SUGAR cane producers are angered at the political process that has threatened the future of a hard-fought industry code of conduct and the industry stability they say it delivers.
Representatives from CANEGROWERS and Burdekin District Cane Growers lobbied hard in Canberra this week to try to block the disallowance motion put forward by NSW Liberal Democratic Senator David Leyonhjelm last month, to reverse the code.
Invicta Cane Growers Chair Cy Kovacich expressed anger at Senator Leyonhjelm’s disallowance motion when speaking to Fairfax Agricultural Media.
“It’s plain and simple he doesn’t understand the ramifications or he has no concern about it at least,” he said.
“The removal of the code of conduct would see the removal of any mechanism that allows us to find a fair market price.”
Pioneer Cane Growers Co-Chair Dean Sgroi said he shared the same concerns as the others in the Burdekin District Cane Growers group which is comprised of the Kalamia Cane Growers, Pioneer Cane Growers and Invicta Cane Growers.
“We want that code of conduct kept because we are relying on it basically as our only lever against our miller Wilmar, for negotiations,” he said.
“As a multi-national company they rely on taking the big stick approach on us and also the take and leave it approach to negotiations.
“From what I’ve seen and heard Senator Leyonhjelm say, he’s only giving half the story and what he’s saying a lot of times is true, but he’s not giving the contrary view.”
Kalamia Cane Growers Chair Robert Malaponte said the NSW Liberal Democratic Senator was “making accusations but doesn’t really know anything about the sugar cane industry”.
“But if you’re going to make statements about the industry, you should at least go out and find out what it’s all about,” he said.
“You have people making decisions about the future of an industry that they know nothing about.”
Mr Malaponte said he and the other cane farming leaders were in Canberra to let other Senators know “we need this code of conduct to negotiate with these multinationals”.
“Otherwise we’re just going to be rolled over and our future is virtually going to be stripped from us,” he said.
He said Senator Leyonhjelm had been invited out to cane growing regions to discuss the impacts of removing the code of conduct but hadn’t responded; however some of their colleagues met with his advisers on a visit to Canberra last week.
Pioneer Cane Growers director Robert Rossiter said the sugar cane farming leaders wanted to ensure there was enough political support to defeat the disallowance motion and retain the code of conduct.
“The code in its entirety looks after the ability for us to negotiate with a multinational company like Wilmar,” he said.
“I don’t think Wilmar are going to stop and will keep pushing – but the code gives us the ability to go to an independent arbitrator and get a fair and reasonable outcome, based on both cases being put.
“If our case is good, it gets up and if their case is good, it gets up – but to leave a situation where a big company like this can come in to the detriment of the growers, the communities and all the people who work in those communities, it has flow on impacts for the economy of Queensland and Australia.
“I’m not against foreign investment but can’t understand why we can’t have a set of guidelines to ensure any foreign investment has to be to the benefit of the Australian people and industry, not to its detriment.”
Queensland Shadow Agriculture Minister and Burdekin MP Dale Last supported the cane farming delegation’s efforts to block the disallowance motion, during their visit to Canberra this week.
“I have the largest sugar cane growing area in Australia in my electorate so it’s important to be here to support the growers and industry in talks with crossbench Senators to seek their support to overturn this disallowance motion,” he said.
“Very, very clearly the message from the sugar cane industry is that this needs to go.
“We’re doing everything we can to meet with crossbench Senators and give them some real life stories from cane growers who are living and breathing this industry and tell them exactly what it will mean, if we lose this sugar code of conduct.
“The consequences are it takes away that dispute resolution mechanism, the arbitration clause, which is so important.
“We’ve just been through this long running dispute with Wilmar which was only finalised at the 11th hour.
“We’ve seen sugar prices go from $615 per tonne down to $363 per tonne and when you work that out in real terms, over $100 million is lost to that community which has a massive impact, not only on cane growers but the businesses and communities that rely on sugar cane growers.”
Queensland Nationals Senator Barry O’Sullivan said it was time for government and the sugar growers to “man the barricades”.
He said one of the most important questions in agriculture at the moment was the conditions in which growers and producers engaged with “huge multinational companies” that are trying to consolidate marketing arrangements.
Senator O’Sullivan said it would lead to a loss of market choice for growers in the sugar industry in Queensland, if the code of conduct was “punted”.
“It will turn the sugar growers of my home state of Queensland into dairy farmers – here’s the gate price, if you don’t like it, keep your sugar,” he said.
“But sugar cane is different to most agricultural commodities - it can only be harvested in a reasonably short period of time and if it doesn’t get processed within 12-14 hours it starts to lose sugar and moisture content and it’s not as if you can pack it up and take it to another mill down the road because they own that mill too.
“This is a very, very serious full frontal challenge and what Senator Leyonhjlem has failed to do is to understand all of the nuances of sugar marketing that were born out in an 18 month Senate inquiry – one of the biggest undertaken by the Senate in the last two parliaments - where we met with and fronted thousands of growers and millers and other industry stakeholders.
“Everyone, including the Labor party, agreed on a code of conduct as the only solution and we then negotiated the terms of the code of conduct and implemented it.
“But this disallowance has come completely out of left field and I think Senator Leyonhjlem, for someone who probably hasn’t been to Queensland and wouldn’t know a sugar farm from a football field, needs to answer the question of why he’s taken an interest in this.
“I’d have liked to have been a fly on the wall when they (Wilmar) convinced Senator Leyonhjelm to bring on this disallowance motion.”
CANEGROWERS Chair Paul Schembri said there would be “commercial chaos” if the disallowance motion succeeded and the code of conduct was removed.
He said Labor’s position on the disallowance motion - that he expects will be defeated at a vote next month but urged the need to retain lobbying efforts - was “a matter for them to consider the ramifications of”.
But he said he was disappointed the Opposition were voting for it, because the multi-party Senate inquiry of 2015 was chaired by WA Labor Senator Glenn Sterle and came up with a single, unanimous recommendation for a sugar industry code of conduct.
“The Labor party will need to weigh this up - are they going to sell-out 4500 Queensland cane farmers for the sake of big business?” he said.
“They’d need to consider the political outcomes of that and there is a Queensland state election coming up.”