Wednesday, June 22, 2022

The Australian Scene (1964)

From the June 1964 issue of the Socialist Standard

Sweet Sugar . . . .

Capital investment in the Australian sugar industry complex is either high or low, according to the higher or lower profit margins to be gained. As with other industries, sugar has known both these aspects of the trade cycle. At the time of writing, however, it is a booming industry for the cane grower.

Queensland is the sugar state of Australia, and in reviewing the past decade of the industry there, Frank Devine says that the average value of the crop has been in the region of £60 millions a year. It’s an ill wind that blows no capitalist any good, so in 1962, following the United Stales’ decision to stop trading with Cuba, the Australian sugar growers enjoyed a season of almost perfect conditions. The result, according to Mr. Devine, was a record production of 1.8 million tons of raw sugar (500,000 tons better than 1961) and a rake off for the year of £85 millions.
But the sugar men were just flexing their muscles. The income from the 1963 crop (120,000 tons less than 1962) is expected to be at least £105 millions. . . . By 1970 it is estimated, sugar growing in Australia will be close to a £200 millions a year operation. . . . The North Queensland sugar country has almost the atmosphere of gold rush days. (The Advertiser, South Australia, 5/4/64.) 
Not all the growers there are happy about the prevailing conditions, however. “Will the boom go bust?” is a question on the lips of some of the older and more established gentry, who have experienced the leaner and more difficult times of a few years back. They balk at the idea of throwing everything madly into the current boom and have expressed fears about the dangers of over-expansion.

Yet despite themselves, they are hurried along by the tide of frantic boom conditions. To do less would mean falling out of the race altogether and leaving the field to the younger men “. . . full of optimism and busy with plans for mechanisation to make even more competitively efficient one of the most efficient industries in Australia.” An idea of just what this means can be glimpsed from the Commonwealth of Australia Yearbook for 1963, which tells us that about ninety-two per cent of raw sugar is now handled in bulk, with no bagging at any stage.

As we might gather, not all cane growers are rich. Some of them (“battlers” they are called) do their own cane cutting, working terribly hard, but whose return can only be described as meagre after meeting mortgage and hire-purchase payments on plant and equipment. However much they may strive, theirs is a hopeless struggle against the growing efficiency of the big men. They are doomed in the main to bankruptcy, with little else left but their labour power.

Doomed also to extinction (after the manner of the English hand loom weaver of the eighteenth century) is the Queensland cane cutter. During the course of his comparatively short existence, he has become one of the symbols of the tough, cheerful, self-reliant rural battler, resistant alike to smugness, oppressive authority and religious cant. But the rapid growth of mechanisation, as Devine points out, will mean the end of the seasonal worker in the sugar country. ” . . . But it will bring to Ingham and Innisfail and other sugar centres a small army, of new permanent citizens who will sell, maintain and operate the machines.”

So it is the same old picture of emerging industry demanding a specialised labourer, and then casting him into oblivion as further development renders his acquired skills obsolete. Indeed, as though from afar, we hear again the voice of Marx:—
This change may possibly not take place without friction, but take place it must. (Capital, Vol. I.)

. . . . And Sour Grapes.

Grapes grown and harvested for the wineries, for fresh eating, or for dried fruit purposes, are among the most succulent of fruits. Yet because of their commodity status in the modern world, and because of the complications which arise from this, grapes can, and do. acquire a sourness of which perhaps only the grower is aware.

We are beginning to sec the grower viewing his commodity with concern as it becomes evident that demand is not keeping pace with his increasing supply unlike the present position of his fellow grower in the sugar industry. Reading again from The Advertiser of March 5th, Mr. Retalic, secretary of the Primary Producers’ Union of South Australia, airs a dispute between the grape growers and the wine makers. The growers complain that the wineries are refusing to buy much of this season’s harvest. The obvious solution, thinks Mr. Retalic, is to increase the price of sultanas by another £2 a ton. ,

This is clearly a case of man (Retalic) proposing and capitalism disposing, for it is the very uncertainty of the export market for dried fruit that has driven the growers to compete fiercely with each other for sales to the wineries. Just where the buyers are to be found who will agree to pay an extra £2 per ton in a falling market, Mr. Retalic does not say. However, he does seem to know enough about the basic conditions of the market when he admits that:—
The grower could not be blamed for trying to ensure the sale of his grapes, nor could the wine maker be blamed for trying to purchase his requirements at the best price.
So it is simply astonishing then, to hear him round off with a bout of moralising over something which is equally a fact of capitalist life, thus:—-“ What was blameworthy was the complete indifference of each party for the business of the other."

Competition is often lauded by our bosses as something desirable in itself and for its own sake. That sort of philosophy may be alright, when you’re on the winning side, but not when (like Retalic) you start to take some of the knocks. It is then that you begin to deplore “indifference” and want to get together against the other fellow, because he is now bigger than you.

Cold Water on Troubled Oil.

With commendable detachment, The Commonwealth of Australia Yearbook for 1962 informs us on a burning topic of the day. 
The discovery of oil in commercial quantities in Australia has been the object of oil exploration companies for many years. Recent discoveries in Queensland could indicate that this country is on the verge of proving commercial oilfields.
But less detached than the sober appraisal in the Yearbook, and understandably so, is the concern felt and voiced by Senator Maher, when dealing with the results of these expensive oil-seeking ventures. The senator has claimed that “. . . the search for oil in Australia would collapse unless provision was made for the purchase and distribution of the whole of the Moonie (well) production at a fair price.” Investors would lose heart, he said, if all the oil already produced could not find “an immediate market at equitable prices in Australia.” The senator is, of course, after the government to see that this does not happen.

To find and produce the oil is one thing; to sell it in a buyer’s market is another, and apparently more than one capitalist has got the jitters over the prospect of heavy financial loss. It seems that the oil-producing geological processes of the past few million years have played a lousy trick on the companies drilling for a paying flow in this continent, for there are suggestions that the quality of the product is not up to the standard of competitors. Apart from this, however, the adverse factor bugging Australian oil is the meagre flow by average world standards. The local flow rate may prove profitable next century when other wells are drying up, but this is cold comfort to the capitalists who want "a reasonable return” quickly on die millions they have spent. This “reasonable return” apparently carries Australian oil above current world prices to a degree noticeable and discouraging to buyers, so naturally they remain indifferent to the business problems of the sellers.

National Development Minister Sir William Spooner has denied that the question of price has bogged down negotiations between the government and the companies, yet this did not prevent him from saying that:—
If the oil companies remained adamant on the matter of a just price and also failed to lift the whole of the Moonie production, the situation would certainly provoke a head-on collision between some Australian governments and the oil companies.
Oil has had a troubled history wherever it has appeared in the world of capitalism. Australia is no exception. It will be interesting to watch the outcome of the struggle, although it will be of academic importance only as far as workers arc concerned. They had nothing before the oil was discovered. They will be in the same position long after the Moonie well has yielded its last drop.
Peter Furey

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