Tuesday, 10 September 2019
People would be aware that the Queensland sugar industry is on its knees, yet the Queensland government is doing little to assist. In fact, it is contributing to the problem. The cost of electricity for irrigators in Queensland has risen by approximately 130 per cent over the past 10 years, and with some irrigation tariffs due to be phased out next year there will no longer be any tariff designed to meet the requirements of irrigators and their farming practices. It is anticipated that some irrigators will incur further increases in the cost of electricity by as much as 50 per cent when charged on standard tariffs. It's a kick in the guts to farmers and households to learn that Energex and Ergon ran a combined profit of $1.62 billion over a 12-month period.
Another issue is the rising cost of water because of increased electricity charges, which is another issue the sugar industry is facing. The Environmental Protection (Great Barrier Reef Protection Measures) and Other. Legislation Amendment Act 2019 will impose even more significant costs on producers within the Great Barrier Reef catchment at a time when farmers need more research and development.
The Queensland sugar industry contributes approximately $2.2 billion to the Queensland economy, and given the dire state of the Queensland sugar industry I would like the Queensland government to explain the actions of its Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, which has misled and mishandled a high-tech value-add project for the sugar industry called PlantZap. PlantZap would have been produced in commercial quantities in Australia and globally. This would have provided our canegrowers with another source of income and positioned Queensland, and Australia, at the forefront of technology by providing a solution to the global obesity health crisis. PlantZap is a technology process that extracts the minerals contained in sugarcane juice that is normally found in molasses by altering part of the refining process. These changes to the refining process produce significant cost savings for the refiner and also produce unique and highly valuable new cane products. By reducing sugar by up to 50 per cent and salt by up to 25 per cent in refining end products, but without impacting on taste, PlantZap potentially opened up global commercial opportunities that would have provided our canegrowers with a vast new source of income and positioned Queensland at the forefront of technology by providing a revolutionary way for the global food and beverage industry and manufacturers to address the world's global obesity health crisis.
A Swiss-Australian Queensland based consortium called NNP AG was appointed exclusively by DAF in August 2010 to commercialise the PlantZap project—both the technology and the product. I want to ask the Queensland government why NNP was handed a project that wasn't commercially ready at the time of their appointment in August 2010 by DAF, or DEEDI, as it was known at the time. NNP was misled by DAF, who did not observe proper business protocols and who have been proven to have been commercially dishonest. I note that NNP spent sufficient funds and resources on testing, production and development of global markets over this 10-year period. I also note the Queensland government did not provide any funding or support to NNP to ensure that the first PlantZap commercial extraction plant was based in Queensland. This meant that NNP had to approach overseas sugar mills, because without the support of the Queensland government there were few opportunities to secure the support of the local sugar industry.
Many of the large, global, multinational companies looking to invest in NNP and PlantZap were adamant that the Queensland government had to back and support the first PlantZap extraction plant in Queensland to showcase the technology and product as a vote of confidence in their own innovation/invention. In 2016, the Queensland government Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, DAF, tried to terminate NNP's agreement, based on legal technicalities; however, DAF backed down, and a new arrangement was entered into where the parties agreed NNP would acquire the government's IP for a significant sum of money. NNP had multibillion dollar groups wanting to do that deal, but they required more time to complete the due diligence. NNP asked for an extension to the cut-off of 31 July 2018 to secure funding, but DAF would not agree and terminated NNP's licence in August 2018. NNP had invested in excess of A$20 million over almost 10 years and had taken a research project to the point of being commercially ready without receiving a single dollar in return from the Queensland government. But DAF suddenly decided to take ownership of their work and investment, and threw NNP into the gutter.
NNP has developed a relationship with some of the major cane growers in Queensland, and it has substantial offshore support for the project if the Queensland government agrees to fund the first PlantZap extraction facility in Queensland. This would help the growers and the Queensland sugar industry, and, indeed, inject much-needed funds into the Queensland government.
I would like the Queensland government to explain why they have allowed this situation to develop and what they are planning to do to compensate this company and ensure a lifeline for the Queensland sugar growers. I would also like to know why I, a senator for Queensland, was asked to sign a confidentiality agreement with the Queensland agriculture minister after I requested a meeting to question their dealings with NNP. Why were DAF, and the Queensland Labor government, not prepared to undergo scrutiny?
The questions I want to ask DAF and the Queensland government are: why have they squandered a multibillion dollar project that could have transformed our ailing sugar industry and produced an entire new industry from sugar based products, and why did DAF fail to tell NNP that it had already supported another technology when NNP entered into agreements with DAF that undermined NNP's ability to acquire the promised rights to PlantZap?
NNP was to receive rights to PlantZap technology, including in the biggest global food market, the USA, in return for a substantial investment of more than $20 million over a 10-year period. It had taken this research project to the point of being commercially ready for major international sugar and food based corporations—without receiving a dollar from the Queensland government. But, in 2017, the US Patent Office rejected DAF's PlantZap patent application, because it referred to the earlier technology that DAF had assisted in developing. Yet DAF had failed to reveal that it had had previous dealings with another company, which had already registered the US patent. After the DAF patent fiasco was identified, DAF terminated all its agreements with NNP. In doing, so it destroyed the investment made by NNP, in good faith; denied the cane growers of Queensland a much-needed boost to their incomes; and forfeited a highly valuable commercial opportunity for Queensland, potentially with a value in the billions of dollars.
The work and investment of NNP for the benefit of Queensland is not, however, lost, if it is allowed to build upon the knowledge and relationships it has developed over 10 years. NNP retains a strong rapport with some of the major cane growers in Queensland, and it has substantial offshore support for the project if the Queensland government is willing to fund the first PlantZap extraction plant in Queensland.
I would like the Queensland government to explain why they have allowed this situation to develop and, in particular, why DAF failed to disclose its prior involvement in competing technology to NNP; what compensation claims the Queensland government expects to face in light of these events; whether the Queensland government has considered mitigating its potential loss from those NNP claims; and how will it ensure that the vast work done by NNP delivers value to Queensland and, in particular, to the sugar industry in future. I call on the Queensland agriculture minister to answer the question as to why I had to sign a confidentiality agreement before I had a meeting with him to discuss these issues with him. I have not signed that agreement, because I do not believe I should have to sign a confidentiality agreement. These are questions that need to be asked of the Palaszczuk Labor government in Queensland and of the agriculture minister, who have done the wrong thing by NNP and the people of Queensland.