Buy Australian? No thanks


Next time you are in the supermarket, and you scan the shelves for a product that’s ‘Made in Australia’, stop.

What is the point, exactly, of a ‘buy Australian’ campaign such as that waged by Ausbuy and entrepreneurs like Dick Smith? Buying local products is promoted as keeping jobs and profits in Australia. It is also promoted with claims that Australian-based companies pay taxes in Australia, increasing the revenue stream to government. Even if buying Australian achieved these goals (which is debatable), is that what we should be trying to do?

Whether from a free market perspective or a progressive social point of view, we should not be buying Australian.

Advocates of free trade and open markets have an obvious case to oppose ‘buying Australian’. It is a barrier to trade. It stymies economic competition, putting the brakes on economic growth. It distorts the global economy, preventing businesses and workers who are most efficient from being able to do what they can do best.

But I want to put a different case: that from a social justice point of view, ‘buying Australian’ should be anathema.

Australians are amongst the richest people in the world, experiencing one of the lowest rates of unemployment on the planet, while enjoying an extremely comprehensive welfare system. Australia’s governments have revenue coming out of their ears: they barely know what to do with it, judging by recent election campaigns. Australia is hardly in urgent need of having its company tax revenue base protected: our governments seem to get plenty as things stand.

But out there, beyond our borders, are countries with billions of citizens who lack wealth, employment or welfare. In many of them, their citizens’ life expectancy makes that of our own, ravaged indigenous peoples look like that of Methuselah. They have limited trading opportunities, and are often kept out of markets such as Australia’s by hidden trade barriers and historical factors out of their control.

It is from these countries that we should be seeking to purchase as many of our goods and services as possible. Ausbuy’s website complains: ‘When you buy something that is foreign-owned, foreign-made you just helped create a job overseas’. I say: good. The more we demand things made in developing countries, the lower the unemployment in those places will be. In turn, lower unemployment and higher profits will create better conditions for poor workers, ensuring not only that they have work in the first place, but also creating conditions in which they can secure higher wages.

The more wealth that flows into developing economies, the more their businesses “ and their governments “ can invest in better infrastructure. And the less poverty their citizens experience, the less resentful they will be of wealthy neighbours.

There are complaints that businesses in developing countries are controlled by giant multinationals, which just strip the profits out of the poor nations. Certainly there is a strong case to be made for making trade fairer. However, the high profile of a few multinationals obscures the fact that the majority of developing countries’ economies are made up of domestic firms and small businesses. And anyway, where do you think the multinationals’ profits end up? Another galaxy? No, they end up back in the host countries of those firms and their shareholders. Countries like, you guessed it, Australia.

So the choice is between buying Australian, thereby ensuring that all the jobs, taxes and profits stay in a rich country, or ‘buying poor’, where, even in the ‘worst-case’ scenario of a product produced by a multinational, at least the jobs and some taxes will stay where they are most needed.

And if those reasons aren’t enough, what about doing it as a consumer boycott? The policies of the Australian government in areas like foreign aid or Iraq would be the sort of thing that would make us boycott Australian products if we lived somewhere else. Remember refusing French goods when that country was setting off nuclear blasts in the Pacific? It could even be time to apply the same principles to our own shoddy government.

Finally, consider how Australians would react if the Japanese ran a ‘buy Japanese’ campaign, shunning tuna caught by Australian local fishermen in favour of that caught by Japanese trawlers operating in Australian or international waters. What would Australians think of the USA having a ‘buy American’ campaign that cut off the precarious livelihood of drought-affected local farmers exporting to North America? It’s the same old message: do unto others

Whichever way you look at it, ‘Buy Australian’ is the sort of thing thought up by ‘patriots’, self-interested trade protectionists, or xenophobes. ‘Buying Australian’ has no place in the activist lives of global citizens, whether left- or right-leaning.

If we are serious about closing the wealth gap between rich and poor countries, it won’t be achieved through the aid budgets of niggardly misers like Howard and Blair. It is up to consumers, retailers and suppliers to get out there and bypass myopic governments and hysterical flag-waving entrepreneurs.

Next time you are in a supermarket, look for tinned tomatoes from Thailand; coffee from Kenya; china from China. Goodness knows the companies and workers in those countries need our money more than we do. It is time to switch off those stupid ‘my parochialism runs deeper than your parochialism’ adverts that are enough to make you reach for the painkillers, and buy things produced in the countries whose citizens are most in need.

New ID card move stirs opposition, The Age, 17 January 2006,

Most support national ID card, The Australian, 1 February

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.