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Thursday, 11 October 2012

Metro progressives are farmers' most important customers

The Chaser's Andrew Hansen in series 2,
episode 3 of The Hamster Wheel, ABC TV.
This post is a bit risky and it may even be a subject that doesn't need retailing, and in any case only three or four people will care enough to get to the end of it. But they're people I want to talk with. The post is about distortions in perceptions that occur across the rural-metro divide. Stereotypes, to a large degree, but which can sometimes be confirmed in reality, as happened last night when a farmer tweeted, "Penny ding dong what a useless Dyke blames all of us for the fact that she's confused with her own Gender don't back down Tony." (Labor senator Penny Wong, who is openly gay, appeared last night on the ABC's 7.30 program being interviewed by Leigh Sales.) Another rural resident was, however, quick to remonstrate: "That's just lovely. And you wonder why so many people deem all rural people backward rednecks?" Touche mate. There followed in the morning a bit of a discussion among people, mainly rural people, and my decision to address the issue here. So I thought for a bit and decided that a picture clipped from the iView version of The Chaser's The Hamster Wheel, which also screened live last night, was eminently appropriate to accompany the post. The segment this image was taken from is about the Alan Jones affair. I'll include some of the dialog for context.

The Chaser's Chas Licciardello: "Social media can be effective. Within hours of the campaign commencing, Jones was being deserted by some of his most dedicated supporters. The Greens!" (Shot of news headline: 'Greens call for boycott of Jones.') Cut to scene: Man sitting outside a cafe possibly in Newtown, Sydney: "I am never listening to that Andy Jones again ..." (The man consults a sheet of paper) "... Alan Jones again." (Exasperated sigh indicating extreme feelings of outrage.) It's hilarious. Look at him: the mass of swept-forward hair, the nose ring, the denim jacket, the glass of caffe latte (indispensable prop for a Greens supporter) held in his hand, and not placed on the table, just so that you DON'T MISS IT. A total cack.

OK, it's a bald stereotype but it harbours an underlay of truth: this guy and his trendy mates might actually cause Alan Jones to lose his job. The issue for farmers is that it's the young, urban elites who can so severely damage their financial fortunes. They may not be rich but they sit on the vanguard of opinion, so what they agitate for today will probably be official policy in 20 years' time. When the ABC's 4 Corners program about Indonesia's abattoirs screened on 30 May last year of course it wasn't just Greens supporters who made a public uproar. If it had been, Joe Ludwig wouldn't have shut down the live cattle trade to that country. But Greens supporters own these issues. Live cattle trade eventually resumed with Indonesia, but came back into the public's zone of perception a month ago when there was a problem with the trade with Pakistan. Immediately, Greenpeace and people like the man with the caffe latte in the picture (I'll call him Alexander) resumed protesting in the media and on the streets. As long as this element in the metro regions continues to perceive a problem with the live trade, cattle graziers cannot rest easy. And if Alexander's concerns are not addressed he and his mates will probably manage to shut it down in the longer term. So the way this demographic perceives farmers is important and views such as the one I opened this post with, when voiced publicly, are very problematic from a farmer's point of view. Marriage equality is as important to Alexander as is the wellbeing of sheep on a ship.

Likewise, it's people like Alexander who can boost the fortunes of farmers. One problem that many farmers have is with the retail duopoly. Coles and Woolworths account for about 80 percent of the consumables retail sector in Australia. They are publicly-traded companies (Coles is actually owned by the publicly-traded Wesfarmers, a Western Australian diversified corporation) and so profitability is important to them. And they compete with each other for the same customers, so offering consumers low prices is critical to their success in the metro markets where they operate. These forces work on these companies in ways that can go against the interests of farmers. Loss leaders like milk are used to entice customers into stores, for example, at the expense of dairy farmers, who are suffering financially and struggling to operate on the narrow margins forced on them by wholesalers and the Big Two. But if you want to make the Big Two change how they do business with you you need to get consumers to demand fair terms of trade. To do that you need to get Alexander on side. In fact, his distrust of Big Business can only work in the favour of farmers; he's primed and ready to go. So xenophobic, bigoted comments that denigrate minorites Alexander makes it a point of personal pride to support are not going to help your cause. Voicing narrow-minded attitudes on social issues is just about as useful as shooting yourself in the foot.

In a sense, Alexander is a farmer's most important customer. Other demographics in metro areas spend more money on food, to be sure, but Alexander tells them what to think. It sounds ridiculous to say it in this way, but social progressivism is a well-documented agent of official policy change. To give an example, conservatives complained loudly when Gough Whitlam introduced multiculturalism as government policy in 1973. But I don't think any person living in a metro region - or even in a rural area - thinks, now, that it is a bad thing. Conservatives even complained loudly when some parts of colonial Australia pushed for women to get the vote and to be able to stand for elected public office. But surely even the most rusted-on National Party supporter believes that women are equal to men in all respects that touch on the matter of self-determination. I could go on, the list is endless. But I think you get my drift. And of course it goes without saying that there are a lot of metro residents who don't like Penny Wong's sexuality and who believe that marriage should remain "between a man and a woman", as specified currently in Australian law. It's just that there is a perception within the metro communities of Australia where Alexander spends his time that farmers are overwhelmingly conservative in respect of social issues. This perception bleeds into other areas of concern, such as the live cattle trade. Alexander can justifiably be criticised for conflating two, distinct, issues in his mind. But it is of course what will happen because Alexander is human, and not a philosophy professor.

And yes the reality cuts both ways. Not all farmers are conservative on social issues, and not all metro residents are progressive. But in truth it doesn't matter because Alexander is living in a metro area and his views deeply influence not just those of the broader population of consumers but also official government policy. What Alexander believes now will be commonsense for the sons and daughters of John and Joan Normal of Bexley. I remember when the ABC's Q and A program hosted a studio audience in Albury in May 2011 there was one outraged local who loudly said something like, "When will city folk stop pushing their values onto us (through government policy)?" The simple fact is that metro residents are farmers' biggest customers, and it's good business to look after your customers. They also constitute the majority of the Australian population, so it's no use complaining that metro residents get more attention in Canberra - that's just the nature of a democracy, where the majority decides who governs the entire community.

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