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Wednesday, 6 December 2017
Page: 9953


Senator WILLIAMS (New South WalesNationals Whip in the Senate) (17:36): I rise to contribute to this debate. Thank you, Senator Hanson, for tabling the report. I was involved from day 1 of this inquiry. Years ago, I said to my then leader, Warren Truss, that I had really serious concerns about receivers going into family farms. It's okay when receivers are put into corporate farms; the management is retained.

I saw a case many years ago where former Senator Bill Heffernan brought an issue to us and we worked with a bank. The receivers had done a shocking job. The sheep were neglected. They were flyblown. They were sent to the sale yards, and they were dying in the yards. The farm was just littered with weeds out of control. It was bad management. I then talked to Steve Munchenberg. He is a bloke I spent a lot of time with. He is a good bloke. He was CEO of the Australian Bankers' Association. I said to Steve, 'Please, tell your members of the Australian Bankers' Association not to send receivers into family farms. Corporate farms—fine.' Here's the problem: when a receiver goes onto a family farm and kicks the farmers off, does the receiver have good knowledge of how to run the farm? Not as good as the generational farmer, I assure you. Also, people get very angry and very bitter.

I thank Senator Georgiou for raising this issue. KordaMentha were the receivers in one case in Western Australia. The receivers told the committee that mustering the sheep, security, transport and agistment had cost a staggering $105,000. Why did they have security? They had security because the receivers were on the property and the people were angry. The receivers had to muster 3,600 sheep. It can be broken down this way: it cost $30,000 for an agriconsultant and $29,000 for security. They brought the security in for one day to put the sheep on the trucks. It cost $29,000 for security to stop the farmers causing trouble. I know one Kenworth truck had its headlights broken. People were angry. It cost $28,000 for mustering and agistment. I don't know how long the sheep were in agistment. It also cost $18,000 for freight. So, what could have been an $18,000 bill, with a bit of agistment as well, became a $105,000 bill. That's money the bank doesn't get and that's money the farmers lose out of their equity, if they have any.

It's been a pretty tough time, especially with the droughts. I remember one year in the early nineties when my brother, Peter, and I had 1,000 castrated sheep to get rid of. They had to get off the place. The ewes had been lambing and we simply didn't have room for them. We literally gave away 500 sheep. For the other 500, I stood in the corner of the paddock and shot them, one by one. The next year I put another 500 in the same patch of ground, in amongst the trees where I had fenced the area off, on top of the skeletons of the previous year. I stood there and shot another 500 sheep. It's not fun, I can assure you, especially when people are starving around the world. That's what we go through on the land.

The point I want to make is this: the banks, on some of the evidence, have done a very good job. Westpac, I think, were excellent. I worked with Westpac when drought affected people in Queensland came to me for advice. If you try to sell a place and it's in a terrible situation, without a blade of grass on a grazing property, a farmer is not going to buy it. They can't get an income. They can't put any stock on it and they can't start producing wool, lamb, beef or whatever. It's a difficult time, but that's the country we live in. So I think patience is required.

The committee recommended Australia-wide farm debt mediation. For 200 years, farmers have been going broke, and for another 200 years farmers will continue to go broke, sadly. But they must be treated as human beings. With the farm debt mediation, which is based on the New South Wales model that was brought in by Bob Carr in New South Wales and went through when he was opposition leader, they sit down and talk about how they are going to sell the assets off and cash things in. If the farmers don't agree with the terms—for example, 'We'll give you three months to sell the property and get the livestock off'—and they can't meet those terms to sell it, they can give vacant possession and put it to an auction or give it time to sell. It's very sad when you see people just kicked off their land, with receivers coming in and the animals and the farm treated so poorly.

My biggest criticism in this inquiry has been about the actions of the receivers. Senator Hanson spoke about a $3.3 million property. That is what it was valued at. The committee saw the valuation of '$3.3 million bare'—bare meaning no livestock on it. That property was sold for $800,000 with 800 head of cattle given in. So that's about $450,000 for the land. How can a property be valued at $3.3 million bare and then be sold for $450,000? Imagine if you had a house, a really flash mansion—it wouldn't have to be a flash mansion in Sydney—that was valued at $3.5 million and someone sold it for $500,000. What a bargain! You'd buy one every day of the week, wouldn't you? That is a situation that must anger those people.

There were some loans dished out to farmers that should never have been dished out. Take the Dingle family, for example, with a property valuation of $1.3 million, and their assets were sold for $580,000. Why? Are the valuers doing their job properly? But I think the message has got through, and the banks are now facing a royal commission—something that I have pursued for seven or eight years—into the wrongdoings of the banks. I must say that some of the banks have done an excellent job. I've had a good working relationship with many of the banks for many years now. My biggest criticism is about the actions of and the way the receivers do their job. I know it's a tough job. They know they're very unpopular with not only the farmers who were on the properties but probably with the whole district. That's what happens in rural Australia. You're not on your own when you're a farmer; you've got neighbours or friends and they like to stick up for you, especially when times are tough.

It is important to note that, when you're dealing with farmers, you're dealing with very proud people—people who live their love and have been there for generations. It is that pride that drives Australian farmers through droughts, low commodity prices, bushfires, floods—you name it; they face it. That pride is very good but that pride can also be very dangerous—if I can put it that way—when you have to shift these people off their land. They have to be treated carefully, they have to be treated gently, and they have to be treated with total respect.

The committee made 27 recommendations—some good recommendations. I'll be pleased when the Australian Financial Complaints Authority is up and running on 1 July so that, if people have a grievance about how they have been treated they have somewhere to seek justice. I hope the Australian Bankers Association put in their code of conduct the message from this inquiry: 'Do not send receivers onto family farms.' As I said, corporate farms are right. The management is retained and the stock and property are looked after. When Cubby Station was in administration, McGrathNicol were the administrators and they charged $9 million to administer it for a couple of years—not a bad bit of money—and the management was retained. But, on a family farm, when you remove the family off it, who can run it, especially in specialist fields such as intensive piggeries, poultry farms and even fish farms?

So I thank everyone who participated in the committee inquiry—the people who gave their submissions and the people who came forward as witnesses. As always, a special thank you to Stephen Palethorpe, the secretary, and Kate and the crew who backed him up. They do an enormous amount of work. The secretariats of the Senate committees have been extraordinarily busy in the last 12 months. I wish them a great holiday over Christmas—they certainly deserve it. I wish them all the best and sincerely thank them for their tireless work. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.