I introduced the Lands Acquisition (Public Purpose) Bill 2017 in response to the recent actions of the government in issuing declarations of intent to acquire land from Australian farmers in both the Rockhampton and Charters Towers regions of Queensland. The federal government’s statement, as contained in correspondence to landholders, was that the land acquired would be owned by the Department of Defence and allow for expanded training exercises by the Australian Army, as well as facilitating an increase in use by the Singaporean army from 6,000 troops for periods of six weeks to 14,000 troops for up to 18 weeks. The Army had only sent out the correspondence in regard to these acquisitions following an inspection by the Singaporean army. The Singaporean army had stated that it wanted the land for its future training purposes, as indicated in the department’s correspondence about the land in question.
At public meetings held with the landowners by the Army, it was clearly stated that the primary purpose of the land acquisition was that the land was being acquired not for the purposes of the Australian Army but for the use and training of the Singaporean army. The government referred in their correspondence to the Australia-Singapore Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, which included a general arrangement pursuant to the Singapore-Australia Free Trade Agreement. The SAFTA refers only to cooperation between the two countries in a number of areas, including the military as well as technology and agriculture cooperation areas of interest. It does not place an obligation on Australia or Singapore.
The Army has a land area in the Shoalwater Bay training complex of approximately one million acres, yet the Australian Army stated this was not sufficient. There was no consideration of the interests held by the Australian landowners—where exactly was the ‘public purpose’ required by the legislation? I would just like to expand on this. The Australian Army has quite extensive land in the Shoalwater Bay area, and yet it was wanting to allow the Singaporean army to buy up more land around that area—prime agricultural land—from farmers. What has happened to the Australian land is that over the years they’ve said, ‘We can’t use this land.’ Why? Because of the overgrowth, because of the number of trees on it. Over that period they have not been able to clear the land because of the environmental laws of the Queensland government. So, here we have the situation of, ‘Oh, we can’t use this land, so we’ll just let it sit there, but we’ll go and acquire some great agricultural land that is producing thousands of head of cattle,’ which were being sent to market, providing jobs in abattoirs and in the ongoing businesses in the whole area. But they’re ready to say, ‘No, we just need to acquire some more land,’ as if you can pick up prime agricultural land anywhere in Australia. It is not the case. That land is so valuable, and it’s so necessary to keep it as that.
So, public purpose—the whole intent of this bill: where was the public purpose as required by the legislation? There was absolutely no public support for this acquisition, nor was there any purpose behind it that benefitted the Australian public. People I spoke to when I went up to Charters Towers—and we’re talking about between 50 and 60 farming families looking down the barrel of a gun at losing their properties—they said no-one was listening to them. These are properties that have been handed down through several generations and that people had bought and worked extremely hard to improve. This is where they want to live, and naturally they want to hand their properties down to their children.
And this was all so that Singaporean army personnel could come out here and train for a few weeks a year. We’re talking about more land than the size of Singapore itself, land that they are wanting to buy up. The Army had stated that the public would benefit from this acquisition. Well, I beg to differ. No benefit could be demonstrated, but significant detriment could clearly be demonstrated, not only to the landholders who were directly affected but to the entire regions of Rockhampton and Charters Towers. They were saying that the Singaporeans were going to come and increase tourism in the area. But the tourism was actually going to destroy a small country town called Marlborough. It’s not a tourist area, but the businesses there would have been affected, because they would no longer have the trade from the farming families living there and going into town to use the post office or go to the local pub. The Singaporeans would be going to Townsville, buying up the accommodation there. They had plans as to where they wanted to go during their time off. The loss to Australia was approximately 800 acres of prime grazing country and over 90,000 head of cattle that would have been going to local abattoirs, with the inevitable closure and the loss of employment in both regions—as I said, the loss of over $90 million in cattle sales, and twice that figure after the processing of the cattle from sales by the abattoirs.
We have seen our state of Queensland go through dire straits with droughts, and farmers can’t even keep the cattle on their property. Yet here we are taking another 90,000 to 100,000 head of cattle out of the marketplace, I heard. So, on top of the drought we’re putting ourselves in the dire situation in which we won’t even have enough cattle in Australia for our own needs, let alone for export. Yet the government—or anyone—had no concerns about the impact this would have on Australia. At the briefings to the affected landholders, the Army representative stated that the local community would be providing food, hospitality and transport, to name a few. However, it was then found that the Singapore government had already sought expressions of interest from offshore companies for the transportation of food and ordnances into the area, supplied directly from Singapore—not from one Australian company. We were told that the Singaporeans were going to bring $2.5 billion into the country, and we were going to make so much money out of this and it was going to be great for the country. No, it wasn’t. It was the worst deal that was going to happen. And, as I said, they had lined up Australian shipping companies to bring in their food and ordnance from overseas. This was not a good deal for us.
The government stated it was supporting rural communities, but here it was destroying two communities, offering no compensation to businesses other than the landowners, who didn’t want to sell. Only a couple of people sold, because they were issued enormous amounts of money for their properties—the hope being that if one fell over then the others would. But the majority of farmers that I spoke to didn’t want to sell their properties. They were being forced into it. Additionally, in the Charters Towers region, Infrastructure Australia and the Prime Minister of Australia had listed the Hells Gate Dam project as a high-priority project, which the Prime Minister did—it was in his election promises, and in the first meeting I had with him I spoke about going ahead with Hells Gate Dam. But the very land that could benefit from the dam was the very land the army had stated it was interested in acquiring. So what is going to happen? Are we going to build the Hells Gate Dam and then just hand the property over to the Singaporean army? It doesn’t make sense to me.
When I raised the issue at a briefing, the army representative stated he was unaware of this priority infrastructure, as did the department’s representative. So, was the right hand talking to the left hand, or does no-one know what the hell is going on? Yet the farmers up there were so distraught because they didn’t know what was happening with them. It was a clear case of a compulsory acquisition not having a direct public purpose, as required by the act, but instead appearing to benefit a third party. So I ask the question: where was the public purpose?
The Australian Army only sent out correspondence in regard to this acquisition following an inspection by the Singapore Army. Its statement specified that it wanted the land, as indicated in the correspondence, as ‘land of interest’. So it’s up to the Singapore Army. They went out and said, ‘Mate, this is what we want.’ The term ‘public purpose’ is more than the vague legal definition of the act referring, as it does, to those legislative areas for which the parliament has power to make laws.
The key element in the land acquisition proposal by the Australian Defence Force was the definition of ‘public purpose’. An information guide published by the Department of Finance and Deregulation in May 2011, titled The Commonwealth and You: Compulsory Acquisition of Land, states:
The Minister issues a document to affected landowners, which states that the Minister is considering the acquisition by the Commonwealth land for a public purpose. This document is a pre-acquisition declaration.
• It tells you which Commonwealth authority wants to acquire the land;
• It describes the land fully;
• It states that the Minister thinks the land appears to be suitable for a public purpose;
• It states the public purpose the land has been chosen for; and
• It explains why the Minister considers the land suitable for the intended use.
But there is no clarity on the meaning of the term ‘public purpose’.
In general Australians understand that, because the country has grown, we need infrastructure. They may not like it, but they understand if their land has to be acquired for maybe putting in a dam or maybe for roadworks, a motorway, a hospital or for some other reason that is of a general benefit to the public. They don’t like it, but they will actually accept it if they’re paid the right compensation for it. But I understand, and this is why the farming families have my total support, that when it came to this they were going to lose their properties—for what? So that Singaporeans can come out here for six weeks or 18 weeks a year and train, when we have so much land in Australia and when there are other training areas? They should have been going to Western Australia or even up to the Northern Territory, but, no, they wanted prime agricultural land in Australia and their hands were tied. They were having meetings with the Defence Force. They were having meetings with other people. No-one was listening to them. It was well attended by people in the area at public meetings.
The second reading speech on the introduction of the Land Acquisition Act 1989 adds little to the meaning of the words other than referring to section 31 of the act. However, the following sentence is relevant as it gives the tenor of the purpose of the words within the meaning of the act:
This Government is concerned by the need to strike a balance between the rights of private property on the one hand and the legitimate needs of society for land for public purposes on the other.
This sentence within the second reading speech clearly delineates that the acquisition is for the benefit of society. There was no substantive debate on what the phrase ‘public purpose’ meant. The reason why one has to revert to external explanations is due to the vagueness of the definition within section 6 of the act, which states as follows:
… public purpose means a purpose in respect of which the Parliament has power to make laws and includes, in relation to land in a Territory, any purpose in relation to the Territory.
In judgements on which the issue has been raised, the acquisition must be for the primary benefit of the community and Australia generally. Well, that certainly wasn’t the case when it came to destroying our prime agricultural farming land, displacing Australians for the Singaporean army to train out here. I ask the question: What deals were done?
We cannot allow this to happen. I feel for the Australian people. I know what it’s like to work hard to own your own land, to love the land that you’re on and then to have someone come and say, ‘Oh, no, you’ve got to give it up because we want Singaporeans to train here with no benefit to this country whatsoever.’ This is especially so when, as I stated, there is other land they could train on in this country. It’s about time that members in this place and the other place started listening to the Australian people and their pain and what they’re going through, not listening to the bureaucrats and those others that have no idea. It is the grassroots Australians that are being forgotten.
There has been very little case law on the meaning of the words ‘public purpose’, particularly in the context of like cases of acquisition for the primary purpose of land for the training of a foreign army. Irrespective of the wide ambit of the definition of the words ‘public purpose’ within the Land Acquisitions Act of 1989, it is evident from case law that such an acquisition must be shown to actually be for the benefit of the public. The bill, which I seek the support of all parties for, clarifies the meaning of those important words ‘public purpose’. It is important for all Australians that they know their land and their heritage will never be compulsorily acquired for the benefit of an unrelated third party and, as far as I’m concerned, especially for a foreign third party.
Before any declaration is made by any department to acquire an interest in land, the bill will require that department to demonstrate the purpose of using that interest or for its need for that interest to provide services. The acquiring authority must show that the need will be for the direct benefit of the Australian public or for the provision to the Australian public of necessary services.
The bill does not alter the intent of the original act. It clarifies the meaning and intent of the act so that the Australian public will never again be subject to months of upset and costs in trying to protect their interest for the ongoing benefit of their families. I hope both sides of this chamber and the minor political parties clearly look at what I’m putting forward here if they truly want to represent the people of Australia. If they saw the faces of these farming families and what’s going to happen to them, they would understand. They could be our sons, our daughters, our brothers, our aunts, our cousins—our families. These people are clearly looking to us to stand up and fight and represent them. It is not up to the bureaucrats to make these decisions. It is not up to these foreign interests who say, ‘We want this,’ or ‘We want that.’ It’s up to us to make the right decisions on behalf of the people who are relying on us to fight for them and stand up for their rights.
As I said to you earlier, I’ve got no problems with acquiring land for the right reasons, because this country is growing rapidly. But when we are asking people to give up the land that they love, people who have seen their families fight in the past for their land and for freedom for their way of life in this country, and we are prepared to allow it to be sold to a foreign power—to the Singaporean army, so that they can do their training—that’s not good enough, as far as I’m concerned.
All I’m asking for in this bill is that if anyone’s going to acquire land then we should make sure it is in the best interests of the Australian people, not of a foreign power. Give the Australian people some stability so they know that the decisions being made are right for them and for future generations.
This bill overcomes the vagueness of the existing definition but gives clarity to the meaning of the term ‘public purpose’ without the need for future litigation. The bill does not apply to acquisitions by consent. As I’ve said and will say again, because One Nation has been fighting for this matter—and I know there were some on the government side who disagreed with the compulsory acquisition of the land for the Singaporean army, and I do appreciate their support on this— (Time expired)
Chamber Senate on 14/09/2017 Item BILLS – Lands Acquisition Amendment (Public Purpose) Bill 2017 – Second Reading Speaker : Hanson, Sen Pauline Parliment Transcript used for Reporting the News