Landholders fight erosion of property rights

James Nason, 20/06/2011

Across rural Australia, there is a sense that the right to farm is being gradually regulated out of existence by increasingly onerous environmental laws, according to Property Rights Australia.

Property Rights Australia is a national organisation that uses the funds it generates from membership fees and private donations to assist landholders in legal battles to defend their property rights.

The organisation has chalked up an impressive record of success in recent years, including a run of 13 successful court appearances on behalf of landholders in succession.

However, despite the voluntary organisation’s efforts to hold Government departments to account, president Ron Bahnisch said the underlying issues were only getting worse.

“In the time of the Labor Governments, property rights issues have got progressively worse, there is no question about that,” Mr Bahnisch told Beef Central ahead of PRA’s annual general conference in Roma next weekend.

“Environmental laws are in conflict with property rights at the best of the times, that is an experience all around the world.”

Under most environmental legislation, the onus of proof requires a person suspected of an offence such as illegal clearing to prove that they are innocent, in contrast to the common law principle that holds that a person is innocent until proven guilty.

Mr Bahnisch said landholders charged with clearing offences faced expensive and drawn-out legal battles if they wished to dispute the charge.

“That is where the problem comes, they (Government departments) will assert something, such as this particular area has an endangered species, and then it is up to the landowner to prove it is not there,” Mr Bahnisch said.

“They don’t have to prove it is there, you have to prove it is not there, and that is very expensive and very difficult.”

Of particular concern, he said, was the upgraded charge of “habitat destruction”, for which fines were 10 times greater than penalties for illegal clearing. In NSW penalties for habitat destruction also included jail terms of up to seven years.

Mr Bahnisch cited a recent example of a grazier in Central Queensland who was charged with clearing 26 hectares of endangered brigalow.

The prosecution indicated a possible fine of $16,000 and the best legal advice was to plead guilty, Mr Bahnisch said.

“However, probably buoyed with the success of a similar tactic used in southern Queensland, the charge was escalated to habitat destruction with a possible ten-fold increase in the fine.

“With little to lose the grazier decided to defend the charge.

“When the grazier turned up in court with his expert witnesses and the expenditure of $35,000, the crown withdrew at the very last minute.” 

Mr Bahnisch said PRA continued to lobby for the creation of a national charter of inalienable property rights to guarantee that when landholders were forced to surrender land or rights in the public interest they received adequate compensation.

In Queensland the-then National Party drafted legislation in 2004 to amend the Acquisition of Land Act 1967 and to introduce a private property protection bill to enshrine landholders rights to compensation where their pre-existing rights are diminished as a result of government policy.

Mr Bahnisch said he recently received an assurance from sitting LNP members that the proposed legislation would be introduced to parliament if the LNP won power at the next Queensland election.

“Until we get a change of Government, it is likely that rural landholders will get another sliver of their rights offered up to the green lobby in exchange for preferences at the next election, because they (Queensland Labor Government) have done it in the last three elections in a row.”

Property Rights Australia will hold its annual conference at Roma in south western Queensland this weekend, under the theme “Rights Undermined”. It commences with a meet and greet at the Club Hotel in Roma at 6:30pm on Friday, June 24, followed by the conference in the same location from 8:30am on Saturday morning.

Program highlights include:

  • Barrister Phillip Sheridan will provide an update on PRA’s core business activity in the courts; 
  • Former South Australian valuer-general John Darley will discuss compensation issues; 
  • Burke Shire Mayor, Cr Annie Clarke, will comment on Wild River legislation administration and the impact of the Federal Government’s suspension of live cattle exports to Indonesia; 
  • A Coal Seam Gas and Strategic Cropping Land forum including Dalby solicitor Peter Shannon, and Darling Downs landholders Graham Clapham from Cecil Plains; Megan and David Baker from Daandine west of Dalby, Neville Stiller from Guluguba and Richard Golden from Yuleba; 
  • Ian Hayllor, chairman of Basin Sustainability Alliance, will canvas surface rights and identifying 'not negotiable' positions.
  • LNP MPs Bruce Scott (Federal member for Maranoa) and Vaughan Johnson (Queensland member for Gregory)  will address the forum.

PRA vice-president Lee McNicholl said the conference would also explore how landholders can participate in the “Lock the Gate” campaign to prevent mining companies from accessing their land while  preserving their legal rights to protect their property’s environmental integrity and it’s long term food production potential.





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