To whom it may concern,
I am a lucky man. I am a farmer and as such, of necessity, something of jack-of- all -trades. I enjoy the beauty of my environment and the intellectual and creative challenges that daily confront me. I work seven days a week with occasional breaks to join my neighbours on the fire truck; for training, or the real thing.
Most of the work I do is “overhead” (weed control, fuel reduction, fencing, machinery maintenance, book keeping, beaurocratic compliance etc). On those occasions that I do work directly related to producing saleable commodities, I can kid myself I am making wages. Not the $100.00/hour my 22 yr. old nephew makes as a tradesman in the city, but better than working in a call centre. Of course, if I take into account fuel, fertiliser, wear and tear on machinery, insurance, rates and taxes, transport, telecoms, commissions etc. it doesn’t look so good. In a reasonable year I can just about break-even. Fortunately, my wife works.
Yes, I am a lucky man. The people I feel sorry for are the overwhelming majority of Australians who live in urban areas and who are going to receive a nasty shock at some point in the not so distant future. The consumers who have become so detached from the real world and so used to cheap food (indeed, cheap everything) that they may well end up going hungry in a future where there are too few farmers and too little, or too much water.
There has been mention in the media recently about a significant increase in the price of food and the consequent economic and social implications.
The forty percent rise in food prices may be real (it hasn’t been clear whether that is raw data or adjusted for inflation and increases in real family incomes) and it may be in part the result of increased corporate power and the spike in the price of phosphate, but the real reason is the nascent unravelling of the web of subsidies that have priced food at unrealistic levels for many years.
The Europeans and to a lesser extent the North Americans, have kept food prices down by a formal system of subsidies that is paid for by the taxpayer. The Europeans do this because they understand the importance of maintaining a viable rural population, for reasons of food security and broad environmental and demographic imperatives. The policy factors in the US are complicated by the extent to which corporatisation of agriculture has corrupted the political process and detailed understanding continues to elude me.
In Australia, we have been more ideologically committed to the strictures of market economics and have abandoned formal agricultural subsidies. (It seems that subsidising Australian farmers is perceived as bad economic policy, but subsidising multinational corporations is good policy; understanding of this also continues to elude me.) However, our primary production continues to be heavily subsidised, essentially from two sources: the first is the natural environment; the second is the financial and physical health of farming families and the communities to which they are symbiotically bound. Ultimately however, our cut-price consumer society is subsidised by the future. This is because, as Malcolm Fraser would tell you, there is no such thing as a free lunch and these days he might also agree that removing less tangible liabilities from the balance sheet, to later become someone else’s problem, is not fiscally rewarding in the long run. Ecologically, as well as economically, we have been living beyond our means for a long time. Our ecological debt in particular, is rapidly growing beyond reasonable expectations of our ability to repay it. The GFC provides an elegant metaphor for the way our economic system cherry picks its costing of our rampant consumerism. It gives increasingly literal clarity to the concept of toxic debt.
Although uncosted environmental damage has contributed to the low price of commodities as a result of unsustainable agricultural practices, it is also true that the environment benefits from the unpaid labour of farmers, through their maintenance of our vast hinterlands. Labour that will only become more important as ecological cataclysm looms ever closer.
(Thirty percent of the world’s identified species are designated as threatened and Australia has the worst record for conservation among industrialised nations. Some of the more pessimistic forecasts warn of thirty percent extinction rates by the middle of the century. The current attrition rates are somewhere between 1000 and 10,000 times background levels; and this is before global heating builds a head of steam).
The largely urban environmental movement, let alone the average wilfully ignorant consumer, finds it difficult to grasp these realities, but must finally understand that the most essential factor in maintaining and enhancing our landscape values is an economically viable rural population. That population is as endangered as many of our native creatures and if these communities die, who is going to do the actual work of repairing the damage inflicted on our country? It is easy being green when someone else is footing the bill.
Regional Australia subsidises urban consumers in ways other than by providing cheap food and unpaid environmental management. Civil defence is another good example. As fire and flood become an ever-greater threat to our rural infrastructure, natural heritage, urban fringes and associated human populations, an increasing burden of responsibility and risk is being undertaken by an ageing “Dads Army” of civil defence volunteers. They are ageing because these volunteers are drawn disproportionately from a rural population that is steadily haemorrhaging its young people; enticed to less arduous lives.
I am never quite sure whether to laugh or cry with pride when I watch the gallant men and women of our brigade forcing their stiffening muscles to exertions that shouldn’t be asked of them, but is, because there is no one else.
That these sixty-somethings must continue to risk their lives in the defence of their homes and communities may appear to be unfortunate but inevitable. However, the reality is actually scandalous. This is because in the event of a major fire, the strategic plan is to deploy brigades like ours to defend nearby population centres; in our case, a coastal tourist town. The logic is compelling: deploy your resources to defend the greatest concentration of assets. The dispersed homes and livelihoods and even families of the rural volunteers are of less value.
If this story makes you feel uncomfortable, I trust the punch line will provoke you to the same anger that it does me. In the wake of the Victorian bushfire disaster, at least one insurance company has ceased to write policies in rural areas. This may well become a trend over the next few years, and will undoubtedly accelerate if we have another bad fire season, which is inevitable. So, at some point in the near future it is conceivable that our brigade may be asked to leave our uninsured homes to burn, in order that the insured property of the town’s folk is protected. What could be fairer than that?
And with every injury comes a free insult.
In cities and large towns in South Australia, structure fires are dealt with by the MFS (Metropolitan Fire Service), while rural fires are dealt with by the CFS. The MFS is staffed by a mixture of professionals and paid “volunteers”. The latter are part-time/on call personnel who are paid for the time spent training or on deployment.
In smaller towns, structure fires are dealt with by the CFS. Our nearest town is one of the few smaller regional centres to boast an MFS station. It so happens that CFS and MFS may attend the same fires: we in support for structure fires, they in support for bush fires. They get paid – we do not. Indeed, as landowners we must pay a substantial emergency services levy for the privilege.
If a house fire cannot be extinguished, the drill is to simply pull back and stop it spreading. There is generally little danger to personnel. Broad front wildfire is another matter. The number of CFS people and their equivalents interstate, who have been killed since I first joined thirty years ago, is more than the number of military combat fatalities over the same period (as of date of writing). They get paid – we do not.
Indeed, whilst MFS personnel routinely use BA (breathing apparatus) to protect themselves against the toxic effects of smoke inhalation, CFS volunteers do not. This is despite the reality that whilst the majority of structure fires are contained relatively quickly, the standard CFS fire-ground shift is twelve hours, on a deployment that may last days. The South Australian Government recently introduced legislation reversing the burden of proof re the causal link between working conditions and certain types of cancer, for MFS personnel. After some reluctance the same assumptions have been extended to the CFS. Unfortunately, for self employed volunteers, the victory remains a pyrrhic one.
We often get sent on “strike teams” to other districts or even interstate, at great cost to our livelihoods. Recently, it became policy to boost our declining ability to mount strike teams by including MFS personnel in our crews. They will get paid for the time they are away – we do not. MFS people have no training in the very dangerous work of containing wild fire. That is our specialty. They needed to be trained before they could be deployed. The MFS students presumably got paid – our instructors did not.
Of course a significant percentage of CFS volunteers are not fulltime farmers. Currently, although the two percent of the population that make up the farming community create (with value adding) approximately twelve percent of GDP, about fifty percent of farming enterprises in Australia are not financially viable without off farm income.
Many volunteers are not farmers at all. They come from all walks of life. They may be tradespeople, shop assistants, or public servants. This diversity creates another anomalous injustice because, as one of the few remaining fulltime farmers active in our brigade, I might find myself on a truck with a local council worker, a bank teller or a teacher. On the fire-ground we are all equal in our commitment to our job and the shared risks we take. There is only one difference: if the deployment takes place during working hours, they may still get paid by their employers. I and other self employed volunteers do not.
In rural areas a common and potentially dangerous occurrence is the obstruction of roads, consequent to falling branches or even whole trees. Such obstructions need to be cleared as a matter of urgency. However, trees can fall at any time, so where is such labour to be found twenty-four hours a day? One possibility would be to roster local council workers to be on standby to deal with such emergencies. They are after-all, well equipped to do such work. Unfortunately, this option would be expensive and unpopular with employees, who would no doubt resent the imposition on their leisure time.
There must be another solution. Of course! Why not put a chainsaw on CFS trucks and call the volunteers out of their beds to deal with such inconveniences? Brilliant! Farmers are used to working for nothing and they don’t have leisure time to interrupt; an excellent result for road users and rate payers as well.
This country spends billions of dollars every year defending itself against hypothetical enemies. Of the eight or nine wars (as distinct from peace-keeping deployments) that we have become embroiled in over the last 110 years, only one can reasonably be considered as self defence; the rest might best be designated as politically strategic adventurism. The time Australia’s military has spent fighting other people’s battles amounts to well over fifty years of continuous conflict (57 years as of 2014). By contrast, combating the most acute threat to the security of Australia is left to an army of ageing amateurs.
Our society is very reluctant to pay the full cost of anything. Our version of a market economy tends to value immediate desires more than less apparent needs and the doctrinaire advocates of the “free market” have their eyes wide shut to the obvious hypocrisies of their ideology.
Whilst subsidies are anathema to “neo-liberal” dogma and “user pays” is the glib, self serving slogan of privilege, the reality is that our society is habitually subsidised by the proceeds of exploitation. Whether of the disempowered, or of the benevolence of social activists (volunteers), such misuse represents a corruption of the principles of market economics, as envisaged by Adam Smith.
Recent research in Britain has found that while merchant bankers were paid extraordinary amounts of money for contributing very little, if anything, to society, hospital cleaners save thousands of lives and vast resources by minimising infection rates. For this they are paid a pittance. This is not what Adam Smith had in mind for the invisible hand.
Our society happily pays large amounts of money to individuals for playing with a ball for a few hours, while leaving the defence of the nation to a creaking band of grandparents whose numbers in SA have declined by almost thirty percent over recent years and continues to decline at a rate of approximately 700 pa.
The failure to value the contribution of the CFS (and other volunteers) is not only a moral travesty, but self defeating idiocy by policy makers of all political colours. Whilst the urban majority is, apparently, morally sanguine about its careless use of the goodwill of this dedicated community of exploited workers, the very least that Government can do is reward hard and dangerous work of immense value.
As the song laments, “Don’t it always seem to go
that you don’t know what you’ve got ’till it’s gone.”
When our “Dad’s Army” is gone, and with it another of the rural subsidies to the cities, so will a great deal more – in a puff of smoke.
Set our volunteers free and let the market place determine the real value of security, without hidden subsidies. It may be expensive, but it won’t cost the earth.