A HEATED incident over farm foreclosure and repossession may result in Western Australian police pressing legal charges against protagonists.
The episode has ignited calls for a federal government investigation into ways of improving processes that assist debt-stricken farmers during sensitive foreclosure procedures.
Last Friday two receivers from RSM Bird Cameron were forced to call for police backup after their vehicle was “impounded” against their will, during an altercation involving members of the Rural Action Movement (RAM).
The receivers had visited Bruce Dixon's sheep and grain property in Cuballing, about 200 kilometres south-east of Perth, the day after he defaulted on his multi-million dollar loan with the ANZ bank.
“They said they could call in the Tactical Response Unit if I resisted moving, just to put the frighteners on me”
Speaking to Fairfax Agricultural Media, Mr Dixon claimed he was called by RSM Bird Cameron on the day - but he had assumed they were accountants who wanted to commence preliminary talks about the farm changeover.
However, he said he was “taken aback” when the receivers told him ANZ had already taken possession of his farm and then started discussing a timeline for him to exit the property.
“They said they’d already organised a locksmith to change the locks and wanted me to take them around the property to take photographs of machinery and other items for my protection – but then they made some veiled threats,” he said.
“They said they could call in the Tactical Response Unit if I resisted moving, just to put the frighteners on me, which did have that effect.”
Mr Dixon said the receivers also claimed they had a court order to remove him from the property, but failed to provide paperwork to prove that claim.
“The police determined the receivers were there without authority”
The receivers parked their vehicle on the property and while inside the farmhouse holding talks, “someone decided to build a haystack” around their car, blocking its exit.
He said the two receivers then waited on the road verge and called the police, resulting in seven armed officers in two police vans and an unmarked vehicle arriving from Narrogin and Williams.
Adding to the chaos and confusion, he said a Channel 9 camera crew also arrived from Perth and filmed the tail end of the incident, which is expected to be used in an upcoming 60 Minutes story on farm foreclosures.
“When the two receivers saw the camera filming they hid behind the police paddy wagon,” he said.
“One of the senior sergeants came over and took the receivers’ possessions out of their car, which was trapped behind the haystack, and then they left in the unmarked police car.
“The police determined the receivers were there without authority so all sorts of charges could be laid.”
Mr Dixon said he defaulted on his farm loan last August but was given an extension until March 12 to make further payments.
He said on August 2 last year the farm’s debt was valued at $4.2 million but by March 12 it had increased to $4.7m.
“Half a million dollars in eight months; that’s a pretty good interest rate,” he said.
Mr Dixon claimed the bank had “restricted” his business by not allowing it an overdraft facility or providing finance too late to plant a crop in recent seasons.
Contacted about the incident, RSM Bird Cameron said it was a legal matter and they had no comment to offer at this stage. Wayne Robins from RSM Bird Cameron - one of the two receivers - was also contacted by Fairfax Agricultural Media but declined to comment.
WA Police media liaison officer Adam Brouwer said Narrogin Police were currently investigating offences of stealing and damage, relating to the incident, but he couldn’t comment on any other matters.
RAM president Greg Kenny - who dumped seven tonnes of grain outside WA Premier Colin Barnett’s office in May 2013 to protest the State government’s rural assistance package - and Williams farmer, Rodney Culleton, both said they were present during the incident on Mr Dixon’s farm.
“Bruce has the right to say who can and can’t come and go on his property”
Mr Kenny said the receiver managers “tried it on” by purporting to have the court order but “we sent them packing with their tails between their legs”.
“Bruce has the right to say who can and can’t come and go on his property,” he said.
“They stuffed up by claiming they had a court order. They thought we were dumb, but we’re certainly not any more.
“To say you have a court order when you don’t is very misleading and may even be breaking the law.”
Mr Kenny said the RAM members were “just trying to expose the thuggery of ANZ”.
“We want an inquiry into ANZ – that’ll do for a start – but there certainly need to be far better processes in place to help farmers who are dealing with farm foreclosures,” he said.
“A federal Senate inquiry would be a good start, or a Royal Commission, but we definitely need some type of forum where people can go in and give evidence without any fear of recrimination.”
Mr Culleton said he received a “distressed” phone call from Mr Dixon - after he was contacted by the receivers - and the farmers then met in Williams before returning to the Cuballing property. He also took video footage on his iPhone of the exchange between Mr Dixon and the receivers.
He denied any knowledge of how the temporary haystack was built around the receivers’ car or where it was now located.
“We said the receivers were trespassing and asked them to leave then they went and sat on the verge,” he said.
“We told the police it was a civil matter - not criminal – and RSM owed Bruce money so he was keeping the car.
“Then the police carted the receivers away which it looked to me like they were in serious trouble.”
Mr Culleton said he was meeting with Narrogin Police on Tuesday morning to fill in a police report on the incident, but was unclear if any RAM members had offended the law.
“Australian people don’t know the half of what they’re doing to get farmers off their land,” he said.
“It’s really messy.”
Mr Culleton said issues still existed stemming from the once AWB-owned Landmark selling its rural loan book to ANZ and subsequent changes to lending conditions for farmers.
Late last year ANZ promised a 12-month moratorium on farm repossessions in drought-stressed northern and western Queensland and North West NSW.
An ANZ spokesperson said taking possession of a farm is always the last option after all other avenues - including farm debt mediation - have been exhausted.
“We work with customers over several years to try and resolve their financial situation,” the spokesperson said.Author: COLIN BETTLES
Source: The Land