Aussie Ian White to head Canadian Wheat Board

WINNIPEG, Manitoba (Reuters) - Ian White, a veteran of Australia’s grain trade, will become the next head of the Canadian Wheat Board, one of the world’s largest grain exporters, Canada’s agriculture minister said on Wednesday.

White, an Australian and chief executive of Queensland Sugar Ltd, joins the agency at a time when government, industry and farmers are bitterly divided over whether the CWB should keep its marketing monopoly on sales of wheat and barley from Western Canada to millers, maltsters and export markets.

White, who spoke to reporters from Brisbane, Australia, said he does not have a position on the CWB’s “single desk” and did not want to prejudge the debate.

“It’s certainly not my mandate to end the single desk,” White said.

“What I would want to be doing is understanding all the issues of value associated with it and try to help the wheat board ... come to the best conclusions about the best ways to keep value for the farmers,” he said.

The farmer-controlled CWB, which had $3.5 billion in revenue for the year ended July 31, 2006, has a government-mandated monopoly .

The government tried to end the barley monopoly by regulation last year, but a Federal Court said it had overstepped its authority. An appeal will be heard February 26.

Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz said on Tuesday that he wants to introduce legislation in Parliament to end the CWB’s barley monopoly.

Ritz, who said he has had one discussion with White so far, said the CEO’s mandate is to serve farmers’ best interests.

“I’m hopeful that the board that’s existing there now will will actually give Mr. White some leeway in allowing him to make some business decisions,” Ritz said in an interview.

White will take over from interim Chief Executive Greg Arason, who has run the CWB’s operations since the Conservative government fired the previous CEO, Adrian Measner, for speaking publicly against its plans to end the monopoly.

White, 58, said he was approached about the job by a search firm, and said he was looking for a new challenge after eight years at Queensland Sugar, a not-for-profit exporting agency owned by sugar cane growers and millers.

His three-year appointment, which begins March 31, was supported by the CWB’s board of directors, said Ken Ritter, the board’s chairman, who declined to reveal White’s salary.

White said he has been an executive at several grain companies and processors in Australia and North America, and worked in Canada from 1987 to 1991 first for Australian firm Elders Grain, and then the former Saskatchewan Wheat Pool.

He said he was intrigued by the “very difficult but important questions” in the debate over the monopoly.

“This is really about the future of the Western Canadian grain industry,” he said.

White was head of Queensland Sugar when the Australian government deregulated its sugar industry, said Wayne Easter, agriculture critic for the opposition Liberal Party.

“I hope that’s not the reason that he was brought to Canada, to basically undermine the Canadian Wheat Board,” Easter said.

White said he would answer to the CWB’s board of directors, and declined to draw comparisons between the Australian sugar industry and the CWB situation.

(Additional reporting by Scott Haggett in Calgary, Alberta, and Randall Palmer in Ottawa)

Reporting by Roberta Rampton; Editing by Peter Galloway