THE WHEAT export single desk served a purpose for Australian growers but the commercial set-up between AWB Ltd and the single desk operator AWB International meant much of the value was lost.
That is the view of veteran farmer lobby group representative Ian Hastings, who spent the years when the single desk was up for debate as vice-president of the then peak body for grain growers, the now defunct Grains Council of Australia.
“The question now has to be ‘are we any better off as growers’, and I don’t think the answer is yes,” Mr Hastings said.
“On the other hand, I don’t think we are markedly worse off either.”
“The single desk as a mechanism was a good one, but it became a commercial milking cow and the value to the farm community was destroyed.”
Mr Hastings said in hindsight the issues that led to the dissolution of the single desk could have been avoided.
“There was a lot of talk about creating a trade barrier with the US as a result of the single desk- that was never an argument that stood up in my opinion.”
Mr Hastings said in today’s environment, with protectionist trade policies in vogue in the US a single desk for wheat exports could be a viable prospect, although he cautioned it would have to run along non-commercial lines.
“The rot came through the corporatization of the business, with non-contestable service provisions.
“There were studies that showed the desk provided up to $23 a tonne in advantages, by the time we lost it that had been eroded to $7-8/t and that was all due to money being soaked up by AWB Ltd.”
“There’s no need to analyse in detail what went wrong, it was a really simple story in that the service charges were too expensive.”
“I would have said that initially most farmers were very supportive of the single desk but by its later years many people wanted to see it go and that was far more about the management of the desk rather than the principle itself.”
Mr Hastings said in its pure form farmers supported the single desk.
“It was a mechanism that could provide a premium to growers, what farmer would want something that delivers more money into their pockets to go?”
Mr Hastings did not rule out the return of some form of monopoly selling arrangement.
“For most of the past ten years you would have said it is unlikely but in the current trade environment where we are seeing more and more protectionist policies, if we find we are being locked out of supplying wheat to markets at a reasonable price due to tariffs and the like then it may well be worth considering once again.”
“It’s fine if there is a level playing field but if it is a situation where the Aussie grower is getting $150 a tonne and the EU or US grower is getting $200/t then you’d have to look at all the options to ensure we were getting the best price we could.”
“It is a changing world at present in terms of global trade at present and with what we’ve seen in world politics over the past five years or so you would be mad to rule anything out.”