Neither 'free' trade nor protection
US President Bill Clinton announced on July 8 that Australia's quota of lamb exports to the United States would be subject to a 9% tariff, with extra shipments facing a 40% tariff. In subsequent talk-back radio discussions, most listeners declared themselves either "free traders" or "protectionists".
The parties of big business — the Liberal, National and Labor parties — and the National Farmers Federation (NFF) which represents the interests of big agribusiness, advocate "free" trade. They argue that Australia's agricultural producers are among the most efficient in the world and that free trade will benefit them against inefficient overseas competitors.
Small farmers and graziers, who have suffered most from the restructuring of rural industries, respond that the world market is not a "level playing field" and they need tariffs on imported produce to survive.
In fact, neither of these positions offer a solution for the farmers and graziers who are suffering.
Free trade has forced small family farmers and graziers off the land because it favours the most efficient, well-capitalised farms and stations, especially agribusiness corporations. This process occurs both within countries and globally between the wealthy and poorer countries.
But free trade is not the only culprit in the destruction of small family farms and stations. The policies of the NFF, which have been implemented by both Labor and the Coalition, expressly aim to drive small producers out of the industry.
These policies include dismantling and privatising statutory marketing authorities such as the Australian Wheat Board, which had previously given small producers some chance in an unfair market, and the allocation of disaster relief (Rural Assistance Scheme) only to farmers who can demonstrate "viability" in the long term, thereby excluding the poorest farmers.
The general austerity policies of Labor and Coalition governments, such as the closure and privatisation of public services, have further impoverished small farmers and graziers, and rural workers.
Small farmers also suffer at the hands of the agribusiness corporations which control their supplies of seed, fertiliser and pesticides, and the expensive machinery needed for production.
None of these problems will be solved by "free" trade or protectionist policies, especially when different agricultural and pastoral producers have different interests. For example, pork producers want imports of Canadian pork banned, but cattle and sugar producers argue that this would jeopardise their campaign for more access to Canadian markets.
In advanced capitalist countries like Australia, the US, Canada and Europe where technologically advanced agricultural production methods are used, too much is produced to be sold profitably in the domestic market. Farmers therefore need to export their produce.
The need for an export market drives all the wealthiest countries to pursue a "free" trade agenda in the World Trade Organisation. However, their "free" trade stance is hypocritical because, when it suits them, they implement trade barriers while using their economic weight to crush any attempt by Third World countries to implement protectionist measures.
There is no permanent solution to small farmers' problems while agricultural production is based on competition between farmers in different countries for a greater share of the world market. Their problems can only be solved when the world capitalist system is replaced by a system in which production is planned to meet human needs rather than generate profit.
In the meantime, some concrete measures can help protect the livelihood of small farmers and graziers and rural workers, including: the re-regulation of the agricultural industry with grower-controlled statutory marketing authorities; a guaranteed minimum income for farmers; a halt to the privatisation of government services and the re-nationalisation of utilities; assistance to farmers' co-operatives to share the cost of expensive machinery; allocation of disaster relief money on the basis of need; access to cheap loans from a nationalised finance sector; and the establishment of a public corporation specialising in the production and distribution of environmentally benign farm inputs.
Getting caught up in "free" trade versus protectionism diverts small farmers and graziers, and rural workers, from fighting for the measures necessary to guarantee them a decent income and standard of living.