After the Feb. 8 announcement that United States and Australia negotiators had survived two weeks of contentious, continuous deal-making to forge a bilateral free trade pact, the loudest reaction from the biggest pro-trade American farm groups was complete silence.
The silence spoke volumes about where American farmers now sit on free trade: firmly on the fence, but tilting to the protectionist side.
Mum’s the word. Two of ag’s biggest Capitol Hill hitters, the American Farm Bureau and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, had to be pushed into saying anything about the Aussie-U.S. agreement.
When they finally did, the best either could mutter was the lame “We need to read it before commenting.”
Read what? Tea leaves or the spaces between the lines? More like the words “What’s in it for us?” printed on the foreheads of their members.
Or maybe the new political landscape being shaped by a surging John Kerry and the old political reality that Bushes tend to get trimmed in re-election bids.
What’s to gain? A far more plausible reason for the balkiness is that no one in American agriculture really wanted an Australian bilateral trade deal because there was nothing to be gained by one.
All it could – and indeed did – deliver was a clearly more-open American door for Down Under cotton, beef, dairy and wheat in return for the vague promise of better American access Down There.
In short, grinning Australian farmers now have an American eagle in-hand while American farmers are still looking for two ostriches in the (B)ush.
What they got. Actually, the Aussies got much more. The new agreement slowly removes protective U.S. tariffs on Australian beef, dairy products and wine.
It gives immediate tariff-free access to Australian fruit, vegetables, fish and flowers and quick tariff elimination (most go to zero in four years or less) for processed foods, fruit juices and wheat and cereal mixes.
What we got. In return, American farmers got mostly fog.
U.S. wheat growers were assured that Australia would discuss the future of AWB, Ltd., the reincarnation of its monopoly wheat seller, the Australian Wheat Board, in future World Trade Organization talks.
That, however, was a freebie because Australia made no firm commitment to phase out the AWB and current WTO ag talks are so mired in other, bigger farm issues that the wheat board could hide from negotiators for years.
On a sugar high. The big U.S. winner was sugar; American sugar producers got everything they asked for – no changes in import quotas, no changes to American sugar policy, no changes period.
Australian farm groups saw this as a political payoff to President Bush’s brother, Jeb, the governor of the state of Cane, er, Florida.
Maybe, but that explanation is too simple. Sure, Congress is on a perpetual sugar high; more than $3 million of sugar money was stirred into 2002 U.S. House and Senate races. (The top 2002 recipient, however, wasn’t a cane or beet waterboy; it was Tom Harkin, the senator from corn-heavy, fructose-producing Iowa.)
Outspoken. No, American sugar beat the free trade odds by stating and restating its case to the White House and U.S. trade negotiators.
That case, according to the American Sugar Alliance, shows the U.S. sweetener industry contributes $21.1 billion to the national economy each year, supplies 372,000 direct or indirect jobs in 42 states and costs the U.S. Treasury exactly nothing to operate.
Blame it on politics if you must, but big sugar spoke up to beat the White House at its own game. It didn’t ask to be taken off the free trade table, it demanded to be taken off. It didn’t sit silently and hope for the best; it sat up and dominated its destiny.
And it will do so again when the U.S.-Australian trade deal goes before Congress for a vote because Big Sugar knows ratification will alert the world that it will not be cowed in WTO negotiations.
Sound of silence. On the other hand, continued silence by the major farm groups means they may sit this one out as they attempt to convince themselves – despite mounting evidence to the contrary – that free trade holds something for American farmers and ranchers.
(The author is a freelance ag journalist who lives in Delavan, Ill. He can be reached via e-mail at: AGuebert@worldnet.att.net.)
© 2004 ag comm