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What will Turnbull do about wine tax?


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While the Australian wine industry is never particularly polished in its politics, we saw one sad encapsulation of its beggarly state in the midst of yesterday’s treachery in the national capital.

The Abbott feathers were still wafting about the party room as the gubmnt members filed out. It was worth enduring that wild and bloody day just to watch the faces of those with connections to the big wine industry, Senators Ruston, Birmingham and Edwards, as they slunk back into the public view.

All sheepish: having just watched a summary execution at very close quarters, they looked bleached. Alone. The Heath-Robinson set-up engineered to exert influence over the Minister for Agriculture, Barnaby Joyce, was in the bucket with the king’s head.

And Barnaby’s, too, for all they knew.

The conservative alliance of Liberal and National Parties was in tatters. The Liberal Party itself was ripped apart. Like the temple curtain. Rent asunder.

Somehow, the wine industry had got itself mentioned in Question Time, back when Tony Abbott was still prime minister, just after lunch. Keith Todd (Accolade Wines) or Helen Burge or somebody’d obviously got into his ear about selling wine to China and he remembered to mention Burge Wines while he pushed the China trade agreement, and within a few minutes Malcolm Turnbull was following him down to his office with that look on his face. The march of the blue ties.

By the time you read this, who knows? There may be a different tie on a new Minister of Agriculture, with a new alliance of pulleys and levers already evolving to manipulate whoever that’ll be. Tie aside, don’t hold your breath waiting for a change of anything other than face in the short-to-medium term at least.

The wine industry has never been a bigger mess: regardless of their ornate sophistry on the outside, all its clumsy internal manoeuvrings for influence suddenly went out with Abbott.

It seems a lifetime back that then prime minister John Howard convinced us that if we let him sell our Telstra back to ourselves he’d put the money into the Murray-Darling Basin, which was running out of the water we need to make bladder-pack plonk in order to keep the lumpenproles quietly brimming.

Quite a few meetings have been held between Blanchetown and Burke in the long years since: demonstrations; book-burnings … billions spent on inquiries and reports and whatnot. And yet the River still pretty much fails to flow into the sea; the punters can still buy their goonbag for two or three dollars a litre, and Telstra still sends me outrageous demands for money for phone calls I cannot remember.

Regular readers will know the old Whiteswine Mantra: in a country with no water, you keep the water prices artificially low so Murray-Darling plonk producers can use, say, 1200 litres of it to make a litre of cheap sweet rotgut which is three times the strength of your average beer and is sold at the price of bottled water thanks to an illogical and corruptible tax system which favours plonk over premium.

Worse: the whole thing depends upon an artificially low Aussie dollar. Only bottom-feeders live in this murk, making a cent here or there by gambling on the national currency growing increasingly worthless.

There is no incentive to improve; no reason to make anything better, more efficient, more ecologically sound … more profitable, dammit: healthier for broken communities.

As far as sensible industry goes, this ancien regime makes about as much sense as coal, and its flow-on public health and environment damage is pretty much on a par, as is the little problem of polishing its public face for popular consumption.

Which is a skill well-practised by the likes of Ruston, Birmingham and Edwards.

It was only yesterday morning that another new wine biz lobby group announced its existence through the pages of The Sunraysia Daily:

“More than 40 wine industry leaders from across Australia met at a forum in Adelaide late last month,” ran the yarn, “where they agreed on a national response from across the industry was essential to bring it back to good health [sic].

“The leaders identified a need to tackle supply and demand-related issues and the capabilities of businesses, organisations and individuals across the industry so it could return to profitability.”

Just check that language: people who talk like this probably think like this. All those industry councils and committees and manipulations and manoeuvrings; all that energy and money; all those countless hours of workshopping and interface … and we now have a new mob using exactly the same thick language as they thrust their hat forward for donations.

This lot’s determined to keep the tax regime pretty much the way it stands.

Or maybe they want even more subsidy: “Grape crush figures this year showed 88 per cent of growers in the Murray-Darling wine region made a loss,” the report made clear.

“The current situation is obviously unacceptable – growers simply are not profitable,” said Murray Valley Winegrowers chief executive Mike Stone.

Bacchus knows, Prime Minister Turnbull has quite a few things to sort today, like before he gets round to thinking about wine tax.

Which he must approach with a view to keeping all those irrigated seats, which has thus far meant keeping those seats irrigated.

So what’ll he do? Give Birmo Agriculture?

If he keeps his word, his promise, that things will be better soon: more sensible, open and logical – more liberal, for Bacchus sake – maybe our new Prime Minister will get a coffee with former treasury secretary Ken Henry and ask for a reminder about how the whole damn thing needs restructuring from its broken arse all the way up through its dark gizzards to its addled, goonbagged brain.

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