Graziers are going head-to-head with the Australian military to try to prevent the compulsory acquisition of their land for the expansion of training facilities for soldiers.
In November 2016, the Australian Defence Force (ADF) wrote to about 60 landholders indicating their intention to acquire hundreds of thousands of hectares to expand the Defence Field Training Areas around Townsville and Rockhampton.
The move was to help accommodate 14,000 Singaporean troops who, under the $2.2 billion Australia-Singapore Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, would spend 18 weeks a year training at the sites.
Queensland Senator Ian McDonald, a member of the governing Liberal National Party (LNP) said at the time the acquisitions were a necessary first stage in the process.
“The existing training areas can only accommodate a limited number of troops and it is of critical importance that Australian Defence Force training is not unnecessarily disrupted,” he said.
“The expanded training areas will give the Australian Defence Force the ability to train effectively into the future with new weapons, vehicles and technologies, and provide for the simulation of more complex operating environments.
“The Australian Defence Forces have priority use of the facilities, and any land acquired under the agreement will remain in the ownership of the Australian Government.”
He said while some landholders were expected to sell their land willing “nothing will happen without the proper consultation – and of course compensation.”
Move outrages graziers, state government
The move created uncertainty for graziers in the two expansion zones, who weren’t sure how the acquisitions would proceed, or if they would be forced to sell their land, some of which had been in families for more than 100 years.
National Farmers’ Federation chief executive Tony Mahar said it was not clear if the government had already decided which parcels of land it wanted, or if they were still weighing up their options.
"Once we have clarity over the status of the plans we can focus on getting the best possible outcome for farmers and their communities,” he said.
"What is certain is that the NFF … is vehemently opposed to any compulsory acquisition of agricultural land.”
“Agriculture is Australia’s second largest export earner and that land used for food and fibre production must be prioritised in planning decisions.”
He called for a national strategic framework that recognised the value of agriculture in future planning decisions.
The move also temporarily united both sides of Queensland’s state politics.
Queensland’s Agriculture Minister, Labor’s Bill Byrne, launched an independent study to assess the full impacts of military training area expansions on the beef supply chain.
He also called on the Federal Government to end the uncertainty over which farms were in the firing line.
“There has been no consistent narrative from the start and now it seems the message is changing by the hour, depending on which senior member of the government is commenting,” he said.
“But the landholders know what they have been told and that is that they may lose their properties against their will.
“For months this has been hanging over them and they have every right to be angry at the way they have been treated.”
His opposition, the LNP’s Dale Last, urged his federal colleagues to look for less productive land that would sold willingly.
Government ‘speeds up’ process
After meeting with concerned land owners at the end of January, Defence Minister Marise Payne instructed her department to speed up its analysis of the proposed land acquisitions, saying graziers would know by the end of February what the outcome was.
“My starting point as Minister for Defence is that agricultural land should be for agricultural purposes. Let me also reiterate that no decisions about land acquisition have yet been made by the Government,” she said.
“Up to now the Department has advised that no decisions would be able to be made prior to the second half of this year.
“I have instructed them to speed up that process so that the specific expansion zone for both Shoalwater Bay and Townsville will be confirmed within four weeks.”
Until then the uncertainty continues, despite the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Agriculture Barnaby Joyce’s efforts to comfort cattle producers on a recent visit to Rockhampton.
He told ABC Radio Brisbane he had not had “one discussion with one person” in the government who intended to force the acquisitions.
"I don't know whether there ever would be any compulsory acquisitions,” he said.
“At this point of time there is no intention of compulsory acquisitions.”
But the Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has not ruled it out, saying forced sales would be a “last resort.”