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National Party backbencher criticises Coalition policy for the decline in average farm earnings recently surveyed by the Australian Bureau of Agricultural Resource Economics.

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JOHN HIGHFIELD:  As the Federal Government looks for ways to win back voters in regional areas, a new survey has identified grounds for discontent amongst primary producers.  The Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics has found that average farm profits have dropped by 80 per cent since the Coalition took office.  While large operators are recording healthy earnings, the Bureau says small farmers are recording significant losses between $20,000 and $30,000 a farm.  The Bureau blames volatile commodity prices and drought.  But as Mark Willesee reports, one of John Howard’s own backbenchers has reacted angrily to the survey, saying Coalition policy is the main factor in the dramatic fall in farm earnings.


MARK WILLESEE:   Last week, a job survey found that farmers were among the nation’s lowest paid workers.  It was more evidence that drought and low commodity prices were biting deep into rural Australia.  Now there’s even more proof that our primary producers are doing it tough.  ABARE’s latest farm survey reveals that most farmers’ incomes have increased since the Federal Coalition came to power in March 1996, but paradoxically their profits have crashed by 80 per cent over the same period.  ABARE research officer, Peter Martin, believes commodity prices are the main factor in the drop in earnings.


PETER MARTIN:   The principal thing is low commodity prices for wool and beef cattle, although there has been some improvement in beef cattle.  Those prices, because they’re experienced by such a large number of producers, is the main thing driving things down.


MARK WILLESEE:   ABARE may blame commodity prices for the slump in farm profits, but one of the Federal Government’s own backbenchers believes government policy is directly responsible.


National Party MP, Bob Katter, represents one of Australia’s largest rural electorates, which stretches from far north Queensland across the Gulf of Carpentaria to the Northern Territory border.  He says the Government’s blind pursuit of the level playing field is annihilating entire rural industries.


BOB KATTER:   So, if you’re asking me, I would say:  look no further than trade liberalisation.  It has resulted in dislocations which are spread throughout the world, but because Australia has done it unilaterally … I mean, we have no barriers to coming into Australia for agricultural product at all, whatsoever;  it is completely free to come into this country.  We can’t possibly survive.  I mean, the ABARE figures don’t amaze me.  Three weeks ago in the joint party room, I said to the Prime Minister … I said:  ‘Prime Minister, someone in this country is going to have to decide whether you want an agricultural sector at all, because there is no way in the world that we can compete in the world’s market against the sort of subsidies and the fire power of the subsidies coming out of the United States, whether it’s 25 to 35 per cent in wheat or whether it’s 193 per cent in sugar coming out of Europe, we cannot compete on the world market in the long term against those sort of subsidy and tariff levels.’


MARK WILLESEE:   Are these sorts of figures, such as the 80 per cent slump in farm profits, are these the sort of figures which have given rise to One Nation out there in the bush?


BOB KATTER:   I don’t know about One Nation, but they’ve given rise to rage and an anger in myself.  And when I saw the figures the Saturday before last, I would have been surprised if the figures were anywhere else.  I mean, when we cry out in pain and I can get up in the joint party room and say:  ‘Prime Minister, you’ve lost 40 per cent of your sheep herd;  you’ve lost 30 per cent of your cattle herd, don’t you realise that agriculture is ceasing to exist in this country?’  I mean, it doesn’t matter in what area you want to look, we cannot possibly compete and there doesn’t seem to me that there’s anyone in this country in a position of power that seems to worry about it.  Every time you raise these figures, we get another lecture on trade liberalisation.  Well, I mean, they are the weak-kneed, pathetic bloody - excuse my language - negotiators, who negotiated away every single protection and every single subsidy and assistance that we had in Australian agriculture, they gave it all away and they gave it all away for damn nothing in return.  There’s nothing in return.


JOHN HIGHFIELD:   National Party backbencher, Bob Katter.