone reading Crikey.

  4. federali

    would love to see a back and forth from Keane and Rundle on this, is there a middle way?

  5. Dog's Breakfast

    “Critics of the farmers say that they should have been more circumspect about the prospect of ever-rising prices; ..”

    In the same way perhaps, as people who say that maybe Rio Tinto and BHP might have been more circumspect about the every-rising price of iron ore and coal, or the Howard/Costello clusterf#%& that could have been more circumspect about rivers of gold flowing into Treasury coffers on the back of a once-in-a-lifetime resources boom, or the Treasury officials who apparently believed and advised Howard and Costello that this was structural changes to the market.

    At least farmer’s can reasonably claim that their individual business doesn’t include a thorough understanding of world markets at its core, but perhaps milk production, whereas Rio Tinto and BHP and Treasury and Howard/Costello should have been more circumspect, as it is the very core of their business to be wise about these things before the event.

    It is an interesting issue, in that it cuts into the problem we all recognise, that most of us don’t make anything, and dairy farmers, efficient or otherwise, actually do make something.

    And maybe at a deeper level this election does hinge on a fundamental idea that is nascent in the public consciousness, that we are at a point where we should formally and explicitly reject unregulated capitalism, and recognise that government has the greater role in running the nation, not as bit players in a corporate world gone mad.

    Maybe, just maybe, but if we don’t learn that soon, it will become apparent before too long.

    1. Bushranger 71

      Concur DB. The fundamental problem is that nation does not have a clearly defined wide-ranging industrial policy which should principally aim at sustaining national supportability. Instead, we have a bloody Productivity Commission preaching unfettered capitalism.

  6. Raaraa

    I suppose the issue isn’t so much the lack of demand but more how much the big supermarkets are willing to pay the dairy farmers.

    Was it just months ago that the supermarkets had to impose a limit of how many tins of milk powder people could buy? Hopefully someone could link that two together and give these farmers a direct path to selling more dairy products.

  7. tonysee

    Guy Rundle waxing bucolic. Who’da thunk it?

    1. AR

      One wonders if he has a nascent bromance for a sturdy yeoman, outstanding in his muddy field of nostalgia.

  8. Norman Hanscombe

    Bobalot, you ask why “Guy Rundle doesn’t think that manufacturing towns have a way of life worth saving but country towns do.”
    The best explanation is that in line with the best financial interests of the Crikey Commissariat and their fellow capitalist media companies they’ll concentrate on whatever tales strengthen their financial interests.

    Why?

  9. Paul

    There is a whole essay I could write about this but briefly
    The Vic and Tas dairy farmers convinced Howard to remove the base price for milk and so he applied a 10c per liter levy on us gave the farmers on average t$100000 each to spend as they wished and most wasted it.
    The farmers wanted a free market and they got it.
    They joined a coop (ie they were part owners) and sold their product at a price they were told was too high, they did not call for a reassessment of the coops price despite the fact they were the owners and the world price was falling.
    All fresh milk sold in Australia is produced in Australia, it come from nowhere else.
    So the farmers are, yet again, socialists when they have a rough time and free marketeers when times are good.
    They have got what they wanted, we paid for it no we are paying for their greed.
    How much direct and indirect subsidies does the agricultural sector get now, including the direct action rorts.
    Did the farmers support aid to the motor industry, steel industry maritime and shipping workers? No not a bit, they support the governments efforts to destroy them.
    So I will continue to pay $2 for 2 lts of milk because it is cheap and coincidentally that milk comes from Australian farmers. If I could buy New Zealand milk cheaper I would, it is called having a free market, something our farmers and government pretend to believe in.

    1. Duncan Gilbey

      Unfortunately harsh (and unfortunately, true)

    2. bushby jane

      I thought that Murray Goulburn has been made into a public company, which I understand is part of the problem of its mismanagement. Pip Courtney on The Drum last night was enlightening.

      1. Paul

        Pretty sure it is still a coop

  10. klewso

    On the bright side Jethro’s latest reflection took the spotlight off that deeper debt hole he wants to dig for some of these farmers?

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