Australia won't force farmers to sell land for SAF training deal

The Townsville Field Training Area in Australia. Defence Minister Marise Payne's spokesman said the changes to the training sites will not affect the timetable for boosting the number of Singapore troops training in Australia.
The Townsville Field Training Area in Australia. Defence Minister Marise Payne's spokesman said the changes to the training sites will not affect the timetable for boosting the number of Singapore troops training in Australia.PHOTO: MINDEF

Australia has abandoned plans to force farmers to sell their land to make way for training bases for Singapore troops, but says the training will go ahead this year as scheduled.

Following an outcry from farmers who were due to be forced to sell hundreds of thousands of hectares of prime farmland in North Queensland, the federal government announced yesterday that it will adjust the proposed boundaries of the training facilities.

Australia's Defence Minister, Ms Marise Payne, said a masterplan, including final details of the training bases, will be presented to the Cabinet in about two weeks. "It is clear that the community has significant concerns, and it is important forced sales are ruled out to alleviate these concerns," she said in a statement.

The move follows the signing of a A$2.25 billion (S$2.43 billion), 25-year deal last year which will see Singapore troops increase their presence in Australia from this year.

By 2021, up to 14,000 troops will train for 18 weeks a year, possibly in two lots of nine weeks, compared with about 6,600 troops who currently train for six weeks.

The Singapore troops' training will involve artillery, fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters.

The deal has the backing of the local communities but ran into political turbulence following concerns over the impact on some 60 farming families who have held their properties for generations. The farmers said they were informed about the sales only late last year, and that the land was prime cattle grazing land.

A spokesman for Ms Payne told The Straits Times that the changes to the training sites will not affect the deal or the timetable for boosting the number of Singapore troops training in Australia.

Despite previously insisting that the proposed location of the base was the most "suitable" for training, the federal government said it will now change the boundaries and will buy land only from farmers willing to sell. The training agreement involves the expansion of the Shoalwater Bay base, near the city of Rockhampton, and a field training area in Townsville, a city farther north.

Local communities and businesses have largely welcomed the training deal, which will bring in substantial investment in the wake of a mining downturn in the region.

The Australian government said in a statement that the influx of Singapore troops will add jobs and boost tourism. "(The) training agreement will drive jobs and investment through the construction of infrastructure, purchase of local supplies, equipment hire and the maintenance of vehicles and equipment," it said.

But the original plans required at least 60 farmers to sell as much as 300,000ha of land - about four times the size of Singapore.

The government has faced heavy pressure over the sales, which drew a community backlash that gained the support of prominent Queensland- based politicians such as One Nation party leader Pauline Hanson.

Adding to the political headache for the ruling federal Liberal-National Coalition, the training bases happen to overlap with one of its most tightly held electorates.

Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, head of the rural-based National party, said the government was not "arrogant" and had listened to community concerns. In a visit to the area late last week, he signalled his opposition to forced farm sales.

"We have heard the concerns," he told ABC News yesterday. "We have reacted. We have now mollified (those concerned)."

A farmer whose family has held their 15,000ha property for 140 years, Mrs Linda Geddes, told the Australian Associated Press that the decision was "like a weight being lifted off your shoulders".

Ms Hanson, a right-wing firebrand whose home state is Queensland, claimed credit yesterday for the government backing down. "I am proud of One Nation's lead role in this victory," she said in a tweet.

Besides the masterplan, a separate study on the socio-economic impact of the bases will also be completed.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 08, 2017, with the headline 'Australia won't force farmers to sell land for SAF training deal'. Print Edition | Subscribe