Freedom of Choice

Imagine life as a medieval serf. Existing in a hovel, labouring from dawn to dark in the fields, only keeping a portion of what you prise from the soil, tugging your forelock and bowing low to the lord who rules your existence any time he comes by, it would be a sanguine individual indeed who might find satisfaction in that kind of cradle-to-grave servitude. And yet, in twenty-first century Australia, that is not so far from reality for many on the land.

The two biggest players in food retail employ 400,000 Australians. Their combined share market value tops ninety billion dollars. They have systematically tightened an almost feudal grip on most sectors of the food chain. Since the middle of last century they have rigorously taken over or eliminated all serious opposition to the extent where they now control more destinies than their own. Many formerly independent operators have been coerced by market forces into a modern fiscal fiefdom. The other price for exclusively supplying meat, vegetable or fruit produce or milk is freedom.

The Big Two often require their producers to make available a maximum volume, yet often only require a fraction of it: produce wasted, margins marginalised, families forced from the land. If you were a medium sized food producer in Tasmania ten years ago, you’re probably doing something else now. Ironically, despite temperate climate, pristine water and excellent soil, smaller suppliers and food distributors on the Island State can’t complete with the giant who imports in bulk from the mainland.

Celebrated economist Milton Friedman noted: “…a corporation’s only responsibilities are to its shareholders and customers and its only driving force is to maximise profit.” While the monsters engulf and devour, producers too small to be their prey are able to operate with freedom. There are thirty thousand independent Australian grocers and food retailers and scores of farmers markets. While the corporate giants pay British chefs and superannuated rock stars a fortune to spruik for them, free spirits spread the word by mouth about the merits of truly fresh food that actually does have a face.

Independent voices in government like Nick Xenophon favour legislation to diversify the mega-brands, but both major parties have share-owning affiliates. Imagine how that might play out when one or the other big player wants a government to listen to its views on carbon emissions or the basic wage. It is not only large primary producers who have sacrificed their freedom. We need to preserve our freedom of choice.

“Governments never learn,” Friedman observed. “Only people learn.” We not only want to keep and grow our market. We need to.