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Time for the single wheat desk to go

By Louise Staley - posted Thursday, 30 August 2007

Labor used to make a lot of noise about the single desk for wheat exports.

That was back in the days of the Cole Enquiry into the illegal kickbacks paid by AWB to Saddam Hussein. Labor was pretty sure that the government had presided over a monumental failure in public policy because the government mandated monopoly acted improperly and illegally.

Kevin Rudd, as Shadow Minister for Trade, was very keen to point to the cosiness between the National Party and AWB as evidence of a policy rotten to the core.


Time passed. Kevin Rudd became leader of Labor.

Now Labor is very quiet on the single desk. Their agricultural spokesperson, Kerry O’Brien, hedged every bet imaginable when he stated that “Labor will continue to support the single desk while we are convinced that there is strong economic value in the single desk for growers and the Australian economy and it retains the support of growers and the community”.

But it is demonstrably in the national and growers interest to abolish the single desk. Study after study - even one commissioned by AWB itself - has found that the single desk does not deliver higher prices to growers.

Why Labor is convinced of the opposite is unclear.

Certainly, if you were only to listen to the noise that a bare 10 per cent of wheat growers make whenever the single desk is mentioned, you could be misled into believing that the single desk retains grower support. But in fact the single desk lost the support of larger grain growers years ago.

Labor didn’t ask auto workers whether they wanted to be restructured under the Button plan, and it didn’t ask textile workers if they minded having their tariffs cut. Textile and auto workers are traditional Labor constituencies yet Labor was confident in making important economic reforms, of national benefit, but at the expense of these workers’ jobs.


By contrast, wheat growers overwhelmingly do not vote for Labor. It is inexplicable why Labor is mesmerised by a tiny minority of people, who will not decide a single seat in this election, instead of the national interest.

Abolishing the single desk is exactly the kind of important economic reform in the national interest that Labor used to be so good at. Labor tackled vital economic reforms with Hawke’s gusto and Keating’s verve.

Nobody yet knows what kind of government Kevin Rudd will lead if elected. As he assiduously pursues a small target strategy answering that question remains difficult. But announcing an unambiguous, pro-reform wheat policy will strongly signal that he plans to govern in the national interest rather than narrow sectional interests. Wheat marketing reform should be part of any serious conversation about economic reform.

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About the Author

Louise Staley is a Research Fellow The Institute of Public Affairs.

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