Wednesday, 15 February 2017
Statements by Senators
Queensland Sugar Industry
I want to open by saying that I am so thrilled with the input that One Nation had into the compulsory land acquisition in Queensland, with the farmers there, and to see that it has been stopped. Now it is up to the farmers whether they want to sell their land. That was a great win, and it all came down to people power. The part we played was to bring it to the public's awareness, and getting the Prime Minister to actually have a look at it, and the defence minister. So, I am pleased by the way it went.
But it just never ends. Now that that has been finalised, I find I am facing the battle of the canegrowers in North Queensland. And I ask myself, what is happening in this country? Looking back 20 years, I had farmers coming to me—it was like shutting down the farming sector, whether it be the pork industry or the chicken farmers or the dairy industry. It seems to be one after another. We seem to be destroying our agricultural industry in Australia. And I keep asking myself, why? Why can't we in this place see what is happening and start to help these people?
It is not just about the dollar value, to me. It is more important than that. It is about a way of life, and I think that is so precious to people. And I hear it all the time, from migrants who came out here many years ago. They opened up the lands—the Germans, the Italians and all the different migrants who came here and created the farming. Especially in North Queensland, it was the Italians. And now we seem to be forever just propping them up or destroying whole industries.
Let me explain to people who do not understand what is going on. Queensland Sugar Limited is a not-for-profit service organisation that provides raw sugar marketing, pricing, finance and logistics services to the Queensland sugar industry. It has been going for about 70 years. They operate about six bulk sugar terminals on a cost-recovery basis and are owned by Queensland canegrowers and millers, returning all net returns to the industry they serve. So, it is set up for the canegrowers. But under Labor, in 2009 Wayne Swan, as Treasurer, allowed the sale of the sugar mills in the Burdekin to a Singaporean foreign investor to the tune of about $1.7 billion. Now the problems have started, because the canegrowers need to have what is called an on-supply agreement. The have a cane supply agreement with the mill, and then the mill must make an agreement with Queensland Sugar as an on-sale. But now they cannot have that agreement; they cannot get an agreement with Wilmar. So, Wilmar is holding up negotiations.
How important is this? Well, a crop has to be harvested, so the canegrower, by the time he cuts his cane, has 12 hours to get it to the mill to be crushed. Canegrowers cannot take it anywhere else in the Burdekin, because Wilmar owns the four mills. So, the canegrowers are really held to ransom if they do not get that on-supply agreement with Wilmar and QSL. QSL has been there marketing for many years. As I said, they have been doing that for the canegrowers for 70 years—a not-for-profit organisation. They are there to look after the canegrowers. Wilmar owns 30 per cent in Queensland Sugar. What this all comes down to is that the Queensland state government in 2015 passed the Queensland marketing choice legislation. But it is very loose. They have not looked after the canegrowers.
Unless these canegrowers get this agreement sorted out with Wilmar and QSL, they will find themselves in dire straits, because they have to harvest their crop by May or June this year. Now, Wilmar is also a marketing body, and they are holding out because they want to handle the marketing for the canegrowers. But Wilmar does not have a very good track record on this, because they have been going for only about six or seven years. So they are trying to do deals in Asia, and the deals they do may not necessarily give the canegrowers the best value for their crop. So the canegrowers do not have a choice of marketing.
This is something the canegrowers have taken to Barnaby Joyce. At the end of last year he promised them that a deal would be signed by Christmas. Nothing has been done. I have had meetings with Wilmar. I have had meetings with QSL. I have had continuous meetings with the canegrowers to try to work this out. Wilmar will not come to a meeting with the canegrowers and QSL together. They refuse to. And this is all about the canegrowers. They will not even talk to them. They will not sit down in a joint meeting. I was able to get the canegrowers and Wilmar together, but can I get the three of them together? No, because Wilmar refuses. Why?
And there is talk about this being political. Wilmar's willingness to engage in negotiations was initially extremely limited, as it instead focused its efforts on political lobbying to seek repeal of the legislation that permits marketing choice. Their commitment to talks appeared to increase in mid to late September 2016 as growers became more vocal about the delays and Wilmar's conduct attracted political and regulatory scrutiny. But despite this, the deals have not been secured. For all the canegrowers in North Queensland, production is about 17.8 million tonnes. In the Burdekin it is around six or seven million tonnes. So, we are talking about a lot of sugar.
The whole area around the Herbert and Burdekin Rivers produces about 60 per cent of Queensland sugar. I cannot understand why this government does not do something about the situation. I have said all along that foreign investment is fine, but foreign control—no way. We have to be very vigilant when we allow foreign investors come into this country and buy up our assets, especially essential services. We do not have any control, and this case shows that. They are holding cane growers to ransom, and the government cannot do anything about it. I believe it should be up to the federal parliament to move on the code of conduct. A code of conduct was undertaken here in 2015 on the marketing of the sugar industry, but nothing has been done about it.
I have cane growers just about on their knees and their wives are distraught over this whole thing. They have no future. I have one cane grower who has been in the industry for 30 years and he is telling his kids not to get into it. He said, 'I have been destroyed by the whole lot.' They do not get support or any help whatsoever. We have the best sugar in the world, and we have Asia and Japan vying for our sugar. At the present moment we have one of the highest prices for sugar and yet they cannot secure deals because Wilmar is controlling the whole marketing structure and they will not come to an agreement with Queensland Sugar Ltd. The growers cannot do anything about it. They are turning to us in this parliament to help them. This is their livelihood; this is their future; and this is the future of this country; and we cannot lose it. I am asking members of this parliament to please support me and please support these cane growers by putting pressure on the federal and Queensland governments to do something about this because we owe it to them—we are their representatives.