FUELLED by a “a firestorm of anger and resentment” over farm foreclosures, MP Bob Katter today said farmers will take banks to the High Court in order to win the battle against intimidatory banking practices.
The 60 Minutes Sunday program “Farmers Fight Back” depicted part of the foreclosure process on Bruce Dixon's Cuballing farm in Western Australia’s southern wheatbelt last month along with the foreclosure of Rodney Culleton, Williams. It focused on ongoing criticism of changed loan conditions stemming from the Australia and New Zealand Banking Group (ANZ) takeover of the former Landmark rural loans book.
Mr Katter said the techniques used to get farmers to “voluntarily” give up their properties were extreme and unnecessary.
“Banks do not just foreclose, they’re using duress and even misrepresentation to get people to agree to terms without putting them into receivership,” he said.
“The veil of secrecy which surrounds their dealings with farmers when taken away will reveal, in my opinion, gross obscenities.
“We are determined that it will be illegal to get people to sign contracts of confidentiality using inducement and duress. We will see them (the banks) all the way to the High Court”.
ARDB a missed opportunity
The implementation of the Australian Reconstruction and Development Board (ARDB) – supported by Mr Katter - was knocked back by a federal Senate inquiry earlier this month.
The report tabled by a Senate economics legislation committee inquiry into the escalating rural debt crisis, instigated in 2013 by independent Senators Nick Xenophon and John Madigan, recommended the Senate not pass the ARDB Bill.
However, it contained a strong dissent from Senator Xenophon accusing major bank lenders of failing to recognise the severity of the rural debt crisis.
“Whether the banking industry wants to admit it or not, Australia is in the midst of a rural financial crisis,” Senators Xenophon said.
“More and more farmers are hitting the wall and there has not been a proper response from the government in relation to this.”
Mr Katter, who had pushed a similar Bill in the Lower House to make the ARDB a subsidiary of the Reserve Bank of Australia, said he was tired of the talk-fest and hypocrisy on rural debt.
“It is a waste of time having white papers and green papers into agricultural debt, all that politicians are doing is making themselves look like they care,” he said.
“I defy anyone to point out to me a white paper that has produced a positive result in the last 20 years and they have cost tens of millions of dollars.”
Mr Katter wants more transparency in banking, and asked the Treasurer to require all banks and lending authorities to provide to Parliament the complete wording of confidentiality clauses inserted into lending documentation in the last two years.
“We’re not asking for a bailout, in fact the last time this was done in Queensland on a major scale in sugar, the government made a profit,” he said.
“But this is the first time in Australian history where a crisis of this size has arisen without the remotest effort to put in place an ARDB.
“I don’t mind free market fundamentalists the LNP and ALP saying paddle your own canoe - we’d be happy to paddle our own canoe, I just wish we weren’t up the creek in a barb wire canoe,” Mr Katter said.
Drought fuelling debt crisis
The one-in-100-year drought gripping a broad swathe of eastern Australia has exacerbated the rural debt situation, with ANZ promising a 12-month moratorium on farm repossessions in northern and western Queensland and North West NSW before Christmas.
"We are acutely aware of the impact this is having on farmers, their families and on farming communities," chief executive officer for ANZ Australia, Philip Chronican said.
Queensland farm group AgForce said primary producers across the state continued to suffer from the worst drought in a generation, and urged the federal government to rethink its drought assistance policy and recognise that “existing frameworks miss the mark”.
At a meeting with Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce yesterday, AgForce chief executive officer Charles Burke, along with representatives of the National Farmers' Federation and NSW Farmers, reiterated the need for drought policy reform. The lobbyists presented Mr Joyce with a set of urgent recommendations aimed at addressing the barriers to those in genuine need of federal assistance.
"Queensland producers are operating under an unprecedented set of conditions that are well beyond their control or capacity to prepare for and need further effective assistance," Mr Burke said.
"These recommendations are not new and many have been raised previously with the Minister, his office and the Department when existing drought schemes were first introduced and again last year."
Senator Madigan said while natural disasters had contributed to the debt crisis, successive governments had failed to address the issue.
“Enough is enough,” he said. “No other country in the world ignores their farmers and ignores their rural communities like Australia does and it’s about time governments of all persuasions woke up to what is happening.
“There is a bushfire raging in rural and regional Australia and these people aren’t even looking at the fire - they’re sitting in the lounge chair ... thinking everything’s going to be okay.
“Well, it’s not going to be okay. Let’s stop the fire before it burns anyone else.”
Left in the lurch
The 60 Minutes report claimed farmers were “alone in battling this national crisis because federal and State governments have completely ignored them”, with some taking matters into their own hands.
“Some refusing to leave; others even forcing their way back onto their properties,” reporter Michael Usher said.
Bank tactics pit farmer against farmer - "and it’s getting ugly,” he said.
“There’s a bushfire raging across rural Australia; a firestorm of anger and resentment that’s erupted into open warfare.”
ANZ issued a statement after the broadcast, saying in part:
"Taking possession of a farm is always the last option after all other avenues, including farm debt mediation, have been exhausted and we work with farming customers over several years to try and resolve their financial situation.
"We recognise there are farmers doing it tough in other parts of Australia and we will do all we can to work with them to get them back on their feet.
"ANZ has more than 20,000 farming customers throughout the country and we’re committed to supporting the sector through both the good and tough times."
The bank also noted non-viable businesses had a significant impact on local communities with many smaller suppliers remaining unpaid, while the sale of these businesses injected capital back into the local economy.
Mr Katter said at the ‘Last Stand’ December meeting in Winton, Queensland, farmers overwhelmingly rejected concessional loans as they don’t want more debt, and the government's policy fostered negative patterns.
"So far all this government has done for farmers is offer another $100 million in concessional loans."
He said that unless the Agriculture Minister delivered "action and not words, he knows as well as everyone else in the industry that there will be no Australian farmers left".
- with Colin Bettles