ANGRY sugar cane farmers descended on Canberra this week to fend-off political attempts to dissolve hard fought industry protections that they feel would expose them to the monopolistic exploits of multinational milling company Wilmar.
Despite the controversial disallowance motion to quell the sugar industry’s code of conduct - raised by NSW Liberal Democrat Senator David Leyonhjelm last month – likely being defeated at an upcoming vote, the farm representatives will remain on red alert lobbying for another month.
Sugar industry leaders hit Parliament House on Monday expecting a vote on the disallowance motion the following day but it’s now been deferred by Senator Leyonhjelm until October 17.
Delegations that made the urgent visit to Canberra included representatives from CANEGROWERS and the Burdekin District Cane Growers, comprising leaders from Kalamia Cane Growers, Pioneer Cane Growers and Invicta Cane Growers.
The Coalition government implemented the industry code in April to break a long-standing deadlock between Wilmar and sugar cane farmers on marketing contractual arrangements and it was described by Treasurer Scott Morrison as ‘light touch’ regulation.
With One Nation (four Senators) and the Nick Xenophon Team (three Senators) already declaring they’ll vote against it, the government only needs three other crossbench members to provide enough votes to defeat the disallowance motion.
Senator Leyonhjelm’s move is being supported by Labor, while the Greens are yet to declare which way they’ll vote but have said they’ll continue holding talks with all stakeholders.
Queensland Nationals Senator Barry O’Sullivan said another separate motion put to the Senate last week to express support for the sugar code and giving growers certainty, had “tested” how the disallowance vote would potentially be resolved next month.
It succeeded by three votes, gaining the support of all crossbench Senators - except Senator Leyonhjelm – including One Nation, the NXT, Lucy Gichuhi, Jacqui Lambie, Derryn Hinch, and Cory Bernardi.
The motion moved by Queensland Senator and One Nation leader Pauline Hanson, along with Senator Lambie and Senator Gichuhi, pointed to the “sole” recommendation from a 2015 Senate inquiry to implement and develop a mandatory sugar industry code of conduct.
Greens agricultural spokesperson Janet Rice said her party wouldn’t support Senator Hanson’s motion - but had been in continuing discussions with growers and other stakeholder, and “we've not concluded our deliberations”.
“What is apparent, however, is that the drafting, consultation, implementation and now disallowance of the sugar industry code of conduct has been absolutely mired in base party politics, and the last thing this parliament needs is further prodding from Senator Hanson to compromise our ability to properly consider this matter,” she said.
“Therefore, although we oppose this motion today, this is not in any way an indication that the Greens will be supporting or opposing the disallowance motion being moved by Senator Leyonhjelm next week, which we will have more to say on in due course.”
Asked about the numbers in terms of a future vote on the disallowance Senator O’Sullivan said “we’re fine - but you never take anything for granted in this place and that’s why these growers are here”.
“He does not have the numbers,” he said of the deferral to October 17 by Senator Leyonhjelm, on the disallowance vote.
CANEGROWERS Chair Paul Schembri said he and the group’s CEO Dan Galligan held talks with “a whole range of key players” this week in Canberra including the Nationals and Liberals, One Nation, Labor and the Greens.
“We’re confident we’ll have the numbers but in the political art in Australia anything can happen between now and when the vote is taken so we’ll leave nothing to chance and we’ll do everything we can to shore up the vote because we need to defeat that motion,” he said.
“The vote is being sponsored by Senator Leyonhjelm and we’re lobbying furiously to convince as many Senators as possible not to support the motion.
“To date, given the meetings we’ve had, and conversations with Senators and their different offices we are encouraged.
“We’ve been building to hold the vote this week but now it has been deferred which is a bit of an anti-climate but we’ll soldier on and continue to lobby up until the vote is taken.”
Mr Schembri said Queensland sugar cane growers demanded and deserved “some certainty” on sugar marketing arrangements with Wilmar and had been “to hell and back over a marketing dispute that’s lasted for three years”.
“We’d finally resolved it and I’m not suggesting for one iota of a second that the mills were happy about it but we had started rebuilding relationships,” he said.
“But then, from completely out of left field, by a Senator that hasn’t even had the decency to engage with the cane growing side of the industry, this disallowance motion was suddenly ushered in.
“Farmers will want some certainty but we’ll move on to October 17.”
Efforts to try and remove the code has also angered Queensland Nationals MP George Christensen.
Senator Leyonhjelm - code gives growers control of product they no longer own
In a speech last week, Senator Leyonhjelm said he considered it “totally inappropriate” that the Senate was considering the motion when the disallowance matter was still to be considered.
“But since everybody else has made their case clear, let me point out that this motion is seeking to give credibility to a code of conduct which allows sugarcane growers to keep control of products which they've sold and no longer own,” he said.
“The ownership transfers to the mills at the rail siding.
“The canegrowers have been seeking government sanction for reaching down into the marketplace and saying, 'This is how millers should deal with our product’.
“It is totally inappropriate.
“The time for debating it is when the disallowance motion is brought before the Senate.”
ACT Labor Senator Katy Gallagher said Senator Hanson's motion was “factually incorrect”.
She said the Senate committee recommended a sugar code be developed with appropriate stakeholder consultations “and this did not occur”.
“There can be no doubt that the current code was a political fix and was imposed without proper thought or consultation or any assessment of the potential adverse effect on investment or jobs,” she said.
“Labor believes there is a case for a properly and responsibly developed code of conduct that addresses any market power imbalance between growers and millers.
“The current code is one that intervenes in commercial contracts and risks driving investment away, which will be bad news for millers and growers alike.”
But Senator Hanson said the code was “necessary for the farmers to have surety of the sale of their sugar”.
“The whole fact is that it was the Labor Party that allowed a multinational to own the mills and control the sugar production after five years,” she said.
“They want to control the marketing, which was destroying the sugarcane growers, who could not send their product anywhere else, because, once it's cut, it has to be delivered within 12 hours.
“They were holding the sugarcane growers to ransom.
“If they really are interested in furthering this nation through agriculture then get behind the sugarcane farmers, get behind the dairy farmers, get behind the farmers that are doing it tough out there, because multinationals are coming in, buying up this land, buying the products and selling them back to their own countries from paddock to plate.”