FARMER lobby groups have expressed concerns that the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) still differentiates between port facilities and upcountry storage.

Last week ACCC chairman Rod Sims said his organisation felt there was a need for some regulation of the nation’s grain export ports, but this did not apply to upcountry storages.

Dan Cooper, chairman of the NSW Farmers Association grains committee, said he was concerned the ACCC – which is in charge of administering the port access code to ensure fair access to grain ports – did not understand the dynamics of grain exporting.

“The thing for us is do growers and rival traders have an alternative – and the answer is no, in spite of the new ports opening up, because the operators of these new ports don’t have the upcountry facilities to feed into the port, it’s basically worthless to have a port unless you can get the grain to it.

“How do they get the grain to port if it is not through the major bulk handling networks upcountry? It is very difficult.

“We’re just continuing to work with the ACCC to get them to understand that linkage between what happens upcountry and what happens at the ports.

“My analogy is that setting up a new port is a bit like putting up just the one mobile tower in the middle of Sydney and saying there is an alternative carrier, there is not the network around it.”

Brett Hosking, president of the Victorian Farmers’ Federation (VFF) grains group, said upcountry storage and ports were closely linked and this needed to be recognised when making decisions about port access.

“We’ve had GrainCorp say as part of its Project Regeneration overhaul of its site network that some sites would be ‘direct to port’ sites, that means they are essentially a satellite port storage, so you can’t distinguish between port access and upcountry facilities.

“Even with competition upcountry in terms of storages, there is no doubt the two major port operators in Victoria, GrainCorp and Emerald Group, have a very strong market position.”

Mr Cooper said GrainCorp’s market share on its own was more than the much maligned Coles-Woolworths duopoly in retail.

“They’ve got a very heavy influence in what happens in the market.”

Mr Cooper reiterated calls made last year by Senator Bill Heffernan for the ACCC to appoint someone with specialist agricultural supply chain expertise.

“The grain supply chain is quite specialised and it would be good to get someone at the ACCC who has a background in the area if they are to administer the port access code.”

Mr Cooper said he was hoping there would be some specific regulation for grain port access retained down the track, rather than port access be governed more generically under the Trades Practices Act.

“We’ve seen broad regulation not working in some industries, so I think the best case for us is to have a small amount of specific regulation for the grains sector and make sure what is there is effective.

“I think growers see the argument about compliance cost as a non-event, we are talking about a figure that will be in the cents per tonne, and they are more than happy with that to ensure a fair and transparent export system.”

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