FARMERS are making Malcolm Turnbull and Barnaby Joyce acutely aware of the deep anger and anxiety brewing amongst rank and file members opposing the government’s compulsory acquisition of farms in North Queensland.
On Tuesday, National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) CEO Tony Mahar met in Charters Towers with a troupe of disgruntled farmers and farm business operators, directly impacted by the controversial land grab.
Along with Queensland’s AgForce, the NFF now aims to write a letter of declaration to the government’s senior commanders, warning them of the take-over proposal’s potential to set a conflicting and inconsistent precedent for national land use policy.
The Department of Defence (ADF) is planning to use the acquired land to expand military training operations for Singaporean soldiers as part of the $2.5 billion Australia-Singapore Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.
But in gathering forces to fight back, the NFF says the government’s looming invasion of valuable cattle grazing and farming country, to serve the Australian Defence Force’s needs, must be halted.
The peak national lobby group says the move impacts multiple farm landholders but undermines other critical national interest tasks like feeding the nation and fuelling the national economy, with agriculture forecast to increase 6.1 per cent this financial year to $60.2 billion.
Mr Mahar said the private meeting, comprising over 40 concerned stakeholders and landowners, confirmed in his mind the serious concern that currently exists in and around Charters Towers, about the government’s plan to acquire local farms by stealth.
“We were able to hear firsthand about the anxiety and the period of uncertainty these people are facing but also to get out in the paddock and see some of the country directly and this is productive farm land – this is not scrub country,” he said.
“This is productive agricultural land that’s possibly going to be compulsory acquired – about 300,000 hectares overall – and that would be a sad day for Australian agriculture.
“This is land that would be sacrificed to another industry but agriculture can make good use of this land which is good for fattening cattle and it would be a real shame if it were to be lost to agriculture.
“I thought it was really important the NFF was part of the discussion and demonstrated that we’re here to support and to help and understand what the views are and advocate for the best outcome for the farmers in this region but also farmers throughout Australia.
“It’s really concerning that this could set a precedent that would go across farming regions all over the country.”
Mr Mahar said the meeting was attended by supply chain participants like transporters with a direct interest in agriculture who relied on the industry’s continued existence and viability of agriculture.
He said the NFF would now work with AgForce and a Charters Towers steering committee and similar groups in other regions, to ensure they advocated and communicated to decision-makers the depth of feeling that exists over the issue.
Their first stop in pursuing an agenda that prioritises farmers’ best interests was a meeting in Brisbane this morning, with the office of Defence Minister Marise Payne.
Mr Mahar said a jointly-signed letter would also be sent to the Mr Turnbull, the Deputy PM Mr Joyce – also the Agriculture and Water Resources Minister – and the Defence Minister, letting them know the intensity of feeling among farmers in the Charters Towers region and at other locations around central Queensland.
“The main point is that compulsory acquisition is off the table,” he said.
Mr Mahar said the government had proposed to investigate purchasing farm properties and compensation was an option but compulsory acquisition was farmers’ prime concern right now.
“What we heard at the meeting is that people have been farming in this region for 100 years and they’re not interested in leaving,” he said.
“It’s still a proposal and the Defence Department will say that this is just the very start of the process but we have some concerns around how the process was started and whether it’s actually a consultation process for compensation or a consultation process for the project to go ahead.
“We want to get in right from the word go and make sure the federal government is really clear on what farmers and land owners think and understand the implications.
“This has ramifications not only for the Charters Towers area and this whole supply chain but if this goes ahead it also sets a really bad precedent for farmers.”
Mr Mahar said farmers already faced land-use threats from urban expansion, extractive industries, native vegetation and national parks and now the challenge of compulsory acquisition of farmland for defence purposes.
“This does not send a good message about where agriculture fits into the national economy,” he said.
“We need to have that discussion; where is agriculture in land use?
“At the moment there’s a confusing message.
“The government is saying agriculture’s a pillar of the economy and we agree with that but if they go through with this compulsory acquisition of farmland, it creates a confusing message; not only to farmers but the public.”
Mr Mahar said the issue also fed into existing community concerns and fears about farmers being unable to deny mining companies access to their private properties for extractive purposes like Coal Seam Gas.
“It’s all part of that policy discussion around strategic land use and where agriculture fits into that discussion and the need for clear government strategy,” he said.
NFF has said it understands Northern Australia Minister Matthew Canavan told a meeting in Marlborough on Monday an impact study into the proposal was underway, by KPMG.
The story Farmers fight back on defence land grab first appeared on Farm Online.