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Wednesday, 27 June 2018
Page: 4195

Senator ANNING (Queensland) (17:44): This is not my first speech. I rise to speak on the ongoing issue of rural lending practices. The financial system plays a key role in supporting sustainable economic growth and meeting the financial needs of all Australians. The strength of our system in the past has rested on the pillars of strict prudential supervision, world's best practice and the trust of consumers knowing they will be treated fairly. Fair treatment is when a consumer engages the services of a firm or an individual and the participants act with integrity and transparency. Overwhelmingly, Australians would expect this to be the case. Unfortunately, the reality is that integrity, transparency and treating a customer with dignity have come a poor second to the rich pickings of farmers' assets ripe for the taking.

The royal commission was hard won, with many of my colleagues having to fight tooth and nail for a number of years before finally getting it across the line. To date, there have been almost 7,000 submissions detailing threats of foreclosure. I've even heard of an incident where a bank manager urged suicide. And there have been many other, often tragic, results of unscrupulous actions. It's disappointing it has taken so long for these horrendous issues to come to light. In fact, it would seem that we are only just scratching the surface of this problem. While I know a lot of good will come out of the royal commission, in its current form there are issues in relation to time, funding and lack of political will.

What has been brought to light already is, seemingly, systemic abuse by the financial sector of some of our most vulnerable in rural areas. Take a minute to consider some of the tactics that have been employed. There are anticipatory breaches of contract. For instance, farmers may never have missed a payment, yet, because the bank thinks they may in the future, it'll come in and sell them up. If the family homes of urban residents were sold up just because the banks thought people may breach their contracts in the future, there would be outrage. The prospect of banks putting mum, dad and the kids on the street because of something that may never happen would cause a revolt.

This isn't the worst of it. Lee Wallace had a successful grey and red Brahman stud. He had not, at any point, defaulted on his loan. However, for reasons that were not disclosed, the bank called in the loan. Within a year, $14 million of assets and $5.6 million of debt turned into no assets and more than a million dollars in debt. In the case of Prairie grazier Debbie Viney, during a drought her bank manager told her not to sell cattle, despite that being their drought strategy. How is it that someone with no experience in running a cattle place can make key business decisions? Debbie was forced to keep the cattle, which continued to lose condition and they started dying. A year later, the bank allowed them to be sold, but as a result of the drought conditions most had starved to death and the rest had been put down. I could name many more cases, but we would be here all day.

I acknowledge the comments made this week by Ms Orr in relation to receivers and where they fit in the spectrum of the royal commission, but you have to look at its very intent. The intent of the royal commission was to address the unconscionable banking practices within the finance sector. In the current form, it is restricted in its ability to do this. The terms of reference need to be expanded to include the behaviour of receivers and their agents. The issue of receivers' behaviour has been identified as a source of grave concern and has been linked to a wave of suicides. This toxic culture has affected and continues to affect many within our rural communities—our friends, our neighbours and our families, my own family included. My brother-in-law lost his family properties, Runnymede and Red Rock, in 2011. Runnymede had been the family home for almost a century.

Unconscionable rural lending practices are having a devastating effect on rural communities and agricultural production in this country. The waves of debt-driven suicides are a clarion call to action by those who lead the country. Fairness and a fair go are ingrained in the Australian psyche but have been notable by their absence in the treatment our farmers have received. Let us ensure that this is not repeated and that those who feed us are given the justice they deserve.