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A coronial inquest into the murder of NSW environment officer Glen Turner will raise critical questions of government regulation where biodiversity conservation clashes with farmers’ rights. By Tanya M. Howard.

Deadly clash between farmers and conservation

The Talga Lane turnoff, towards Croppa Creek, NSW, seen in Gregory Miller’s documentary film ‘Cultivating Murder’.
Credit: GREGORY MILLER

Halfway between Moree and Boggabilla is the turn off to Talga Lane. A long dirt road, it marks a straight line between vast paddocks of cleared agricultural land. At this time of year, the crops are just starting to show through the rich black soil that makes this country such valuable farming land. Pumped by superphosphate fertiliser, the vivid green shoots of wheat and barley contrast with the muted greens and greys of the native vegetation flanking the road. These remnants of the Brigalow Belt in northern New South Wales are an increasingly rare and endangered ecological community here and an important habitat for koalas.

We are looking for the spot where, on July 29, 2014, NSW Office of Environment and Heritage officer Glen Turner was murdered in the line of duty.

The lane stretches ahead, disappearing over the horizon. Surrounded by big skies and wide-open spaces, this is a lonely and isolated place. The surface of the road suddenly softens beneath the tyres and the black soil turns to mud around us. We start to slide across the road, almost lose our nerve and think of turning back. In the back seat the kids stare solemnly out the window. We stiffen our resolve, put the car into four-wheel-drive and carry on, slipping and sliding down the deserted road.

Talga Lane was dry and dusty the day Glen Turner died. But it was just as remote and lonely. Heading towards the township of Croppa Creek, I look out for a roadside memorial but see nothing to commemorate this tragic event. Talga Lane does not reveal its secrets. But the announcement last week of a NSW coronial inquest into the murder and the circumstances that surrounded it suggests that these secrets will not stand much longer.

Over the past three years I have spoken to farmers, public servants and community members about the murder. Glen Turner worked in the region for years. His workmates and colleagues are scattered throughout the district. His murder is uncomfortably close for those public servants who are involved in conservation activities on private land, where they routinely encounter farmers who object to the environmental regulations of the NSW government. Casual threats of violence that had become mundane and routine over time are now harder to laugh off. 

On the day of the murder, Turner and his colleague Robert Strange were conducting routine surveillance of the area and were alerted to land-clearing activity by a concerned local landholder. The officers observed large piles of recently cleared vegetation burning on a property owned by the Turnbull family. They stopped their vehicle on Talga Lane and were taking photographs when Ian Turnbull apprehended them with a rifle. He repeatedly shot and stalked Turner over a period of 20 minutes, finally killing him with a shot in the back. Turnbull then returned home to wait for the police, who arrived to arrest him that night.

The murder trial was heard at the NSW Supreme Court in 2016. Turnbull was described by the judge as an “old-fashioned farmer, with firm views about land ownership and use of the land”. He especially disliked the NSW Native Vegetation Act 2003, which could stop him converting grazing land to more productive and therefore more profitable broadacre farms. At the time of the murder, Turnbull was 79 years old and had become known to the NSW Land and Environment Court for breaching the act in 2011. This resulted in a fine of $140,000, and further investigation under the federal government’s Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. Despite this penalty, Turnbull continued to clear land without the appropriate permits, and, as a result, was under regular surveillance by the Office of Environment and Heritage.

Glen Turner had been involved in the 2011 prosecution. He was an experienced compliance officer who was skilled in communicating with farmers and was usually able to avoid unnecessary court proceedings. This was not the case with Ian Turnbull. A witness at the trial recalled that after a site visit in 2012, Turnbull had told Turner that “you better watch out for your wellbeing”. When Turner asked Turnbull if he should take that as a threat, the farmer said, “You can take that whichever way you like. I’m an old man and there’s not much you can do to me”.

At the trial, the defence described disadvantage and discrimination against Turnbull. His previous conviction for illegal land clearing was recast as evidence of an unwelcome and burdensome level of “scrutiny, accountability and regulatory action”. However, the Crown showed Turner was not involved in harassment or unfair targeting of Turnbull. As a result, the judge dismissed the claim that “extreme provocation” had been a factor in the murder. The trial demonstrated that at all times leading up to, and at the time of the murder, the officers were operating within the regulations and carried out their duties as representatives of the public interest. The jury found Ian Turnbull guilty of murdering Glen Turner, and detaining his colleague, Robert Strange. Justice Johnson sentenced Turnbull to an aggregate sentence of 35 years’ imprisonment. Turnbull died after less than 12 months in jail.

During the trial, serious questions emerged about the extent to which Turner’s death could have been avoided; in particular, how the government agency responded to Turnbull’s 2012 threat against Turner, and whether the long-running nature of the prosecutions that made it necessary for Turner to interact with the Turnbull family increased his risk of harm. The political influence that powerful farming interests might have exerted on the regulatory process was also questioned.

Environmental management in Australia is bedevilled by this tension between the public and private good. In the days after Turner’s death, rural politicians recklessly fed outrage directed at the legislation that regulated land clearing. Figures from the mayor of Moree to federal Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce suggested that the real crime was systemic discrimination against the farming community. Months later, I heard farmers in a public forum echo the opinions of their political leaders, referring to the murder as somehow “always going to happen”. Such comments stood unchallenged by other farmers in the room.

As the case progressed through the NSW Supreme Court, the NSW government was undertaking a review of the state’s biodiversity legislation. The outcome of the review was the repeal of the NSW Native Vegetation Act 2003, which will be replaced by the Biodiversity Conservation Bill and Local Land Services Amendment Bill on August 25 this year. The government’s role in land-clearing regulation and compliance has been significantly reduced under these new bills, which transfer responsibility to landholders to notify the regulator of instances of land clearing under a self-assessment code. Non-compliance with these codes may result in a maximum penalty of $5500. Evidence from similar reforms in Queensland indicates that these new regulations will likely lead to increased land clearing, with serious impacts on biodiversity.

In tasking farmers with self-regulation in their assessment of public benefit or private gain, the new legislation creates a potential conflict of interest. Although farmers might describe themselves as the stewards of the land, they are also business people dealing with the uncertainty of global markets and climate change. These competing interests are likely to challenge the integrity of the new rules. For those public servants concerned with environmental protection, there is a fear that this new regime may further embolden anti-government sentiment. The risks of challenging those landholders who are intent on maximising their private benefit at the expense of the wider environmental and social good have been made clear.

The give-way sign on Talga Lane bears a campaign sticker that reads “Protect Our Water: No Coal Seam Gas”. There are “Lock the Gate” signs defiantly displayed along the local roadsides. For farmers, rich soil and abundant water are essential to successful business. The value of habitat corridors and biodiverse landscapes is harder to quantify. The coronial inquest will be a chance to ask some hard questions about the values that underpin environmental regulation in Australia. Turner’s murder illustrates ongoing contests between property rights, biodiversity protection, water security and the safety of public servants at work – all issues that will now be publicly interrogated.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 15, 2017 as "Farm clash". Subscribe here.

Tanya M. Howard
is a research fellow at the Australian Centre for Agriculture and Law.

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