Bert Kelly, “Pointing a Gunn at shipping conferences,” The Australian Financial Review, March 9, 1979, p. 3. Reprinted in Economics Made Easy (Adelaide: Brolga Books, 1982), pp. 168-70, as “Outlook Conference.”
When I was a member of Parliament, Eccles used to make me go to the agricultural outlook conference which is put on by the Bureau of Agricultural Economics in Canberra at the end of January each year.
He hoped that, by so doing, I might perhaps fill in the greats gaps in my economic understanding, as he called them, so that I could serve my electorate better.
Now that I am no longer an MP, I still go.
One reason is that I meet many knowledgeable and influential people there which helps me write this column.
But another less worthy reason is that, in my retirement, I have become an inveterate conference attender.
Constant practice enables me to sleep soundly through the first session after lunch while looking wise at the same time.
I admit my parliamentary experience helped me in this so I have an unfair advantage over most people. But nevertheless, I am proud of my pre-eminence in this field.
Often, if I am roused from my stately slumbers by some careless clapping or rude mirth, I find many envious eyes watching me closely, hoping to see how a real expert does it.
I do not tell them. I just go on looking wise.
This year, one notable event was a buffet dinner and drinks put on by the European Shipping Conference.
I guess these people wanted to take the opportunity to explain to influential farm leaders the advantages that come from the shipping conference system.
It was not a good evening.
First, many of us had to eat while standing up which is an uncivilised way to behave.
Second, it was hard to hear what the speakers were saying. This may have been a good thing but it would have been nice to have been certain about this.
But the evening was spoilt for me because I kept recalling Eccles’ warning that there was no such thing as a free feed, so I had an uneasy feeling that I had already paid for my meal, or, if I hadn’t, I was about to.
There were some excellent graphs displayed on the walls, all done in striking colours, designed to show that the shipping conference system had served Australia well.
But one of these happened to show how the conference freight on wool had been held down when Sir William Gunn was twisting the arm of the European Shipping Conference in 1972.
The Wool Corporation has recently been doing some more screwing and have been able to negotiate a special reduced freight rate for 80,000 bales from a shipping line outside the conference system and which showed a reduction of over 60 per cent on the conference rates.
Many of us were suspicious that it was the startling success of this trial shipment that activated the function we were at.
And I noticed that, when one of the farmers was speaking later and asked, “Was Sir William Gunn in the room?” many of the shipping people looked around nervously and some edged towards the door.
The break-up of conference shipping is interesting.
Loading costs in Australia: 31%
Crew costs, insurance, etc: 23%
Bankers costs …………………: 11%
Port costs ………………………: 4%
Discharge in Europe ………: 17%
Depreciation and return on capital: 14%
It costs 31 per cent to load in Australia compared with 17 per cent at the other end which is a grim indictment of the mess we have made on the waterfront.
But the shipping conference system has encouraged these costs to rise.
If there is strife on the waterfront and a shipowner has to choose between having his ship held up — which costs the earth — and giving in, he usually gives in.
He does so because he can recover any resulting cost increases by raising his rates, knowing that the other conference lines will stick together.
Eccles has another saying, “You can always tell a man who is dining out on an expense account by the enthusiasm with which he summons the waiter.”
Conference ship owners know that someone else will pick up the tab in the end.
The Government has given the shipping conference system a privileged position under the restrictive trade practices legislation.
There are many reasons for so doing and perhaps the speakers told us about them at the dinner.
That I couldn’t hear them if they did was not the fault of the shipping people.
But they were wrong to insert a function of this kind into an outlook conference program.
Farmers may be a bit simple but we usually know when we are being duchessed, even if we have to eat standing up.
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