The defence of Charters Towers underway
The banner in front of speakers at the public meeting held in Charters Towers on Wednesday night said it all – the city fears for its future if the proposed 200,000ha defence force land grab goes ahead in its current format.
Around 80 people attended the hastily convened meeting to share what information the steering committee has gathered since the letters from the department of defence landed in people’s mailboxes.
The potential impacts on water projects and to cattle production, and the damaging flow-on effects to the city’s economy, were spelled out by numerous speakers, but it was the knowledge that these impacts may already be starting that is frightening many.
According to the committee, the department will decide what land it wants by May 2017 and begin resumptions in 2018, but it was pointed out from the crowd that the uncertainty meant people would be ceasing their expenditure and expansion plans immediately.
“No-one’s going to spend any money until they know whether they’re affected. They’re going to sit on their hands, and Charters Towers is going to start missing out straight away,” the commentator said.
It was a point taken up by the region’s federal representative Bob Katter, who said a similar scenario had played out during the Acland coal mine resumptions.
“A mate of mine there couldn’t get answers on when resumptions would begin; the banks had cut off his money and basically he was bankrupted.
“That’s what these people will go through and why we all need to stand strong.”
All 23 properties under threat of resumption are within the Charters Towers Regional Council boundary.
Blair Knuth is one of those facing the loss of his land and he told the meeting that there was no way that the 23 families would be able to purchase equivalent land elsewhere, based on the land available in the state.
“So it’s not only going to take these people out of the area; it’s going to take them out of the industry, and it’s coming just as ag investment is getting started here.”
Burdekin cane grower Geoff Cox experienced the pain of resumption for a decade in the 1980s, when his land was taken for real estate parcels that would help pay for the Burdekin Dam project, and he told the crowd that no-one was going to come in and save them.
“You’ve got to save yourselves,” he said. “Forget your manners, make a noise and get your story out there.
“Townsville will do you like a dinner on economic arguments, but Singapore just shouldn’t be looking at displacing Australians who’ve done it tough and now look like being major producers for the Australian economy.
“This is your property – make it the public’s property.”
He believed state politicians should be a main target for ongoing lobbies, saying the land’s status as a state asset was an important key.
Blair Knuth said the effect was the same as walking down the main street of Charters Towers and putting police tape across 23 doors.
“We’re not against defence needing land; we’re just concerned about the type of land.
“We’re struggling to overcome the effects of drought, and rather than reduce our prosperity, we want to bring it in.”
He detailed the benefits of the proposed Big Rocks Weir to water supplies, irrigated agriculture and community development.
“It’s very hard to sell a business opportunity if we can’t guarantee the water, especially in the first three year’s of a new business’s life.
“That weir is essential; it needs to be supported to go ahead.”
Charters Towers mayor Liz Schmidt has already emphasised the importance of Big Rocks Weir with Northern Australia Minister Matt Canavan, who spent time in the region earlier in the week.
“This is going to allow us to irrigate arable land. If the defence project goes ahead as it is, there won’t be any point in going ahead with the weir,” she said.
“Matt understands that, and he was excited by our project.
“We made it clear that the defence project needs to be moved, or modified.”
She said it was very difficult at this stage to quantify the effect the proposed land acquisition would have, given that the defence department’s plans weren’t clear.
“It does appear as though up to $200,000 a year in rateable income will be lost to us, as well as families leaving,” she said.
“We’re listening more than talking at the moment.
“We’re not sure that defence has a plan, or they’re going to modify their plan, now that they’ve seen our passion.
“Until we know what the plan is, we can only support or ratepayers and stand up for them.”
The steering committee has put forward an alternative option to the department, to take up land south of Pentland.
“We are trying our damnedness to get them to see reason, but they only consider what’s in the best interests of defence,” Bob Hicks said.
Blair Knuth said the Pentland option ticked all the boxes defence required, other than being able to return to Townsville every night.
“But it’s an opportunity to take that money and invest further for the region. Townsville will see the benefits of that as well.
“We want to turn this around and turn it into a positive for everyone.”