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Farmers forced off their land fight back in Queensland

 Cate and Mark Stuart take a break from moving their belongings out of their historic home. Source: News Corp Australia Cate and Mark Stuart take a break from moving their belongings out of their historic home. Source: News Corp Australia
IT hasn’t rained in the outback town of Winton since January 2012. Local grazier Charlie Phillott doesn’t recall it being so dry for so long in all the 80 years he has lived in western Queensland.

Most of his time has been spent on the family’s 20,000ha Carisbrooke Station, running cattle and a tourism venture out on the ­Mitchell grass downs and mesa spinifex country of the upper Diamantina southwest of Winton, not far from where Lark Quarry’s famous dinosaurs once stamped.

But Phillott and his wife Anne don’t live at Carisbrooke, the achingly beautiful outback property they bought in 1960, any more.

The octogenarian couple left the station in March, pushed off by the ANZ Bank, which claimed its debts could be recouped only by seizing and selling the prized station. Yet the Phillotts had never defaulted or missed an interest repayment on their loan.

Like many farmers in a similar plight, Charlie Phillott is deeply reluctant to talk about or detail his family’s situation. He still hopes something may be worked out with the bank that can return Carisbrooke to the family fold.

“We had to leave our property because of financial problems,” is all Phillott, now living in the outback town of Winton, will say publicly. He won’t name the bank involved, although publicly available power-of-possession court documents do.

But the greatly respected old man of Winton sat keenly listening to all that was said yesterday at the heated farmers’ rural debt “Last Stand” rally held in his home town, as primary producers from across Queensland told stories of similar bank foreclosures, mounting debts, years of nil income and human tragedy.

“How bad is it? I think you will find it’s quite widespread. I know of three or four other families forced off their properties over near Muttaburra, and there are plenty around Longreach, and others in the great swathe west of here where, like at Carisbrooke, there’s been no rain to speak of since January 2012,” says Phillott.

“Drought is part of it; so is the collapse in the (cattle) market.

“But the banks have to take some responsibility for this, too, when they start putting families out on the street; if things get in a real mess and the banks start selling a lot of properties, these inland towns like Winton will just disappear because you won’t have a grazing industry left.”

Statistics bear out the respected cattleman’s worst fears: that the long-term drought and rural debt crisis with its heart-wrenching human fallout isn’t over yet.

Figures released this week by federal Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce confirm many farmers in drought-ravaged regions of Australia are struggling to pay their loans. The average level of debt increased by 4 per cent in southwest Queensland and 12 per cent in northern NSW during the past financial year.

In the Gulf cattle country of north Queensland, the number of borrowers who have missed loan repayments for more than 90 days jumped from 1.9 per cent to 3.4 per cent in the past year.

More than 4 per cent of farmers in northwest NSW are similarly stressed, many of them big-spending irrigated cotton and grain growers.

Nationally, 3 per cent of the $66 billion of rural loans made to the agriculture, forestry and fisheries sector in 2014 are in default.

The rate is almost double that of other business sectors, but far from common claims that 5 per cent to 10 per cent of all farm loans — as much as $7bn of rural debt nationwide — is classed by the major banks as being “at risk”, stressed or bad debt.

Just how many broken farm families have had their farms sold from under them is harder to gauge.

Some dispossessions are well publicised, such as when big Condamine grain grower and head of the government’s own rural debt round table, Rowell Walton, was pushed off his farm in May and his land sold to recoup outstanding debts of $30 million.

The rural papers are full of properties for sale by receivers and managers. But many farmers are too scared of their banks, ashamed or sworn to confidentiality to speak out, until it is too late.

The banks officially say the situation is no worse than usual, apart from a few problematic pockets where drought has caused some difficulties.

But in outback Longreach, local Catholic priest Father Matt Moloney has had enough of such ­silence.

He is livid no one seems to be heeding the danger signs of how bad the debt crisis in the bush has become, and knows he can speak out when displaced farm families often can’t.

A month ago, Moloney told high-profile Sydney radio presenter Alan Jones of 46 properties and families around Longreach, Muttaburra and Prairie in desperate straits, with their farms being repossessed by the banks.

Since then, hundreds of other farmers — from Victoria to Western Australia — have phoned Moloney to confide their tragically similar tales of woe, directly catalysing yesterday’s Winton crisis rally.

“We are talking about unconscionable and unfair behaviour by the banks; they are putting so much pressure on so many people who are intimidated, scared and afraid to speak up because the balance of power is all in the banks’ favour, or they are being formally gagged from talking in mediation documents they sign,” Moloney said.

“The big banks are predatory, preying on these farmers’ lives and caring nothing for the families’ future while they make billions — these families are left without their homes, and nowhere to go, existing on Weetbix and noodles.”

Moloney fears a silent catastrophe is occurring in western Queensland, in particular.

Farmers who are good managers or who — like Phillott — have never missed a loan repayment are being told by the banks to sell their cattle or hand over their properties because land values have fallen with the drought and loan-to-­equity ratios mounted. He says government drought loans are too bound up with red tape and overseen by unsympathetic bureaucrats to be of any help.

“The government must step in; we need an immediate moratorium on all forced property sales until it rains, so farm families can either leave if they want to with some dignity or try and trade their way out of the drought,” Moloney told The Weekend Australian ­yesterday.

Cate Stuart knows exactly what it feels like to be displaced and dispossessed. But she is one farmer who, like Walton and former Richmond shire mayor and cattleman John Wharton, has refused to kowtow to bank demands for “confidentiality”.

On October 10, her family was forced to quit its outback property near Charleville, Mount Morris, as receivers Ferrier Hodgson, acting on behalf of the Stuarts’ lenders, Rabobank, took over their beloved “red-dirt” and mulga ­station.

Now living in public housing in Charleville, while her adult children, horses and dogs are scattered far and wide, and husband Mark works interstate to make a living, Cate Stuart has had to watch dismayed from the sidelines as the bank installed managers at a $450 to $600 a day fee, wild dogs started to roam the property and, finally, it was sold for a deeply discounted price.

Stuart, a speaker at Winton yesterday, is determined to challenge in court the right of Rabo­bank to act as it did.

She is not prepared to go quietly, and wishes other troubled farmers were prepared to be braver and take a stand against a banking and rural debt system she believes has gone “fundamentally wrong”.

But even the faint hope of the family eventually regaining Mount Morris doesn’t keep the bleakest days at bay. “Each day is a continual struggle for each family member; there is no escaping that,” Stuart wrote recently.

“The news of property inspections taking place so soon after the first (sale) advertisement of our home is bitter, (as is) a complete stranger living in our home; it does not take long for things to start to fall apart without us being there … and there is nothing we can do about it.

“We have no say; we are not needed now. When I close my eyes and think of home, I can still hear the brolgas, remember them dancing outside the house yard near the sprinkler; ‘Giggard’ hunting for snakes under the granny flat, the old man emu and his chicks who would return every year, walking up the river to the house pump; I can see them too ….

“No, each day does not become easier; each day I just become more determined to speak out. Bastards! All I want to do is say, ‘Get off my land’ and let us return home to continue our business without interference. But that is not going to happen; we are still unable to go home …”

Author: Sue Neales
Source: The Australian


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