The compulsory acquisition of vast tracts of rich cattle country in north Queensland to allow the Singapore Army to train its soldiers has been labelled an unconscionable “land grab” by cattlemen set to be evicted from their family farms.
About 23 farming families near Charters Towers, west of Townsville, are at risk of being thrown off their cattle properties by the Australian Department of Defence so it can expand its existing field training area to meet a $2.5 billion defence deal signed between the Australian and Singapore governments in May.
More rural properties are also being forcibly acquired north of Rockhampton, next to the existing Shoalwater Bay training base, to accommodate the 14,000 Singapore troops scheduled to train in Australia for 18 weeks a year under the 25-year joint defence training contract.
Local cattleman Bob Hicks was one farmer who received an unwanted letter last week from the department confirming his family’s much-loved 20,000ha cattle fattening property Mirambeena is in its acquisition sights.
He is angry and bitter that the family home, cattle business and the farm his late drover-father thought of as the “best country in Australia” is being forcibly taken from him so soldiers from another nation can practice driving their tanks and firing their guns.
“This place is part of our hearts and souls; the home just doesn’t stop at the house — it’s out there in every part of the country,” says Mr Hicks, 50, of his long green river valley in the Burdekin River’s headwaters.
“And it makes it really tough — rubs salt into it all — that this isn’t even our own soldiers who will be training here; this is all because the Singapore government offered big wads of cash and our government wanted the money; yet we are the victims of this overseas sellout.”
The farm families are also furious that their first warning of the dire threat to their properties — before receiving their individual meet-to-talk letters last week — was via a Defence Department map published in the local paper vaguely showing their farms covering about 200,000ha were to be forcibly acquired.
Most believe there is less productive farming country not that far distant to Townsville that would be better suited — and less wasted — for troop training purposes.
Almost all have joined a legal action to fight the impending compulsory acquisition orders.
Several of the affected Charters Towers farming families are being represented by Townsville lawyer Ian Conrad, who says the proposal makes no economic or practical sense.
“Not only will the region lose revenue and (circulating) income from the sale of the 15,000 cattle worth $20 million turned off every year by these farms, but the opportunity and potential to develop fertile areas next to the Burdekin River for high value irrigation land will have been lost if the farms aren’t there,” Mr Conrad said.
“Despite misperceptions, this is not low-value land that is being taken; there are large tracts of unproductive and less expensive land to the north and southeast that could be acquired with far less impact on the economy of the region.”
Townsville-based Liberal National Party senator Ian Macdonald, a staunch defender of the contentious Singapore army training scheme, believes it is in the interests of Australia’s “greater good” that the forced land sales proceed.