Mixed emotions for WA farmer rescued by One Nation Senator Rod Culleton

27 Aug, 2016 03:00 AM
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Cuballing farmer Bruce Dixon at home on his property in WA's south-east Wheatbelt and resting up momentarily, on those now infamous straw bales.
Cuballing farmer Bruce Dixon at home on his property in WA's south-east Wheatbelt and resting up momentarily, on those now infamous straw bales.

SEVERAL rotting, weather-beaten straw bales - some would say hay bales - sit idly, parked at the side of the road in the front yard of Bruce Dixon’s sheep and grain farm at Cuballing in WA.

The once golden straw bundles are now frayed and decayed and increasingly captured by a dark grey complexion that dulls their exterior coating, like gathering storm clouds.

On the surface, these common farm packages seem obsolete and meaningless but to Mr Dixon they’re like mercenary warriors taking a well-deserved rest, after claiming a strategic victory in a long-running battle against adversity.

The discarded bundles of straw are a stark reminder of tense events on Black Friday in March last year when an unusual band of rural characters staged an unconventional protest that helped resuscitate his agricultural livelihood.

And the chief antagonist, who thought outside the square, along with other desperate and street-wise farmers, to take action in fighting back against a common enemy - rampaging banks - is now WA’s newest federal Senator; One Nation’s Rod Culleton.

Mr Culleton was elected to be a lawmaker at the July 2 federal poll and has pledged to push for a Royal Commission into banking; especially debt-lending and farm foreclosures like on his property at Williams in 2013.

But ironically, he’s also starring down theft charges relating to a $27,000 hire car that was obstructed by those straw bales on Mr Dixon’s farm on March 13 last year when two bank-appointed receivers arrived to kick-start foreclose proceedings.

That charge may have a say in whether he’s ultimately eligible to sit in the Senate along with lingering question marks on other legal matters, including insolvency due to ongoing creditor proceedings around a liquidated company.

But for now, back to Mr Dixon, and the place where he and his family have been producing sheep and grains, on their farm property located about 200kms south-east of Perth since 1950.

The 65-year old describes himself as someone who likes to mind his own business and his only real community involvement as paying the local shire rates.

His 30-year old son Simon Dixon is responsible for managing the cropping side of the family farming business growing canola, hay, lupins and barley.

Like WA’s newly elected One Nation Senator, Mr Dixon also attributes the start of his financial headaches to ANZ Bank’s takeover of the Landmark rural loans book and what seemed like a solid decision to expand his farm enterprise, nearly a decade ago.

In 2008 he had high equity levels and borrowed $3 million at the peak of the market to buy more property nearby and increase the farm’s earning potential.

Mr Dixon said the family paid “top dollar” for their land acquisition but within a couple of months of borrowing that $3m and signing the deal, Landmark wanted half of it back.

He said he’s been on medication for anxiety ever since that first surprise “attack” by the ANZ in recalling the $1.5m.

“I’m not really a very strong person - I go to pieces easy,” he said.

“It didn’t seem right that after just three months of giving me the loan they wanted half of it back.

“I couldn’t work it out.”

Mr Dixon said the bank wanted the money repaid because the loan’s equity value was too low.

He said the Global Financial Crisis struck around that time and land values subsequently halved, while 2010 was also a bad year for farm earnings and land prices, due to drought.

“A lot of shonky things sort of went on but you don’t realise the bank’s aim is to default you eventually after they’ve drained you of all your resources,” he said.

Mr Dixon said he first came into contact with Mr Culleton in early 2015 when 60 Minutes was in the process of filming for a controversial program covering foreclosures issues and the mistreatment of farmers by banks.

That episode broadcast in April last year also covered a dramatic exchange between local police and the new owners of Mr Culleton’s foreclosed farm property at Williams.

Mr Dixon said in February last year he and Mr Culleton and another farmer with a similar history of angst towards the banks - Frank Bertola - discussed plans to pursue the next chapter of their protest movement.

“We went to the Williams pub and sat around talking, not realising my farm was next on the chopping block,” he said.

On that fateful day when the two RSM Bird Cameron receivers had their car barricaded in, Mr Culleton and Mr Bertola were heading home from Perth and another farmer Greg Kenny was heading in the opposite direction.

But Mr Dixon said the three men changed direction, met at Wandering, then headed out to his Cuballing farm.

It’s alleged that after Mr Culleton, Mr Bertola and Mr Kenny arrived at the Dixon property - while Mr Dixon was inside the farm house dealing with the receivers, having defaulted on his loan just the day before - the bales were placed around the receivers’ car.

After seeing the vehicle’s pathway was blocked, local police were called out to the scene and tense vision of the subsequent exchange - including secretly-filmed talks between Mr Dixon and the receivers about the vexed farm foreclosure process - was used in the emotion-charged 60 Minutes broadcast.

After a police investigation of the incident, charges were laid against Mr Culleton and were due to be heard in the Magistrates Court at Perth this week.

However, he succeeded in having the legal matter delayed until next month, allowing him to attend Senate orientation this week in Canberra alongside other new Senators like One Nation leader and founder Pauline Hanson and Justice Party Senator for Victoria Derryn Hinch.

Mr Culleton has said he’s only been charged by WA police due to being viewed as the ring-leader during the incident on Mr Dixon’s farm.

But it’s alleged that Mr Culleton intended to take the receivers’ hire car to keep for himself by attempting to have a key cut and putting a security register claim over it; allegations that the new Senator rejects.

It's also alleged that after the hay bale protest, the vehicle was moved from its original parking spot on Mr Dixon‘s farm to a more secure place several hundred metres away behind a hay stack, which the police eventually discovered using an air patrol.

But before police located the receivers’ car, Mr Culleton allegedly went to Edwards Holden in Katanning to try and obtain a key.

But Mr Culleton said he only made an inquiry about obtaining a key to try and move the vehicle for its “safe being”, when inquiring about getting another key, for another vehicle.

“To me there’s nothing in that,” he said.

“Getting a key cut at a locksmith will never let you steal a car; you have to go to a dealer and get all the electronics on the key.

“I just made inquiries - that’s all that was.”

Mr Culleton claims that the car was impounded on the day to stop the receivers driving it in stubble during a dangerous fire ban situation.

Mr Culleton said he believed a fire ban was in place due to his view of the threat associated with the weather conditions, being very hot and windy.

He said the receivers were driving around in stubble in a vehicle with a catalytic converter attached and there “could have been a big fire”.

Mr Culleton said by putting the straw bales around the receivers’ vehicle to block it on that day, it helped to save Mr Dixon’s farm and turn his life around.

He says he’s also helped other farmers facing similar situations and is motivated to enter politics to hold a Royal Commission into banking practices - especially to expose issues with the sale of the Landmark loans book to the ANZ Bank.

As for Mr Dixon, he said following the incident with the two receivers and the 60 Minutes broadcast, he heard very little news from his bank but suffered ongoing anxiety from post-traumatic stress disorder.

He said every time a car came up the road or down his farm’s driveway it made him anxious and he feared the worst.

On one occasion he called his son in a state of panic but the driver turned out to be a wool buyer.

Mr Dixon said he finally reached settlement with the ANZ Bank on June 30 this year and can now keep the parts of his farm that haven’t yet been sold-off - but a gag-order limits him from revealing the full financial details.

“We still have a reasonable amount of debt and can continue farming,” he said.

“Whether it was 60 Minutes or media pressure, the bank eventually came to the party.

“I would have liked to have pushed them further but it’s a bit like a question on a quiz show and you’ve got a million dollars in your pocket - do you risk it all on the next question?

“I decided to call it quits after five years of stress.

“I’d reached the point where my mind could not focus so we took the offer so I can get on with my life.

“I’ve basically lost five years of my life.”

ANZ has declined to comment on the matter apart from saying any outstanding issues with Mr Dixon’s finances have been resolved.

Mr Dixon said he’d also given Mr Culleton more than $100,000 since first meeting him that’s gone towards advice on “tactics” to help manage his banking dispute and related legal issues on his farm foreclosure.

He said there was never any written agreement between the two men but he believed money was also going towards fighting a common cause, with other aggrieved farmers, on legal issues connected with the Landmark loans book.

“We just voluntarily gave him (Mr Culleton) money, when he requested it, thinking that most of it was going to go to support a class action but ANZ circumnavigated the class action by settling privately with most of the people who were going to be in it,” he said.

“There was other stuff that we gave money for, which was meant to pay for his lawyers or to pay to get machinery out of hock - so it was to help him directly.

“We gave the money basically as a friend and I still regard him as a friend.”

Mr Dixon said he didn’t have any hatred towards Mr Culleton.

“I know he’s taken a lot of money but I gave it to him freely and we’re still here, on the farm,” he said.

“When we lent him the money, I had the feeling that we’d never see it again but you put that into the perspective that you’re going to keep your farm.”

Mr Dixon said he’d also given $70,000 to another organisation that was claiming to be fighting the banks over farm foreclosures and other people “who have done nothing”.

Mr Culleton said he did not believe there was any ill feeling between him and Mr Dixon over any monetary issues.

He said he and other farmers had done “extensive work, as a team” to fight back against the banks.

“At no stage have I ever, ever, ever held a gun to anyone’s head and never have I put my own interests first,” he said.

“I have always acted in the best interests of all the growers in relation to how the banks treat growers in relation to force majeure.”

Mr Bertola said he first met Mr Culleton outside the Supreme Court in WA while there on mediation with the ANZ Bank over the foreclosure of his farm at Bremer Bay, where for 43 years he had produced coarse grains, sheep and wool and raised 11 children.

Mr Bertola lived with Mr Culleton for about three months after losing his farm and claims to be a former business associate.

While they once shared a common enemy they have now fallen out.

“Rodney said ‘we’ll get your farm back for you, I’ll fight for you and we’ll get our farms back’,” he said.

“Rodney saw this great big bloody cash flow - he was going to be the king of the class action and was promoting he was going to collect $2000 a month.

“But at the end of the day the bloke hasn’t got a clue.

“I chose a legal direction and could see we were going nowhere but into trouble by following Rodney Culleton and boy did he go crook.”

Earlier this month Mr Bertola was imprisoned for breaching a restraining order taken out by Mr Culleton’s wife against him and another associate on rural banking matters Bruce Bell.

Mr Bertola said Mr Culleton’s election to the federal Senate was “an absolute disaster”.

“He doesn’t represent farmers’ interests – he’s a Rodney Culleton interest,” he said.

But Mr Culleton said his record spoke for itself with Mr Dixon winning both of his farms back from the bank which was largely attributed to the events involving the receivers and the straw bales in March last year, as covered by the 60 Minutes program.

“The truth comes out in the end,” he said.

“It’s like a dag in a bale of crutchings - it will always float to the top when you open it up.”

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Colin Bettles

Colin Bettles

is the national political writer for Fairfax Agricultural Media
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READER COMMENTS

Non farmers
27/08/2016 3:50:10 PM

Only one thing worse farmers taking blind eye side in a non farmer and bank gang up another farm owner.
Carl
28/08/2016 7:43:41 AM

To MERELY enquire about getting a key cut to move a vehiicle that does not belong to you. Mr Culleton makes it sound so trivial. I should do that for all the cars I feel are unsafe in our street. Why did'nt Mr Culleton SIMPLY Call the rightful owners to move it if he was so concerned about it's "safe being". Has me wondering about his alleged plans to put that claim over it. And by his comments in this report he seems to have already admitted knowing who the owners were and where the car was since he admits to enquiring about a key for it. Was'nt this car reported missing for months ??
LTF
28/08/2016 8:37:52 PM

I am in no position to comment on the issues between Culleton and the ANZ or the other farmers mentioned. It is clear however that the terms of trade for farmers generally has deteriorated dramatically since its "hay days" between 1950 and the 1990's. During that time, we had record numbers of farming families (including some 50,000 growing wheat). Today we have only about 20,000 or so families running wheat farms. That means, earnings that used to be in farming has gone and risks have escalated. Soon families will be gone from farming altogether. nobody in power even cares.

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