Once again the problem of quarantine protection, not only for our primary producers but also for the whole of the Nation, has come to the forefront of the daily news. This time it relates to the proposed importation of bananas from the Philippines, a known reservoir of banana diseases that are currently not present in Australia.
Why the Federal Government would even consider putting our producers at risk is a matter that probably only the Government members can explain. They are of course busily engaged in the business of "risk assessment" but what we do know is that if things do go wrong, none of the bureaucrats or Federal politicians will suffer. Only the growers in Australia, and the public, will carry the risk not those who make the decisions that accrue the risks.
The importation of bananas from the Philippines is of course not new. First efforts in this regard were started in the early 2000. The present activity is a continuation of that initial application, which is apparently put to bed about election time and brought out again whenever a Government considers it is again opportune to "gauge" the feeling of the public.
This characteristic is not peculiar to the present government. You may recall that the Keating Government in particular made an industry of destroying our Customs and Quarantine services and as a result we have been infested by a number of exotic diseases, none of which have been eradicated. All are, and will remain, an encumbrance to our primary industries.
Prior to the Hawke/Keating Labor governments there was in place both Customs and Quarantine Services with the ultimate responsibility for any consequences resting with the Minister. It would also be reasonable to say that at that time the risk factor was kept at close to zero and so Australian producers could be assured that any introduction of exotic disease was either the result of an illegal act or a genuine accident. Since then and substantially as a result of the philosophy of globalisation and "free trade" two things have come to the forefront.
Firstly, there is the concept of risk assessment. As has been mentioned earlier it is a flawed concept in that those that make the risks have absolutely nothing to loose from their decisions. There is no particular incentive for the risk assessors to be "conservative" and every opportunity for their decisions to be influenced by extraneous matters that are only peripheral to "the worst possible outcome".
Secondly, the decision making process is so fragmented that responsibility for the ultimate decision is difficult to sheet home to anyone in particular. The process now is that the initial decision-making "responsibility" is vested in a body (usually unelected) that ultimately merely "recommends". It is normal to solicit opinion from the "public" which, by and large, have neither the resources nor expertise to make submissions to match those of vested interests.
So on balance the Government has gone through a process, which, in practice, is capable of manipulating at any point along the way. Finally at the end of the process it can say that it relied on "expert advice" and so is not really responsible for any bad outcomes.
And so is the case with Queensland grown bananas. Cyclone "Larry" caused total devastation to the banana industry in Far North Queensland and cut supply of the product to the point where at the retail level bananas have become prohibitively expensive. The vast majority of the Australian public are accepting of this reality and juggle their budgets accordingly.
But there is renewed agitation for imports, so who are the most likely sponsors of this renewed agitation. There is of course some grumbling from the public but as the Government is seldom sensitive to uncoordinated public sentiment it is unlikely that the public has had any input at all. Those consumer groups that have had a public input have been enchantingly academic to the point where their comments are pure generalisations and hardly relevant to the issue at hand.
Next are the retailers of bananas who, according to news reports, would like to complain but are sensitive to both the position of the local growers and probably more importantly their perceived image with the public. So at best the retailers, or at least some of them, would be not be doing anything to dissuade importation and any representations by them would be very "indirect".
This leaves two major players, the Australian Government and the Philippine Government. Now the preferred option of any government is to do nothing and offend no one, so unless there was some external pressure on the Governments to move we can safely assume that they would be totally disinterested. We have already assessed the likely motivating forces on the Australian Government, but what about the Filipino Government.
Applying the "quo bono" or "who stands to benefit" test we see clearly in the frame what appears to be Filipino banana growers. These are the people who will find a market for their product and who, like the risk assessment people in Australia, stand to loose absolutely nothing if disease is imported into Australia. But while the Filipino growers can be influential on the Philippine Government how influential should the Filipino Government be on the Australian government. And to what extent should the Australian Government be influenced.
Clearly Australia and the Philippines have had very good relationships for a great length of time and everyone wants that to continue. However, we should listen carefully to anything the Government of the Philippines has to say.
But if we look into that "frame" a little more closely do we see Filipino banana growers or do we see banana exporters operating out of the Philippines. Sadly we see the both, as the big corporate growers and the exporters can be one and the same. And these people are not a disorganised group of impoverished Filipino farmers. They have the muscle to influence the Australian Government quite independently of the Philippines and would not be bashful about doing so.
They are in fact a big international lobby group and influencing governments is as much a part of their daily work as producing and exporting. And we will find that these are the people who will benefit. While all the risk, all the downside is born by Australian producers.
And if you have any doubts about this just cast your mind back a few years to the "banana war" between Europe and the USA. If you remember it was the "Caribbean Growers" versus the "South American" growers. In reality it was European big business versus American big business. And all that finished up with was a serious threat in general international trade sanctions.
So if you weren't worried about Australia's family banana producers before this perhaps its time to take an interest. They need your support.
19 June 2006
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