REPORTS of Queensland Nationals MP George Christensen defecting from his party have escalated amid growing anger at the extended battle between sugar cane growers and milling company Wilmar over supply contract arrangements.
Central to the hot political issue is a threat to intervene legislatively through a mandatory industry code of conduct, if sugar producers and the foreign owned milling company can’t resolve the issue between them.
Mr Christensen said the situation remained “highly fluid” in Canberra this week as Wilmar continued protracted negotiations with Queensland Sugar Limited (QSL) acting for growers, with the process occurring “for a hell of a long time”.
“What they’re trying to get nutted out is on-supply agreements so farmers can have what their entitled to have, which is choice in who markets their sugar,” he said.
But Mr Christensen told Fairfax Agricultural Media he would explore “other options”, including crossing the floor to vote against his party, unless a code of conduct was announced, to enforce the sugar industry’s protection from Wilmar.
His deadline is February 28 for an on-supply agreement to be reached between Wilmar and QSL - after which point growers will be unable to lock in world record sugar prices on forward contracts.
Mr Christensen said he was in the process of writing to his own government - including Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Treasurer Scott Morrison and his party leader and Deputy Prime Barnaby Joyce - outlining his hard-line demands.
“The Deputy Prime Minister already knows this but if Wilmar have not reached that on-supply agreement by February 28, I’m asking the federal government, at the close of business March 1, to have announced that they’re going to proceed with a mandatory code of conduct for the sugar industry, that has a range of penalties in place,” he said.
“Obviously that’s going to take a long time to implement but what I want is the government to announce that we’re going ahead to implement that.
“There will obviously be a debate about this in cabinet and in the upper echelons of government but my message to them is they must adopt it, because if they don’t, there’s going to be a great deal of anxiety, lost confidence and turmoil within the Queensland sugar industry; particularly amongst cane farming families who traditionally back the Liberal and National parties all of the time.
“If we don’t go ahead and offer a hand to these people, not only will there be turmoil for them but there will also be turmoil politically because this issue will bite us; not just on the state scene but also the federal scene.”
Mr Christensen said he expected federal cabinet would meet several times before the February 28 deadline including last night where he didn’t expect the issue to be solved.
He said several sugar cane grower representatives would also be making an urgent trip to Canberra this week to hold talks with senior ministers.
Mr Christensen said resolving the ongoing sugar marketing issue satisfactorily was “crucial” to his political future.
“I’ll go so far as to say that if there’s one thing that I want to have delivered in my political career, it is this code of conduct, if indeed Wilmar don’t do the deal with QSL,” he said.
“I’m not going to make threats – and other newspapers have speculated – but all I’ll say is this.
“If the government says ‘no’ then I’ll explore other options to get a code of conduct.”
Asked what the options were that he’d be exploring, Mr Christensen said “there’s a myriad of other options to force the government’s hand on this”.
“They need to know that’s the reality and that I want this so much, that I’ll do whatever it takes to get it,” he said.
Asked whether he would cross the floor Mr Christensen he said, “if that’s what it takes to get it”.
“I hope that they’ll see sense and just do it,” he said.
Mr Christensen has been a central figure in the dispute amid several political manoeuvres in federal parliament over recent years, after Wilmar first announced in April 2014 that it would exit the traditional QSL marketing arrangements, raising fears about growers being squeezed on supply contracts and pricing.
Under former PM Tony Abbott, a taskforce was established to examine the issue in greater detail which saw a draft mandatory code created which has been used as a big stick to try and coral the two warring factions into line.
A Federal Senate inquiry into the sugar cane marketing and pricing dilemma also tabled a report in June 2015 which again backed a mandatory code of conduct.
This week, Mr Christensen said he described Wilmar’s actions in April 2014 and still does as a “bastard act”.
“They came to this country saying that they would not change the marketing arrangements and yet a few years later they did and you could not help but forgive growers for thinking this was their intention all along,” he said.
“In December 2014 I spoke to the joint party room under then Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss and pointed out the problem and said we needed a code of conduct.”
Mr Christensen said the draft mandatory code driven by the taskforce process could be tweaked and had outlined “appropriate penalties” for any breaches.
He said that draft had been “sitting on the table” but he also believed the issue was resolved when the Queensland parliament passed legislation in December 2015 which gave sugar cane growers choice in marketing.
But Mr Christensen said the state Labor government was opposed to that legislation after the LNP, Katter’s Australian Party and an independent came together and voted the government down.
He said what’s happened since is the state government was not being supportive of the legislation and hasn’t enforced it.
“There are people who do believe Wilmar could potentially be breaking it and I’m not saying they are, but obviously the intent of that bill, of that law, was to give growers choice of marketing and right now they don’t have choice of marketing,” he said.
Recently, Mr Joyce also made strong public statements on ABC Radio regarding the sugar marketing issue, warning Wilmar was not above the law and that he was willing to intervene on the dispute, if needed.
He said a piece of legislation had been passed by the Queensland Parliament and Wilmar “has got to obey it”.
“And if they don’t want to obey, well then it’s like any other induvial or organisation that doesn’t want to obey the law, then there are consequences for that,” he said.
Mr Joyce said, after holding discussions with Wilmar, “they went straight away and protested loudly to other of my colleagues to try to white ant my position”.
He said, “all that does is infuriate me - so I’m fair dinkum”.
“If they want things to become a sort of a process whereby we try and deal with it via other means in Canberra….sure we’ll do that,” he said.
“If people want to say, ‘well how serious are you about it?’ Well, I’ll say, well you could almost make it…. a condition of the Coalition, I don’t care.”
Mr Joyce said the bar could also be raised way beyond where it could be if the issue was resolved by industry – but pointed out he’d introduced another industry code of conduct for wheat port operations.
“A lot of people said it would never happen; they had a whole heap of people saying how outrageous it was,” he said.
“They were really angry with me - but it’s there.
“We can do other codes of conduct and I can bring all the sugarcane farmers down to help me draft it up, if that’s what they want.
“I’ve got no problems getting involved if that’s what’s required and I say that - not as a threat - just as an open acknowledgement of basically the way I operate.
“So if this thing is not resolved - if I have to continually have briefs come across my desk about this - I will move and when I do, you won’t get into my office.
“You won’t get in my door to complain about what I’m doing because I’m basically sick of having the discussions and trying to get people to move and they’re not moving so I’ll just move it myself.”
Mr Christensen said Wilmar claimed to be working towards striking an on-supply agreement with QSL but “the longer this all drags on, the longer farmers don’t have choice in marketing”.
“It’s coming to a head on February 28 which is an important day because under normal circumstances - after that date - farmers are no longer able to forward price their sugar,” he said.
“Some things have been worked out to give growers a little extra time on that front but the issue is, with banks breathing down peoples’ necks, with family members nervous about the future, with farmers staring into an empty space and saying ‘I don’t know what’s going to come but if I do this deal now, which I don’t like, at least I can lock in some of these prices’, people are going to start to falter, just simply through the fact that Wilmar has this unfair monopoly advantage in the negotiations process.”
Mr Christensen said he wasn’t going to accuse Wilmar of “deliberately dragging the chain” but warned they’d had been given plenty of time to avoid government intervention.
“The reality is, on December 6 they told me and a representative of the Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce that this matter would be resolved within two weeks but now, 10 weeks later, we have no resolution to the matter,” he said.
“Three weeks ago they told (Queensland One Nation Senator Pauline Hanson) that the matter will be resolved within two weeks and still there’s no resolution.
“I’ve got to thinking that there’s this rolling two week period in which it will be resolved.”
Mr Christensen said there was “another reality to all of this that’s not lost on me or farmers or QSL”.
“As each day goes by, farmers are getting more and more worried about losing the ability to lock in world record high sugar prices that are available and the longer the negotiations drag on, the riskier it becomes for them to secure those record high prices,” he said.
“What farmers want to do, if they have access to a third party marketer, is to forward price part of their crop right now, so they can lock prices in.
“But the only ability they have at the moment, if they want to forward price, is to go to Wilmar and say, ‘I’ll accept what you’re putting forward and I’ll accept that you’ll market my sugar’ and not many of them want to do that.
“Only a small amount of growers and I’m going to say most reluctantly, have walked and started signing.”