Australian PM orders Department of Defence to look elsewhere after backlash against foreign military training plan
Malcolm Turnbull has ordered the Department of Defence to find alternative sites for foreign military training in Queensland after uproar over plans to take over as many as 60 grazing properties in prime cattle country.
The state opposition leader, Tim Nicholls, on Thursday said the prime minister intervened after a growing backlash over the prospect of compulsory acquisitions, revealed months after an election campaign in which the federal government trumpeted a US$2.2bn training deal with Singapore.
The controversy prompted Nicholls to write to Turnbull imploring him to step in after what he said was defence’s mishandling of the proposed training site expansion at Shoalwater Bay and near Townsville.
The federal opposition leader, Bill Shorten, wrote to Turnbull on Wednesday calling for him to urgently review the matter and explain what “alternatives to acquiring prime grazing land” had been considered. Nicholls’ statement raised doubts about what other options defence, which has compulsory land acquisition powers, had explored to date for expanding training bases to host 14,000 Singapore troops a year.
He said Turnbull had told him during a “lengthy conversation that he has ordered the defence department to scout alternative areas for expanded military training grounds earmarked for central Queensland farming land”.
“We need good relations with allies such as Singapore and the expansion would provide a significant economic boost to local communities but it is equally important to look after our farmers and graziers.”
Nicholls accused the Queensland premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, and senator Pauline Hanson of “squabbling publicly about this issue to get a headline”, saying “only the Queensland LNP has actually taken the fight to Canberra and got a commitment to find a compromise solution”.
The state agriculture minister, Bill Byrne, a former military commander at Shoalwater Bay, said Turnbull’s pledge that alternative sites would be examined raised the question, “who’s in the firing line now?”
“A big question also remains for the graziers in Charters Towers,” Byrne said. “This has been a shemozzle from the beginning and there are still big questions to be answered.”
Byrne called on the deputy prime minister, Barnaby Joyce, to bring forward his trip to central Queensland to update local farmers on what is happening with the Turnbull government’s plans for Shoalwater Bay.
The LNP this week joined state and federal Labor, Katter’s Australian party and One Nation in publicly criticising the process for the land expansion, after the federal government signed the deal with Singapore in May last year to train 14,000 of its troops.
The parties all warned the loss of drought-resistant grazing land in areas that contain up to 100,000 head of cattle would have a dramatic and harmful impact on the beef industry.
In November landholders in the Marlborough and Charters Towers regions first learned of the possibility their properties would be acquired in letters from defence, which had planned an expansion of about 170,000 hectares.
Defence is yet to decide which properties it will target but the defence minister, Marise Payne, recently ordered the process be sped up with those plans to be revealed next month.
Those under pressure include federal backbencher Michelle Landry, whose central Queensland seat of Capricornia is one of the nation’s most marginal.
Shorten in his letter to Turnbull said the government was “yet to satisfactorily make the case for the acquisition of prime agricultural land to support expansion of the existing training area”. “I’m very concerned that the views of local people appear to have been sidelined in your government’s rush to announce this arrangement before the election,” he said. “Not only were locals not consulted, they were completely left in the dark about the potential impacts of this acquisition before the election.”
Shorten said Payne’s decision to fast-track the announcement about compulsory acquisitions had “heightened community fears that detailed consideration of all social, economic and environmental issues will not occur and that the land to be acquired is a foregone conclusion”.
Shorten, who met landholders in Rockhampton last week, said Labor supported military cooperation with Singapore. However, the government had to explain “what other land options it has considered and on what basis have these been ruled as unsuitable”.
“Surely there are other alternatives to acquiring prime grazing land.”
A spokeswoman for Turnbull was contacted for comment.