QUEENSLAND Nationals MP George Christensen says he’ll await the outcome of a new manoeuvre in the Queensland parliament to try and break the protracted deadlock between Wilmar and Queensland Sugar Limited (QSL) but remains committed to forging ahead with a federal industry code of conduct, to resolve the impasse.
Yesterday, the LNP in Queensland put Wilmar and QSL on a 48 hour time-limit to reach an agreement to agree to resolve their long-running dispute, by February 28.
The state’s LNP Leader Tim Nicholls said if the agreement wasn’t reached or the dispute remained unresolved by February 28, the LNP would act and amend the state’s Sugar Industry Act.
“Everyone in the industry is sick to death to this and it needs to end,” he said.
“Both parties need to grow up, bury their egos and sort this out, otherwise growers will lose out.
“Wilmar and QSL need to provide an iron-clad guarantee within 48 hours that negotiations will be finalised for supply and on-supply agreements by February 28.
“If not, then the LNP will introduce amendments to State Parliament compelling millers and marketers to go into arbitration.”
Today, Mr Christensen said he still backed a mandatory industry code of conduct with penalties, which resulted from a taskforce established to examine the issue and recommended in a Federal Senate inquiry that tabled a report in June 2015.
But he said he’d wait and see what the outcome was of the 48 hour notice, given to Wilmar and QSL to resolve their disagreements, by the Queensland LNP, which could force the two parties into arbitration.
He also remains in ongoing talks about the issue with senior Coalition cabinet members including Treasurer Scott Morrison and Agriculture and Water Resources Minister Barnaby Joyce.
“Under any circumstances a mandatory code of conduct is still warranted and is still critical,” he said.
“I’m going to support what the Queensland LNP need to do to resolve this issue and to get these amendments through to force arbitration between Wilmar and QSL but will keep a very close eye on what’s happening.”
But Mr Christensen said any hiccups in the negotiations, like the Queensland Labor party calling an election – that’s due to be held this year – in the next few weeks, or if the amendments “fell over” in parliament, would bring the federal move of a mandatory code of conduct into play.
“There’s a myriad of things that could go wrong,” he said.
“I’ve stepped back from the federal legislation of a mandatory code of conduct for now just to wait and see what the state outcome is but will be keeping a watching eye over proceedings.”
CANEGROWERS is urged QSL to commit to negotiate their way past their current impasse on a crucial sugar marketing contract.
CANEGROWERS Chairman Paul Schembri said an on-supply agreement was needed, so growers can finalise cane supply agreements (CSA) with the miller for the 2017 season.
“But time is running out - the season will start in around 16 weeks and 1500 farmers are in limbo with the economic future of their businesses at risk,” he said.
He said the Queensland Sugar Industry Act had to be amended in December 2015 to prevent millers from creating regional sugar marketing monopolies, to secure choice for growers and competition in the provision of marketing services.
“Since then, six of the seven sugar milling companies operating in Queensland have negotiated commercial agreements with growers and QSL which allow the 2017 season to proceed,” he said.
“Only Wilmar has been unable to do this.
“Frustration and anxiety levels are sky high in the four cane growing regions where Wilmar owns mills but our growers are determined to stand together.
“They want nothing less than a CSA which guarantees the marketing choice they are entitled to under the legislation.”
Earlier this week, Mr Christensen said he described Wilmar’s actions in April 2014 to announce it would depart from the traditional QSL marketing arrangements as a “bastard act” and still does.
“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.
Mr Christensen said the dispute also remained “highly fluid” in Canberra this week as the two factions sought to reach agreement on an on-supply agreements so farmers can have choice on who markets their sugar.
But he also said he’d 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 writing to his own government - including Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Mr Morrison and his party leader and Deputy Prime Mr 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.
“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 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 Joyce has also recently indicated he was prepared to implement an industry code to resolve the sugar marketing dispute - as he’d done for managing access to wheat ports - and the drafting process could see only growers allowed to make representations.