East v West row grows over grain

A new political row is brewing over wheat exports, with WA Liberals fearing full deregulation of the industry will be nobbled by their East Coast colleagues.

Cabinet ministers are at odds as the Abbott Government scrambles to come up with solution with a two-year agreement governing port access for bulk wheat exports to expire on September 30.

WA Liberals, led by Senator Dean Smith, want the Government to put the industry on the path of full deregulation.

East Coast farmers and grain growers, supported by East Coast coalition MPs, want to retain regulation of port access so operators cannot slug farmers with hefty export fees.

Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce and Small Business Minister Bruce Billson are believed to be proposing different solutions to the stand off as they try to get a mandatory code of conduct in place.

The wheat issue caused deep divisions in the coalition in 2012, with many WA Liberals defying the party room to speak out in support of the Labor Government’s bid to abolish the Wheat Export Authority and a 22c a tonne export levy.

At the time Julie Bishop told WA Liberals to back off, saying an argument could damage Tony Abbott’s leadership.

Senator Smith yesterday was confident WA rural and regional Liberals were unanimous in supporting full deregulation of wheat exports.

"The full deregulation of Australia’s wheat export arrangements is perfectly aligned to the Government’s deregulation and red tape reduction agenda," he said.

"The eleventh hour attempt by Eastern States growers to unwind the achievements of deregulation to date must be challenged."

The West Australian understands Mr Joyce is backing a plan supported by NSW rural Liberal MP Angus Taylor for continued regulation of bulk wheat exports until there is greater competition within the industry.

As a concession to WA farmers, cooperatives such as the State’s near monopoly grains handler CBH would be exempted from the code as they are owned by growers who have an incentive to keep fees low.

"We need appropriate regulation of monopoly or near-monopoly uncompetitive port zones as we currently have in NSW," Mr Taylor said.

"That regulation should fall away when there is genuine competition, as judged by the ACCC."

Mr Taylor said he would be "very happy" if there was an effective exemption for WA.

But The West Australian believes Mr Billson is uncomfortable with granting exemptions and wants a level playing field for all port operators.

Mr Billson favours full deregulation by 2019 with a review in 2017.

Durack MP Melissa Price – whose predecessor Barry Haase was criticised by grassroots Liberals for not pushing wheat deregulation – said the biggest wheat exporters came out of WA as she expressed fears the industry could be re-regulated.

"We just want what is in the best interests for WA grain growers and their families and want no regulation for port access," she said.

Complicating the debate is a push by some WA growers for CBH’s corporatisation, which would see it lose the exemption and could lead to higher charges for farmers in the long run.

CBH, the WA Farmers Federation and Pastoralists and Graziers Association have told the Government they favour full deregulation to cut costs for growers.

Former WA Nationals MP for O'Connor Tony Crook, who crossed the floor in support of the abolition of the Wheat Export Authority in 2012, said the Liberals were reaping what they had sown.

"I am not surprised that Barnaby Joyce is reconsidering this Bill because at the time, the WA Liberals were simply not prepared to stand up for WA wheat growers," Mr Crook said.

"Not one of them supported the Bill in the House of Representatives and it got through on the voices in the Senate. You won't see one WA Liberal named in Hansard in support of the abolition of the WEA."

The West Australian

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