PROPERTY rights are being eroded in many different ways. Some are high profile, such as restrictions on land clearing, while others seem relatively trivial.
Yet in the context of private property in the common law and our capitalist economy, they all add up to a serious challenge. As John Locke put it, “The reason why men enter into society is the preservation of their property.”
I recently experienced an intrusion into my rights as a property owner on the issue of noxious weed control on my farm. In isolation it was no big deal, yet it serves to illustrate how far we have deviated from William Blackstone’s famous maxim: “So great moreover is the regard of the law for private property, that it will not authorize the least violation of it; no, not even for the general good of the whole community”.
It began in June last year with a letter from my local council’s Noxious Weeds Inspector advising of an intention to inspect the property. A month later another letter arrived advising that “the control plan does not meet the requirements of the Noxious Weeks Act” and suggesting I “expand” my control program.
In February this year came another letter advising of an intention to undertake a re-inspection, followed in March by one advising that the council’s Noxious Weeds Inspector is “now satisfied that appropriate actions are being undertaken”.
While this is a happy ending and some would suggest no cause for concern, I disagree. What it demonstrates is an important infringement of property rights. And to add insult to injury, my rates were used to fund it.
The fault is not specifically with the local council. Under NSW legislation the council is the local control authority for noxious weeds to “ensure that owners and occupiers of land (other than public authorities or other local control authorities) carry out obligations to control noxious weeds”.
The council is given wide powers. Inspectors may enter land and inspect it, using force if necessary, and it is an offence to obstruct or hinder such inspections. It is also an offence to fail to control noxious weeds.
In my case the inspector was concerned about blackberries, which are widespread in the area (especially on public owned land).
As it happens I despise the things.
Apart from having nasty prickles they encroach on pasture, provide a haven for feral animals, and occasionally kill sheep that get too close and are trapped by their wool. The only ones I like are on someone else’s property with lots of ripe fruit.
But my personal view of blackberries, the fact that they were on my own land, and the economic interest I have in controlling them, are irrelevant. What the government says, via the council, is what matters.
If I had been unconcerned about blackberries, being told that I must expand my control program would have immediately led to cessation of spraying. Some people are naturally obedient, but I am not one of them. Often the best way to ensure I don’t do something is to tell me I must do it. That could have ended with me in court.
As it happens, the inspections coincided with a concerted effort to make serious inroads into the blackberries during the spring and summer growing period using a spray mixture I had recently found to be effective with a single application. I completely ignored the letter from the council telling me I must do more, and did exactly what I had already intended to do. By coincidence it satisfied the inspector.
In the end the council entered my property twice, without my permission, to tell me to do something that was in my interest and I would have done anyway.
Moreover, my farm is in rocky and hilly country well off the beaten track, requiring a four-wheel drive and two creek crossings to get there. The cost of undertaking the inspections would not have been trivial.
Some might argue that blackberries are not my problem alone as they can spread to neighbouring properties. The council gives a nod in that direction by concentrating on infestations within 100 metres of a property boundary or recognised watercourse. But blackberries are spread by seed as well as vegetatively (ie by runners), and the birds and foxes that carry them travel a lot further than 100 metres. They are a potential problem wherever they occur.
And in any case, there are legal remedies available to those who are adversely affected by their neighbours that do not involve the government wading in with its big stick. In a country that respects property rights, these should always be the first choice.
If the little incursions on our property rights are tolerated, the government finds it a lot easier to justify the big ones.
David Leyonhjelm has been an agribusiness consultant for 25 years. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org