Pollies field sugar queries from angry growers
ON Sunday, George Christensen called in a federal heavyweight to help send a clear message to rogue miller Wilmar Sugar.
At a meeting in Ayr, a packed house of about 400 growers from all Wilmar milling regions heard from a panel made up of deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce and the member for Dawson Mr Christensen.
The convening of the meeting comes days after opposition leader Tim Nicholls gave Wilmar and Queensland Sugar Limited 48 hours to resolve their dispute or the LNP would attempt to make further amendments to the Sugar Act.
Mr Nicholls was on the panel in Ayr and backed up by the member for Burdekin Dale Last and minister for northern Australia Senator Matt Canavan.
After the introduction of amendments to the Sugar Act made in December 2015 by the Katter Party and the LNP, growers, government and industry groups have had an uphill battle forcing compliance from the Singaporean milling giant.
The looming price nomination date, set by QSL, on February 28 has growers under pressure to declare how much sugar they will be selling through the marketer but they cannot do this until they have cane supply agreement with their miller if QSL is elected as the seller of the grower economic interest in the product.
The frustration of growers at the meeting in Ayr was palpable and they shot questions to members of the panel demanding to know what the politicians were going to do about it.
Burdekin grower Rob Morano asked Mr Christensen "How can I make a buck without a cane supply agreement? How can that legislation that the Libs want to put in there help me sign a cane supply agreement with Wilmar?”
Mr Christensen responded by saying: "The state legislation address the imminent issue that is in front of us which is the stalemate which has happened between Wilmar and QSL. I do blame Wilmar for a fair bit of it.”
"The legislation sets up an arbitration process for QSL and Wilmar to reach a decision. It forces them to come to a decision because an arbitrator will rule on what is going to happen.”
Mr Christensen asked Mr Morano if he had answered the question, to which Mr Morano replied "No George, you haven't”.
A spokesperson for Wilmar said they have met with QSL seven times in the last four weeks in an attempt to break the deadlock.
"Wilmar has made significant concessions in the course of negotiations, however we cannot accept commercially unreasonable or prejudicial terms,” the spokesperson said.
”While we understand concerns for an outcome, we caution that further legislative intervention will only frustrate the situation and damage the future prospects of the industry.
"A commercial agreement will only be achieved when both parties are satisfied with the terms and willing to commit.”
A fact that was not lost on Proserpine grower and Canegrowers board member Lindsay Altmann, who was at the meeting in Ayr.
Mr Altmann said the outcome of arbitration between Wilmar and QSL did not ensure the outcome growers were hoping for.
"If you force someone into arbitration the decision you get is final. What happens if you go to arbitration and Wilmar is awarded what they want?” he asked.
"I am not saying that is what is going to happen (but) there is two sides to every coin. It may land on the wrong side.”
Mr Altmann believed the meeting was politically motivated rather that genuinely designed to offer a solution to the stalemate.
"(It was) a political set-up and they guaranteed they will help us if they are re-elected,” he said.
Wilmar Sugar added "we are focused on protecting the future of the sugar industry and these regional jobs.”
"Our growers are important to us as our viability is dependent on theirs. We will pay our 1,475 growers more than $730 million in cane payments and allowances for the 2016 crop,” a spokesperson said.