POLITICAL MEET-UP: Former Member for Hinkler Brian Courtice meets with former US President George Bush Senior in Canberra in the early '90s.
POLITICAL MEET-UP: Former Member for Hinkler Brian Courtice meets with former US President George Bush Senior in Canberra in the early '90s. Brian Courtice

US politics a bitter pill for Bundaberg cane growers

THE death of former US president George H.W. Bush last month brought back memories for former Member for Hinkler Brian Courtice.

Those memories are not just of the president, or the letter Mr Courtice wrote him demanding a fairer go for Aussie growers, but also of the fact that Bundaberg farmers have been put at a disadvantage because of American policies that have remained in place, without change, since the 1700s.

Mr Courtice met Mr Bush in March 1992 when he came to Canberra.

The former MP - as the chairman of the government's taskforce on rural issues - had met with an American delegation in Washington in 1991 with the objective of opening US politicians up to the idea of freer trade.

He was so displeased with the Americans' lack of desire for free trade that he penned a firm letter to the president prior to his Australian visit.

"Even though I wrote to him and expressed my displeasure about his politicians he was still happy to meet with me,” Mr Courtice said.

However, Mr Courtice said US politicians tended to stick to their own agendas and the southern, sugar-growing states were especially adamant in demanding continual sugar subsidies in exchange for supporting other states' interests - essentially holding free trade to ransom.

In what Mr Courtice calls an "unfair, overly subsidised American sugar industry”, 4500 US growers receive an annual $4 billion subsidy.

It's a move against free trade that Mr Courtice says is damaging our farmers.

Subsidies provided to US growers put Australian farmers at a disadvantage by making it hard for them to compete.

"Americans don't reciprocate when it comes to world trade and fair trade and nothing has changed,” Mr Courtice said.

"They're essentially getting twice the world price for sugar as Australians are getting.

"Twenty-seven years ago I went to Washington to argue for more free trade.”

American sugar industry protections first came into play in 1789 and to Mr Courtice's frustration, little has changed since.

US politicians in the House of Representatives are in a unique position of constant campaigning because of their short, two-year terms.

"It's very hard for American politicians to make a decision that's going to be unpopular,” Mr Courtice said.

Since the start of slavery in the US, the sugar lobby has had a massive hold in states such as Florida and Texas - a factor that perpetuates an ongoing cycle of support for US sugar subsidies.

"We're small players in the world and we're small players in our produce we need access to overseas markets and the breaking down of trade barriers,” Mr Courtice said.

Freeing up sugar farms in the US would free up space for growing produce for America's domestic market in what would be a silver lining for the US if they decided to come to the table.

But it's not just America's lack of co-operation delivering a battering to our growers.

Brazilian and South East Asian sugar prices are taking their toll.

Additionally, Mr Courtice said India had "corrupted” the world sugar price by dumping tonnes of their product on the market.

In another blow, the European Union abolished minimum prices for sugar last year.

"Europe and the US are in trade wars and we have unfortunately been victims of those trade wars,” Mr Courtice said.

The EU also subsidises its growers.

"If the EU dropped their subsidies it would give Australia more opportunity to sell overseas,” Mr Courtice said.

"We can't determine the price for primary products because they have to be sold on the open market.”

If regions with big populations, such as the EU and the US, were to drop their subsidies, production would drop and make an opening for Australian growers to benefit.

"I don't know how long it will take the US and Europe to play fair,” Mr Courtice said.

There is a growing trend to turn towards small crops in Bundaberg and the whole of Queensland, according to Mr Courtice, who fears for the future of our mills if sugar prices continue to drop globally.

Mr Courtice says despite his efforts, it continues to be a "frustrating and slow” path to progress for an embattled Australian sugar market damned heavily by American protectionism.

Nonetheless, Mr Courtice said he fondly remembered his meeting with the president.

"He was a quietly spoken, quiet man,” he said,

"Going to Kepnock High, I didn't think I'd meet a president of the United States.”

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