Senate debates

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Statements by Senators

Sugar Industry

1:35 pm

Photo of Glenn LazarusGlenn Lazarus (Queensland, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

Today I would like to speak about the Australian sugar industry and the need for all Australians to work together to support our sugar industry—and, more broadly, Australian farmers, Australian businesses and Australian jobs.

Since joining the Senate I have come to the realisation that the Abbott government does not care about Australian industries or Australian jobs for Australian workers. Unlike the Abbott government, I am really concerned about the health, viability and future of our sugar industry. Many may not be aware that the sugar industry is one of the oldest industries in Australia. In fact, the First Fleet introduced sugar cane to Australia in 1788, and it became and has been a thriving and highly successful industry for Australia up until now. Sadly, things are looking grim for our sugar cane industry and the future of our sugar cane farmers.

International companies and foreign governments are starting to take over one of our most important agricultural sectors and very few people in this place seem to care. Sugar cane is a huge industry for Queensland and, as the only Independent senator for Queensland, I am determined to be a champion for the industry and to apply enough pressure on the government to keep our great sugar industry in the hands of Australians, not overseas countries. Let me give you some background.

Due to the nature of the sugar plant, it requires warm weather and high rainfall to grow well. As a result, 95 per cent or sugar produced in Australia is grown in Queensland, with the balance grown in New South Wales. The industry directly employs approximately 16,000 people across the growing, harvesting and transport sectors, with many of those people based in Queensland. It is one of Australia's largest, most significant rural industries and is considered to be Queensland's most important rural crop. Given the importance of the sugar industry for Queensland and more broadly for Australia, you would think the Abbott government would be supporting the industry to succeed, but you would be wrong. There are some 4,000 sugar cane farms along the eastern seaboard and the majority are family operations, families who have been sugar farming for generations. In fact, sugar cane farmers are part of Australia's rich history and have contributed much to the industry globally.

The world's first mechanical cane harvester was built in Bundaberg in 1890. From the year the First Fleet arrived until today, the sugar industry has evolved at a great rate and Australia is now one of the world's largest exporters of raw sugar. In fact, we are the third largest sugar supplier to the world. The world wants our sugar and our sugar industry provides critical export opportunities and jobs for our country. Once sugar is harvested, it must be milled within 24 hours. Cane farmers need to get their product to mills in this time frame. Despite all the farms, there are only 24 sugar mills in Australia and of those, today only eight are Australian owned. All the others are owned by international companies.

In areas across Queensland, including the Burdekin, most growers are only able to use mills owned by an international company. In the Burdekin, growers are only able to use a mill owned by a Singaporean company Wilmar. Currently Queensland Sugar Limited operates on behalf of all sugar cane growers to market Australia's sugar to the world. QSL uses its bulk marketing power to leverage better deals for Australian sugar on the international market. QSL takes care of industry matters including the management of bulk sugar, terminals and pricing, to minimise foreign exchange exposure to sugar cane growers and maximise their returns. QSL is trusted by Australian cane growers and is viable because all growers use their services.

Importantly, QSL has been around for a while and operates to serve the best interests of Australia, not of overseas countries. This is where things start to become concerning. Unfortunately, the sugar mills owned by international companies have decided that, from the end of the 2016 season, they do not want QSL to manage marketing for cane growers any more. Instead, the internationally owned mills want to undertake the marketing of Australian sugar themselves. This means Australian cane growers will be forced into a situation where they are no longer able to use an Australian company to take care of the marketing of Australian sugar; the international companies want to do this themselves.

Already, international companies are buying up our cane farms. They have already bought up the majority of our mills and now they want to manage the marketing of our sugar to the world. And what will happen to our sugar cane growers if they decide they do not want an overseas company or an overseas country marketing Australia's sugar to the world? Simple: the internationally owned mill will simply stop providing milling services to our cane growers and this will send them broke. In effect, our Australian owned cane growing farmers are being blackmailed into unfair and anticompetitive commercial arrangements. This situation is unfair and unjust.

The fact that our government could allow hardworking, decent Australian farmers to be bullied and for their livelihoods to be put at risk at the hands of foreign-owned companies and overseas countries is absolutely disgraceful. The fact that our government could allow a foreign-owned company or an overseas country to take control of the marketing of Australian sugar is an even a bigger disgrace.

Today, I will be putting up a motion in the Senate calling on the Abbott government to act. Australian cane growers need to be supported by the government and for their interests to be put before foreign-owned companies and overseas countries. Australian cane growers need a code of conduct to be implemented to protect them from the aggressive actions of foreign-owned companies and the establishment of a commercial arbitration facility to assist growers to resolve disputes with foreign-owned mills.

A Senate committee reviewed the marketing arrangements of the sugar industry last year and the committee recommended that a code of conduct be developed and installed ASAP. The Abbott government needs to act on this and to start supporting the sugar industry and, more importantly, Australian jobs for Australian workers. Too much of our country, our assets, our industry, our businesses, our land and our jobs are being sold off overseas. Our future is in our ability to own our own assets and to sell our products and services to the world.

Queensland needs a thriving Australian-owned sugar industry, as does Australia. I need everyone across Australia to help me to call on the Abbott government to act before it is too late. We must save Australia's sugar cane growing industry.