INDEPENDENT MP Andrew Wilkie has advocated a return to single desk wheat export marketing, rather than selling Australia’s largest publicly listed agribusiness GrainCorp to US multinational Archer Daniels Midland (ADM).
On Tuesday, Mr Wilkie joined other federal crossbench MPs - Bob Katter (KAP), Adam Bandt (Greens) and Clive Palmer (PUP) - to voice strong opposition to the controversial foreign investment deal.
Mr Wilkie said instead of approving the GrainCorp sale, the Australian government should investigate ways to fund grain infrastructure improvements “without selling the farm to the Americans”.
He said the Australian government should also take a leadership role in finding ways to increase the “muscle” of Australian grain farmers in the international marketplace.
“Surely the time has come to have a conversation, for example, about a single wheat desk,” he said.
“At the moment, we have a number of players, all relatively small by global standards, all trying to get the best price for Australian wheat farmers in the global marketplace. And they just simply don’t have enough grunt, enough muscle to negotiate the best price; they’re simply not big enough.”
Referring to the bipartisan removal of AWB’s single desk monopoly powers in 2008, South Australian Liberal Senator Sean Edwards asked if Mr Wilkie had been “stuck in a time warp”.
“Remember a little thing called the AWB monopoly?” he said.
“The reality is everybody has moved on from the single desk and we now operate in a global market.”
Mr Palmer announced he would sponsor a private members bill in the House of Representatives, seconded by Mr Katter, demanding GrainCorp remains Australian owned.
He said the bill would remove the Federal Treasurer’s ability and authority to approve the $3.4 billion ADM transaction, handing those powers over to “the people of Australia” through a vote in the House of Representatives.
“We want to make the government accountable and we want to make members of the National Party accountable to what they’ve said at the election; that they’ll support rural communities and they’ll support grain growers,” Mr Palmer said.
Treasurer Joe Hockey is due to hand down his decision on the GrainCorp sale by December 17, and the Foreign Investment Review Board’s review will inform his final call.
But Mr Wilkie said the Treasurer must stop the sale of GrainCorp to ADM because it’s “not in the best interests of Australian grain farmers for the company to be sold to the Americans”.
“The fact is that the American corporate ADM will have only one priority and that is to maximise the profit for its shareholders and to achieve that it will push down the price paid to Australian grain farmers as far as those prices can possibly be pushed down,” he said.
Mr Katter said a return to orderly wheat marketing would generate an “immensely better price” for Australian wheat by having one single export seller, compared to 100 sellers.
He said if the Treasurer approved ADM’s takeover of GrainCorp, “farmers are going to be skinned alive”.
Mr Bandt said the Greens firmly believed in defending and protecting Australian agriculture and the GrainCorp sale posed “an enormous threat to Australian farmers”.
Mr Wilkie’s proposal was slammed by West Australian Liberal MP Rick Wilson, a wheat farmer and former president of the Pastoralists and Graziers’ Association Western Grain Growers Committee which lobbied for almost two decades for removal of wheat’s single desk.
His committee argued that abolition of the single desk, and growers taking control of their own marketing, would result in higher prices.
The PGA now believes the deregulated wheat market has resulted in increases of up to $35 a tonne for WA grain growers.
Mr Wilson said the ADM-GrainCorp deal wouldn’t directly affect the WA grains industry, but said there were increasing concerns from growers and industry the sale could lead to increased regulation.
“I share those fears,” he said.
“We have fought long and hard to deregulate the grains industry in WA and the last thing we want is to see more red tape that will stifle investment in the supply chain.
“A deal that imposes additional red tape would have an adverse impact on development of the industry.”
Victorian rural independent Cathy McGowan said unlike her four crossbench colleagues she’s not opposed to the sale of Graincorp to ADM, but she does support strong conditions on the sale.
Ms McGowan said those conditions would be designed to maximise investment to replace outdated infrastructure, such as old silos and an inadequate rail network and ageing rolling stock.
She said the sale was an opportunity to create better economies of scale to benefit grain growers and boost Australia’s capacity to compete internationally.
“I’m with GrainCorp’s CEO, Alison Watkins, on this one – investment is needed to grow our agricultural sector and increase our status as a global player,” she said.
“I’m all for growing Australia’s agricultural sector and to do that we need investment.
“Australian grain growers are very effective farmers we need to ensure the infrastructure and supply chain is world’s best practice.”
Ms McGowan said she believed access issues were best dealt with by the ACCC.
“Concerns about access for smaller players do need to be addressed, regardless of who owns the ports.
“I strongly favour compliance mechanisms to ensure fair access to the infrastructure, rather than a complete stop on the sale.”
(In a statement Ms McGowan also declared she was a shareholder in GrainCorp, with 475 shares worth $5500.)