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Grab for wheat export licences
FEDERAL Agriculture Minister Peter McGauran is preparing to blow apart the single desk for wheat exports by offering export licences to many - and perhaps all - of AWB's bitter rivals. A delegation of farmers who visited Canberra on Friday were left in no doubt that AWB's tenuous hold over wheat exports would not survive this year's harvest.

"McGauran wouldn't even meet us," said West Australian Farmers Grain Council president Robert Doney. "We met (Trade Minister) Warren Truss and he told us flat, (more licences) will be issued."

The Australian understands that Mr McGauran has been asked to approve 28applications to export wheat. A decision is expected on Wednesday.

AWB was until last month the only company permitted to sell wheat abroad, but its veto over export applications by other companies was handed to Mr McGauran after the Cole report into the Iraq kickbacks found AWB had funnelled money to Saddam Hussein's regime in the lead-up to the Iraq war.

AWB has scrambled to protect itself, apologising profusely, cutting its marketing fees, axing staff and offering to demerge.

But it has been out-manoeuvred by the massive West Australian grain handler CBH, which has encouraged farmers not to deliver this year's drought-affected meagre harvest of four million tonnes to AWB. CBH is offering farmers free warehousing, at least until Friday. It has applied for a licence to export two million tonnes of wheat to its Asian mills, and is prepared to pay up to $15 a tonne more than AWB is offering.

The Australian understands that Brooks Grain will offer $45 a tonne more than AWB. Applications to export have also come from Grain Corp, Cargill, Ozegrain and Louis Dreyfus.

AWB is offering farmers about $242 a tonne. The world price is $290. AWB has so far managed to attract only 25 per cent of this year's harvest to the national pool.

Liberal backbencher Wilson Tuckey said the Government had no choice but to offer licences to other players. "The new legislation says the decision must be made in the public interest," Mr Tuckey said. "If the minister knocks all the applications back, how can that be in the growers' interests, to accept $45 a tonne less?"

West Australian farmer Kevin Jones likened the situation to "a bone being thrown over the back fence, and all the dogs going after it".

"It's a disgusting situation. It's an indictment on this Government that they would allow AWB to fight for its life like this. People planted crops in April, May, with one set of rules. Now they want to change the goalposts, decimate the national pool, allow people to trash the industry. It's a betrayal."

But long-time AWB opponent Rick Wilson said the Government "should make it open slather. It should offer a licence to anybody who wants one, because 28 companies competing for my wheat is certainly better than one".
MGR Archive 18.12.2006
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