Canegrowers Mackay chairman and Plane Creek grower Kevin Borg was at the meeting between growers and politicians at Ayr on Sunday.
Canegrowers Mackay chairman and Plane Creek grower Kevin Borg was at the meeting between growers and politicians at Ayr on Sunday. Lee Constable

500 turn up to North Queensland canegrowers meet

CANE growers from Sarina and Proserpine added their voices to the huge chorus of dissent in Ayr on Sunday demanding immediate action to end the Wilmar-QSL marketing dispute.

Canegrowers Mackay chairman and Plane Creek grower Kevin Borg said 400-500 producers urged Queensland Opposition leader Tim Nicholls and Shadow Agriculture Minister and Member for Burdekin Dale Last to immediately introduce amendments to marketing in the Sugar Industry Act in State Parliament.

Leader of the Nationals, Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, Federal Member for Dawson George Christensen and Minister for Resources and Northern Australia Senator Matt Canavan were also at the meeting.

A bus-load of Plane Creek growers and others in private cars - about 60 - travelled to the Burdekin in pursuit of marketing choice.

While the meeting was heated but relatively cordial, according to Mr Borg, the message from growers after almost three years in limbo was clear: "We need to keep the bastards honest".

In recent days, Mr Christensen has indicated he could walk out on the Coalition if the Federal Government didn't implement a code of conduct for the sugar industry.

However, the proposed changes to the Sugar Industry Act put forward by the Queensland LNP Opposition have kept Mr Christensen satisfied, for now.

Mr Borg said Wilmar Sugar must negotiate with QSL and sign a commercial on-supply agreement ahead of the 2017 season, or else farmers can't choose QSL as their third-party marketer.

But he sees that as highly unlikely and desperately wants to see the legislative changes to the act implemented, and a code of conduct implemented by the Federal Government.

"Look, the sugar marketing debacle with Wilmar has gone on long enough. They are just blatantly abusing their monopoly powers and a lot of questions from the audience were pointed that way," he said.

"They (politicians) got a loud and clear message that this has gone on long enough for the growers. No more chances. The last 48-hour ultimatum Tim Nicholls gave them (Wilmar) is the last chance they got and they've had more than enough time to come to agreement with growers and to get an agreement signed off with QSL."

Mr Borg said it was "imperative" to have the Deputy Prime Minister and others sit down to talk "because we know Wilmar won't come to the party without political intervention".

"We had no faith Wilmar would move to a resolution, they're just buying time ... ," he said.

"There was no resolutions passed but I think the politicians there got a very strong message. This issue is very close to the heart of growers. And I think politicians are finally getting the message.

"We have towns at stake, jobs at stake if we don't have an agreement in place and we can't start crushing. There'd be farm jobs, jobs in mills, jobs throughout towns."

Mr Borg called on the Palaszczuk Government to "get out and kick the dirt a bit around farms", criticising their input, or perceived lack of it, into the situation, which was "so demoralising to growers".

"They've invested so much money into the 2017 crop and probably some 14 weeks out from crushing we still don't have an agreement. We don't know if we'll get the crop crushed," he said.

"It's getting to the point growers are waking up in the morning asking 'well, what the hell am I bothering doing this for'."

What Wilmar had to say

In response, a Wilmar Sugar spokeswoman said the organisation was committed to reaching a reasonable agreement with QSL "as soon as possible", adding it had "met with QSL six times in the past four weeks and would meet again on Tuesday, February 21, to work through the "relatively small number of outstanding issues"

"We are confident agreement in principle with QSL can be achieved quickly, without need for legislative intervention, if both parties are open to adopting a reasonable commercial approach.

"While we understand concerns for an outcome, we caution that further legislative intervention will only frustrate the situation and damage the future prospects of the industry."

The spokeswoman said Wilmar employed more than 2000 people across eight mills during crushing season and was focused on protecting the industry and regional jobs.

"Our growers are important to us as our viability is dependent on theirs. We will pay our 1475 growers more than $730million in cane payments and allowances for the 2016 crop."

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