A government proposal to compulsorily acquire farmland outside Townsville, to be leased to the Singapore Army for a training base, has local graziers gearing up for a fight. By Susan Chenery.

Land grab to take farms for Singapore Army training base

An Australian Army commander welcomes Singapore’s defence minister, Ng Eng Hen, during a visit to Queensland.
Credit: Steve Duncan / © Commonwealth of Australia, Department of Defence

When David Nicholas picked up a copy of the Townsville Bulletin last month he discovered that the army was planning to take his property. “There was a map with a shaded-in area of the proposed country they were going to take in a forced acquisition. The map was vague, but we knew who we were and where we were.”

David and his father had built the 20,000-hectare cattle station Paynes Lagoon from nothing. His father had acquired the property in a land ballot for returned servicemen.

“I have been here since 1964, and it works very well for the way we operate. We have a succession plan in place for the next generations. We have survived drought, flood, fire, divorce, partnership dissolution, and we are still here and still on top.”

The first thing he did was reassure his children. “We weren’t just going to let them take it, and I had no intentions of selling.”

Nicholas is one of 23 graziers on properties that cover 200,000 hectares who are facing the fight of their lives. In a $2.2 billion 25-year deal with Singapore, the reclaimed land would be used by the Singapore Army to train 14,000 troops for 18 weeks of the year.

The fertile land, which is mostly used for fattening beef cattle, is west of Townsville, in northern Queensland. Townsville lawyer Ian Conrad is representing eight of the families involved who will “vigorously resist”.

“The suggestion has been that they are only taking low-value land,” Conrad says. “But that is not the case. You have the escarpment and the ranges, and they fall back gradually to the Burdekin River. We got in touch with the Department of Defence to ask if this was happening and they said yes.

“It is the blatant arrogance of the whole thing…” says Nicholas.

Last week those concerned were meeting one on one with defence personnel.

“The general feeling,” says Conrad, “is that this is a softening-up process. But clearly the implicit understanding is that if people don’t voluntarily sell that they will compulsory acquire.”

Bob Katter, the member for Kennedy, attended a town meeting about the plan last Wednesday at Charters Towers. “You do not take prime agricultural area to use for a military training area,” he said. He urged people to “stand on your hind legs and keep fighting. You don’t have to cop it. We stand together and fight.”

David Nicholas couldn’t agree more: “Too right.” As with all the families involved Nicholas is fighting for the future of his children. “They are all family-owned and -operated properties.”

All the properties are in close proximity to the existing Lavarack Barracks, the Australian Army’s biggest training base.

In a statement emailed to The Saturday Paper, the Defence Department said: “… the expansion of Townsville Field Training Area (TFTA) is a key part of the Australia–Singapore military training area development initiative, which will see an increased level of training by Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) in Australia. To support the increased number of troops in training, the type of training that will occur, and to ensure that the Australian Defence Force (ADF) can conduct complex training into the future, Defence will need to expand TFTA and Shoalwater Bay Training Area (SWBTA).” The email explained that the land will be owned by the Australian government and that the ADF will have priority use of it.

“Its size, proximity to major force locations and east-coast centres means that ADF demand for access will continue and grow in the future.”

Not good news for the graziers, then. Katrina Stranger, whose property Tomato Springs borders Lavarack and is close enough to see the lights of Townsville at night, believes its convenient location means the army can “burn up the hill, go and spend the day blowing shit up, and then go and have a feed at McDonald’s in town.”

Stranger says, “It can never go back to having cattle again once they have taken it.” Nicholas agrees. “There is a big risk that the Burdekin River water supply could become polluted with the munitions that are involved.” This would wash down to the Great Barrier Reef only 30 kilometres away. “At the end of the day there is a hell of a lot at stake,” he says, “more than just taking this prime productive country out of circulation. Once they take it, it will never be put back again.”

In the last week of parliament sitting Katter met with Finance Minister Mathias Cormann and Defence Industry Minister Christopher Pyne. He strongly urged them to look at land two hours south-west “on the other side of Pentland”, which is “very poor country ... with no run-off to the Barrier Reef or domestic water” and would be far cheaper. Diverting Defence away from their homes is high on the agenda for the graziers. Says Nicholas, “That would take three families out of the equation, and all those families are wanting to sell their properties.”

But in its statement the Defence Department said it had “considered the possible expansion of training areas other than SWBTA and TFTA. They were found to be unsuitable for the training requirements.”

The combined targeted properties send 15,000 head of cattle to the abattoir in Townsville, which employs 500 people at peak times of the year. These jobs would be threatened. “This proposal would landlock Townsville,” says Katter. “It is disastrous for the city. It would be a devastating blow to the city of Charters Towers.”

But Senator Ian Macdonald, Liberal National Party member for Queensland, supports the initiative.

“It is not as if it is being stolen. They will be compensated very handsomely,” Macdonald says. “Townsville could do very well out of it. Townsville has had huge unemployment with winding down of the mining industry. Small businesses are really struggling. The army estimates that $50 million will be spent locally. It is a wonderful opportunity for an area that has been very depressed. Somewhere along the line you have to do what is good in Australia’s national interests.”

While there is speculation that Singapore requires such a vast tract of land to fire long-range missiles, Macdonald says, “I am told by the generals that the training requires a variety of terrains to be capable of reflecting modern battlefield conditions.”

A proposal by the Charters Towers Regional Council to the federal government for $30 million to build a weir next to the land was recently rejected. It would have provided water security for Charters Towers and irrigation for most of the land being acquired by the Defence Department, something the graziers say would have transformed the region into high-value irrigation land. “The negative economic impact of these decisions in Canberra will dwarf the claimed $50 million annual economic benefit on Singaporean Defence Initiative spending,” says their lawyer, Ian Conrad.

Macdonald says such decisions must strike a balance. “It is one person against the greater good of many others.”

But to the graziers the land is irreplaceable. They have spent lifetimes building their farms. “Where do 23 families find their replacement for what they have got in Queensland?” asks Katrina Stranger. She believes that whatever is paid for their farm will go towards fighting for compensation and that they will have no chance of buying another property. “What you paid for your place and what it is worth are two totally different figures. Our neighbour who has had his place taken off him is still in a compensation battle four years down the track.”

Says David Nicholas, “If they do a forced acquisition, we will be compensated fairly. But who determines fairly? Where do I buy another property that is as good as this, as improved as this, one hour from a major port, one hour from a meat works, one hour from a major city on the coast? If I bought a place in central Queensland I would be 500 kilometres from the coast; if I bought a place around Longreach I would be 1000 k’s plus from the coast and the rainfall is less reliable.

“It has taken years to build up relationships of trust and understanding in the district. You can’t replace that. The land is very close to any one of us. You are attached to the land; you are part of the land.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 17, 2016 as "Bully beef".

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Susan Chenery is a journalist who has lived and worked in Sydney, London, New York and Italy.