Murray Goulburn takes pot shot at Canberra
Murray Goulburn boss Gary Helou has attacked the federal government, claiming it has not given the co-operative a "level playing field" in its fight to take over Warrnambool Cheese & Butter.
Warrnambool is at the centre of a three-way global tussle, with Canadian dairy group Saputo the lead bidder, ahead of MG and Bega Cheese.
Mr Helou, the managing director of Australia's biggest dairy company, told MG shareholders in Melbourne on Friday that he felt the government had "handicapped" the co-operative's bid, which hinges on approval from the competition regulator. His comments came as MG proposed a partial float of the farmer-controlled co-operative in a similar way to Fonterra's set-up of a non-voting shareholders' fund.
Mr Helou said he was "bitterly disappointed" that Treasurer Joe Hockey gave Saputo foreign investment approval before MG had its chance to put its case before the Australian Competition Tribunal - a process which could take up to six months.
Saputo can start paying WCB shareholders its offer of $9 cash a share, or $505 million, next month, having declared its bid unconditional.
"We are disappointed the Foreign Investment Review Board rushed through this," Mr Helou said.
"Maybe it isn't in the national interest [for Saputo to buy WCB] but it's in the national interest to wait and hear our case.
"To have an unlevel playing field in our own home country ... it's a bit hard to swallow."
Murray Goulburn, which owns about 17 per cent of WCB, has also offered $9 cash a share, lobbing its revised bid last Wednesday. Two days later Saputo matched the bid and trumped MG by declaring it unconditional.
MG chairman Phil Tracy said he felt as though the co-operative had "one hand tied behind its back" in the bidding process.
Mr Helou gave shareholders no indication whether MG would raise its bid, merely saying the board had the right to review its offer.
United Dairy Farmers of Victoria sent a delegation to Canberra on Thursday to lobby the government to keep WCB in Australian hands.
UDV president Kerry Callow and vice-president Tyran Jones argued that local suitors Bega and Murray Goulburn had been unfairly treated.
"As it stands Saputo, a foreign-owned company, has been given a clear advantage over a farmer-owned Australian bidder in the battle for WCB," Ms Callow said.
But David Lord, the chief executive of WCB, which has unanimously backed Saputo's offer saying it gives WCB shareholders certainty, dismissed those claims.
"The playing field is completely level," Mr Lord said. "All the parties know what are the requirements and what are the clearances they need. They all understand the rules.
"Some of them have been much faster to move on these clearances than others."
Mr Lord said Murray Goulburn had been playing "catch up" with Saputo and Bega, which has also declared its offer of $2 cash and 1.5 Bega shares unconditional.
MG is yet to make its submission to the tribunal, which Mr Helou said would be lodged on November 29.
Mr Lord said this presented a significant risk to WCB shareholders because other bidders could walk away in the time it took for the tribunal to make its decision.