Farmer consortium for Fremantle

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Jenne BrammerThe West Australian
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Fremantle Port users, including WA agricultural players, have formed the FreePort consortium to bid for the State-owned asset.

The initiative is being driven by lobby group Agribusiness Council of Australia, following the State Government's announcement it would sell the port by the next financial year to help reduce its massive debt.

The move had sparked concern among WA graingrowers that a new owner would lead to steep price increases.

ACA executive chairman Roy Duncanson said although it was early days, the consortium of potential owners could comprise a group of port users, including exporters such as WA farmers, and those in the mining industry, as well as importers including fuel providers, major supermarket chains and shipping agents.

Mr Duncanson said he was hopeful more interested parties would come forward, and is planning to have all potential owners/ users meet in November to discuss the next steps.

"A corporate entity would be formed, whether this is structured as a private company, or a co-operative is yet to be determined," he said.

Mr Duncanson said discussions with infrastructure companies and financial institutions were already under way in relation to raising funds of more than $2 billion for users to buy the port.

To help get the initiative off the ground, the Agribusiness Council is in the process of establishing the Agribusiness Infrastructure Fund (AIF), though it is yet to be formally registered with a financial institution.

Mr Duncanson said it was crucial for the long-term competitiveness of WA's primary industries to get themselves into a position to exert a degree of control over their costs by owning the port.

"If this does not happen, port users will have to suffer the consequences if foreign buyers step in and hike charges up beyond their control," he said.

WAFarmers president Dale Park said his group was involved in these discussions.

Mr Park said a company owned by port users would offer advantages for users, and the wider State.

"As we have seen with the ownership of the rail network in WA, a private owner could hike up usage charges," he said.

"In the case of the Newcastle Port being sold, that has resulted in big increases for exporters.

"If that was to happen here in WA, this would make our agricultural commodities uncompetitive to the rest of the world and that would have negative knock-on effects to the rest of the State.

"This demonstrates how the State and the State Government's interests diverge. It is in the best interest of the State to retain the ports in such a way that producers can be competitive with the rest of the world.

"However the State Government wants the money to reduce debt.

"The most beneficial outcome therefore is to put together a consortium of port users who are interested in having sufficient up-to-date facilities at the lowest possible cost."

Mr Park said WAFarmers general council had also moved a motion to lobby the State Government to retain the port.

But he said while this was his preference, realistically they needed to be prepared and ensure WA growers were in the best position possible.

Last week the Port of Darwin was sold to a privately owned Chinese industrial conglomerate, Landbridge Group, for $506 million.

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