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Wednesday, 4 June 2014
Page: 110

Mr CHRISTENSEN (DawsonThe Nationals Deputy Whip) (19:35): Canegrowers are a conservative lot. In a traditionally conservative state like Queensland, these men and women, who are often third- and fourth-generation farmers, are possibly the most conservative of all. They are proud of their links to the land and proud to run their own show, and you generally find them getting on with what they do best without too much fuss and bother. Until now, that is, as they have been thrust into a battle not of their making and it is a battle with a bitter twist. It is hard to imagine what could possibly prompt such a conservative lot to band together and protest. Yet, that is exactly what happened yesterday in the Burdekin district, which is in my electorate of Dawson. About 160 growers who supply to Inkerman mill, as well as some of the growers who supply to Pioneer Mill, refused to start harvesting. They effectively went on strike.

The gong for prompting them to take such a strong stance goes to Singapore based Wilmar Sugar, who stunned everyone in the industry by announcing one fine morning in April that they would exit their sugar marketing arrangements with Queensland Sugar Limited, or QSL, at the end of the 2016 season and set up their own marketing arm. Wilmar have not acknowledged the protest action by growers, but they have been forced to delay the crush. It is a small victory in this battle with a bitter twist. Growers are fighting for the right to determine how their two-thirds economic interest in raw sugar is marketed, a right which is effectively being ripped away by the Wilmar proposal. This move is a dog act and I said so in more blunt language on the day that it was made, and I stand by what I said on that day. They acted without any prior consultation with growers, choosing instead to announce first, and then talk later.

Growers are increasingly alarmed by the scenario painted by Wilmar. They are concerned about the lack of transparency in the proposed structure. They are concerned about the implications for competition in the Australian sugarcane industry in the long term. And they are concerned about the lack of choice being offered to them.

At a series of meetings organised by the grower collectives CANEGROWERS and the Australian Cane Farmers Federation, who represent 80 per cent of Australian canegrowers, there has been overwhelming rejection of Wilmar's proposal. In the ongoing call to action, more than 3,150 objections to Wilmar's actions have been lodged. There are 4,000 growers across Queensland and New South Wales, so that represents a massive response of 78 per cent.

In relation to the implications for competition, there are real concerns that Wilmar may be in contravention of Sections 46 and 47 of the Competition and Consumer Act 2010, and this issue has been raised with the ACCC. I would call on the ACCC to take this matter seriously, and to act.

As the largest sugar miller, processing some 14 million tonnes of cane each year, Wilmar is in a monopoly position and has a corporate responsibility to not act in an anticompetitive manner. Section 46 prohibits a corporation with a substantial degree of power in a market from taking advantage of that power to eliminate or substantially damage a competitor. Section 47 prohibits exclusive dealing. Wilmar is engaging in 'third line forcing' that requires growers to use an exclusive Wilmar structure to market growers' sugar, denying growers the option of using the marketing services of another supplier.

Wilmar came to Australia in 2010 making all the promises in the world. They made commitments to the Foreign Investment Review Board and to the Australian government that they had no plans to meddle with the marketing arrangements that were in place. They are now going down the track they have carved out in every other country, treating their suppliers as peasant farmers rather than business partners in a mutually beneficial economic arrangement.

I would like to pose a hypothetical in relation to this issue. I understand that sometime later this year Wilmar will have to send out notices to growers to change the supply agreement, noting that it will no longer be QSL but Wilmar marketing their sugar. It could very well be that, at that time, growers in closer proximity to Mackay Sugar mills—like those in Sarina, who are ably represented by the member for Capricornia, who is sitting beside me here, and those in Proserpine, in my electorate—could reply to Wilmar with a supply agreement of their own. Sarina growers might opt to supply to Racecourse Mill, and Proserpine growers might supply to Farleigh Mill. And I would encourage growers who feel aggrieved by the changes that Wilmar is seeking to wield to seriously consider voting with their feet.

This battle with a bitter twist is a fight for growers' rights, and if Wilmar thinks that the entire sugarcane industry—the thousands of sugarcane growers, their families, the workers, and their elected representatives, such as me and the member for Capricornia, and also the member for Hinkler—are going to lie down and let this happen without a fight, they really seriously need to think again.