NFF: using farmers' funds to aid big business

By Chris Spindler

In its attack on maritime workers, the National Farmers Federation has tried to portray itself as representing the whole of the farming sector. The reality is different. The NFF does not represent the whole of the farming community. And far from being a single dispute for the benefit of its supposed constituents, the attack on the MUA is part of a history of union busting.

The NFF is encouraged by and part of big capital and a tiny elite of farmers who stand to gain from an anti-union campaign that decreases wages and undermines working conditions.

Past leaders of the NFF today form a gang of free market ideologues in and around the upper echelons of parliament. The current NFF leadership and members of the current government have a background linked to the NFF in another famous industrial battle -- the Mudginberri attack on the Australian Meat Industry Employees' Union (AMIEU) in 1985.

The dispute arose when Jay Pendarvis, owner of the Mudginberri Station meatworks, reached an agreement with workers on rates of pay below the award. The AMIEU picketed the abattoir. Pendarvis, backed by the NFF, sued under section 45D of the Trade Practices Act. The union was fined millions of dollars -- breaking the AMIEU and changing labour relations in the north of the country.

Ultraright allies

At the time, the national president of the NFF was Ian McLachlan, now a member of John Howard's cabinet. As NFF leader 1984-88, McLachlan promoted the deregulation of the labour market and the dismantling of tariffs.

McLachlan had direct interests at stake as a member of the board of Elders-IXL, which was the largest employer of rural labour at the time.

McLachlan, along with friends Andrew Hay and John Elliott, in the mid-1980s promoted a flat rate income tax, a lower tax rate for companies, a deregulated labour market, abolition of market controls and a 5% cut per year in public service expenditure.

McLachlan himself has significant landholdings in NSW and South Australia. His cousin Hugh MacLachlan is the largest private landholder and wool producer in the country. His empire covers some 5 million hectares, encompassing some 30 properties.

At the time of the Mudginberri dispute, the executive director of the NFF was Andrew Robb, later to be the federal director of the Liberal Party; he figured prominently in Howard's 1996 election campaign.

Paul Houlihan, one of the directors of the group of three companies set up by the NFF to attack the waterfront, was an NFF industrial relations strategist at the time of Mudginberri. An employee at the NFF headquarters was Don McGauchie, now the NFF's executive director.

Treasurer Peter Costello was a lawyer often used by the NFF in that period.

All of these people are ideologically and/or materially driven to promote anti-labour, anti-union laws and campaigns. Their business interests are furthered at the expense of workers -- urban and rural.

Rural rich and poor

The NFF promotes the idea that it represents one big class of rural producers. This is a myth.

During the early 1990s, the top 10% of rural producers paid 64 cents to make $1. The bottom 10% paid $1.20 to make $1. In the decade to 1995, only the top 33% of broadacre farms made a profit.

In 1993-94, 14% of nominal farm incomes were below $5000. The result was a decline of more than 20,000 small farms and an increase in the size of the larger farms. ABARE estimates that a further 20,000 farmers will leave the land over the next decade.

For the least profitable farmers, off-farm work becomes a necessity. Their economic interests are therefore tied to the working class's ability to maintain wages.

Hired rural labour is already cheap. In the 1980s, wages made up only 11-12% of total farm costs, making any “gains” marginal in relation to overall costs, except for the agribusinesses that employ large numbers of workers.

The decline in hired labour in rural areas and the departure of large numbers of producers has brought a decline in rural communities. In 1976 agriculture accounted for about 48% of persons employed in rural areas; by 1991 this had declined to 24%.

The NFF's attack on central wage fixing and labour costs in general is unlikely, then, to be motivated by concern for the farming sector or rural communities as a whole. Rather, the attack on unions and wages is part of a broader plan run by big capital.

The NFF's initial success in gaining support from a broad layer of rural producers came from disillusionment with the Liberal-National Coalition, which implemented cuts of 50% for rural extension and 30% for rural research in the late 1970s.

However, since its creation in 1979, the NFF has been guided by and promoted pro-big business policies. In 1981 the NFF manifesto stated among its aims improved productivity and “rural adjustment” -- the replacement of unproductive units by more productive.

The NFF aimed to remove protection, control inflation, deregulate wages, stop wage indexation and implement voluntary labour contracts.

By 1986, the NFF had sharpened its anti-worker priorities, claiming to defend farmers against the industrial anarchy of trade unionism, arguing for more “flexible” wages and building a fighting fund to take on unions engaged in disputes.

Free marketeers

The NFF's traditional links changed when the Labor government's Accord kept rural wages (and all wages) below inflation and the government enthusiastically embraced eliminating the most unproductive elements in the rural sector. NFF executive director Rick Farley summarised: “The dividing line changed from National-Liberal versus Labor to the free marketeers versus everybody else”.

The Labor Party assisted the growth of rural empires by tying rural aid to productivity. Any producer needing rural aid, for example in times of drought, could receive that aid only if they could display viability or productivity improvements as a result. Increasing numbers were forced from the industry, increasing the size of already massive holdings.

The number of production units has been dropping by 1% per year for the last 10 years.

“Self-reliance” -- individual producers bearing the cost of bad weather -- is now expected. Obviously, large producers with the ability to diversify or with the funds to survive longer are more “self-reliant”.

The NFF supports these government policies. Its stated policy is that the least profitable third of farmers -- about 50,000 of them -- should be restructured out of agriculture.

It's therefore not surprising that some farmers show signs of seeing through the claim that they will be economically better off by taking on the unions and ignoring claims of organised workers. The Western Australian Farmers Federation has been critical of the NFF attitude, as has the Grain Council, whose constituency is worried that the NFF should provoke a dispute at the most crucial time of the year for grain exports.

Despite peddling the myth that there would be direct benefit to farmers, the NFF's 1996 policy states that “benefits of deregulation in shipping should go to the shipping company”. The NFF is using farmers' funds to take on unions for the benefit of big business.

Attacks on the union movement will help only those larger farmers employing substantial amounts of labour or the agribusinesses like Elders which operate abattoirs and processing plants.

(Source: Green Left Weekly, Issue #305 February 11, 1998 )