by John Mikkelsen, The Punch
Justice may be blind, but many Australian farmers find the scales are tipped against them as they struggle to come to terms with a growing minefield of environmental regulations on top of other natural enemies.
They are not fighting the concept of land management, but the way in which their properties can be ‘locked up’ or confiscated without proper compensation. They can be prosecuted for something suddenly illegal under frequent amendments to vegetation laws which can be applied retrospectively. The farmer is virtually presumed guilty until innocence can be proven, often at great expense.
Those who live in cities and urban areas might find this difficult to comprehend. The following events are more suited to a communist dictatorship but they happened in our “free country” …
A former New South Wales grazier tells of how a helicopter zoomed low over her property, startling cattle and horses, including one ridden by her teenage daughter.
She claims this was part of intimidation and threats stemming from a legal clearing permit over a small portion of the land. This conflicted with a later wilderness nomination over part of the property bordering a national park.
Eventually the family lost their costly battle to keep the place they thought was paradise and last year she gave evidence under protection to the Senate inquiry into native vegetation laws.
In her own words:
I had high conservation on my land, endangered ecological communities, threatened species, the biodiversity jack pot!
I had a legal clearing permit that did not interfere with any of the biodiversity.
I had a productive property, good income. Then I had a Wilderness Nomination over my land. This assessment identified where my family lived and worked. It was on public display for every green extremist group to comment on – but more than that – to physically threaten my children, my spouse, to ring and threaten to burn us out in the middle of the night, out of our home, hover over our children in a helicopter and have our young daughter dragged on her horse.
Why? Because we had a legal clearing permit, but we also had a Wilderness Nomination; two legislations at loggerheads, with a family, and an environment that we looked after actively, caught in the middle.
We were forced off our property, which is now a national park. We lost $2.4 million for ‘the good of the environment’.
The property has now lost the endangered species that we looked after … the biodiversity lost, our family lost. The ill conceived laws won…
Another landholder tells a similar story:
My family have owned this land for 36 years, practicing entirely environmentally correct procedures to the point where the land is highly prized for its biodiversity. For the last nine years we have been trying to build a three-bedroom, very humble house on it. The environmentalists have decided they like the land and it’s entirely too dangerous to clear one hectare for the house, out of a total of 133 hectares.
The Land and Environment Court has now decided the clearing of the house is OK (after thousands and thousands of dollars spent on environmental studies funded by me), but they’re not sure of the environmental effect of me actually living in the house!
The threatening processes which may ‘damage the environment to the point of extinction’ are: bird watching, bushwalking, walking the dog. This is no joke. The enviro-loonies are trying to have us lock up the 132 hectares ‘in perpetuity’ in return for the house.
In the meantime, we pay rates, maintain tracks, repair fences (frequently broken because we can’t clear the fence line of trees adequately), hand weed 133 hectares … Don’t tell me this legislation is correct…
Some have received national recognition – such as Peter Spencer, who drew worldwide media attention to property rights with his 52-day Tower of Hope hunger strike. He sought compensation after 80 per cent of his property ‘Saarahnlee’ near Canberra was locked up to help Australia meet its Kyoto carbon abatement commitments.
Almost two years on, his court hearings continue.
West Australian couple, Matt and Janet Thompson, invested millions of dollars in their feedlot property before coming under siege from receivers attempting to evict them and their four young children after a long- running dispute with the Department of Environment and Conservation. This resulted in rapid foreclosure by one of the major banks, and their court hearings are also continuing.
WA farmer Maxwell Szulc, last year was jailed for 90 days for contempt after clearing 45 hectares for firebreaks on his property where he had previously held a permit to clear a much larger area. On his release, Mr Szulc said his stint in jail had strengthened his resolve to fight for landowners’ rights.
The topic of clearing for fire control stirred much debate in the wake of Victoria’s disastrous Black Saturday bushfires, with many claiming the destruction and death toll on humans and animals was worsened by environmental laws.
Landowner Liam Sheahan was fined $50,000 for clearing a firebreak which he believes saved his family’s life. The Age reported the Sheahans’ 2004 court battle with the Mitchell Shire Council for illegally clearing trees to guard against fire, as well as their decision to stay at home and battle the weekend blaze, encapsulate two of the biggest issues arising from the bushfire tragedy. Do Victoria’s native vegetation management policies need a major overhaul? And should families risk injury or death by staying home to fight the fire rather than fleeing?
The burning issue of fires spreading from national parks onto neighbouring properties has also been raised in NSW and other states. In Queensland, some farmers claimed the build up of undergrowth and debris which they were prevented from clearing in dry creek beds had worsened the flood situation, destroying fences and contributing to the fatal ‘inland tsumani” which swept through the fertile Lockyer Valley.
Disputes over land issues are a familiar theme for central Queensland grazier Ron Bahnisch, chairman of national advocacy group Property Rights Australia. His organisation has supported many cases where the landholder has not blatantly breached vegetation laws and it believes there is a good chance of winning.
He said the administration of Vegetation Acts in Queensland and NSW had stripped suspected clearing offenders of all normal civil rights.
“The arrogance of government witnesses in these cases stems to some extent from the comprehensive executive and judiciary powers given them by the relevant Acts. It is a case of, quoting Henry the Eighth, ‘The law is in my mouth’. If it is not legal today, it will be tomorrow, passed with retrospective effect,”
Mr Bahnisch said. Some of these cases have aroused much discussion on the PRA group site at Just Grounds where the call is “Stand your Ground”.
The situation cries out for a sensible balance of landholders’ rights, and sustainable environmental controls, if we value quality Australian food and valuable export income.
The two should not be at war./