By CAITLIN CROWLEY
DARLING Downs landowners who’ve already endured years of uncertainty around how Inland Rail might impact their future fear they’re now facing a new fight to ensure they’re compensated fairly when their properties are finally purchased to build the “nation-building” project.
While it’s the Australian Rail Track Corporation (ARTC) who is building the almost $15 billion line and has led discussions with landholders from the beginning, the final step of buying properties and negotiating compensation in Queensland is handed over to the Department of Transport and Main Roads (TMR), as required by legislation.
There are growing concerns landowners won’t receive market value for their property from TMR, let alone a compensation package recognising the emotional cost of walking away from everything they’ve built.
“Unfortunately our experience has been that the Queensland Government is behaving as if they are a mortgagee in possession,” said lawyer Adair Donaldson, who has been acting for several affected landholders on the Darling Downs.
“They are doing whatever they can to minimise the amount of money that’s going to be paid to landholders and that is just not right.”
Sally and David Taylor are among the impacted landholders hoping to be treated “justly and fairly” by TMR.
They have called a picturesque pocket of the Darling Downs 20km west from Toowoomba home since 1995, transforming the property one fence at a time and painstakingly renovating the home to create their dream place to live and work.
It became the headquarters for their successful Murray Grey cattle stud, Baroona Park, producing dozens of grand champion animals with a mountain of show ribbons to prove it.
But their operation was forced into a holding pattern about five years ago, when the couple first discovered the Inland Rail route could cut through the bottom of their 80 hectare property.
“It’s certainly taken its toll on us,” Sally Taylor said.
David Taylor added: “Not knowing what our future is and what sort of property we can go to, we don’t really know how much we should keep building things up”.
The couple, aged in their early 70s, said they were resigned to the fact it was unlikely they’d find a property that has all the features of Baroona Park.
But with the next two generations of their family starting their own Murray Grey studs in recent years, it’s not just their future they’re fighting for.
“If we were able to put it on the open market, we would expect to get market value and it seems so far, that we’re not going to be able to get that,” David Taylor said.
“Mining companies and particularly gas companies make it attractive and they say, we’ll give you 20-30 percent over market value.
“These people (TMR) are basically (offering) 20 – 30 percent under market value.
“They’re trimming the conditions for compensation – penny pinching – and it just leaves you with a very disappointing feeling about the whole thing.”
Sally Taylor said: “We’re concerned that we won’t have enough money to buy a suitable place”.
“People don’t seem to recognise that most of the properties (affected by Inland Rail) from Pittsworth certainly through to Gowrie here, are small properties and their value is in their proximity to Toowoomba” she said.
In a statement to the Caller a TMR spokesperson said “TMR is committed to treating all landowners consistently and fairly, by paying market value at the date of acquisition”.
“We have started negotiations with several landowners directly impacted by the proposed Inland Rail, to buy their properties by negotiated agreement under our Early Acquisition Policy,” the statement said.
“Offers also include reasonable repurchase and relocation costs, as well as legal and valuation costs.”
Lawyer Adair Donaldson said ensuring landholders, who are being forced off their land for the good of the nation, are looked after should be the project’s number one priority.
“I cannot believe that here we are, four to five years later and the landholders have still not got certainty,” Donaldson said.
“What is causing them great angst is thinking that, not only are they going to lose their land, they’re going to be far worse off as a result of that and that is appalling.
“At the moment the Taylors are collateral damage – they are collateral damage in relation to this nation-building project.”
It’s not just TMR’s alleged handling of negotiations which troubles Adair Donaldson, but the legislative framework around how landholders impacted by projects like Inland Rail are compensated in Queensland.
“The legislation in New South Wales for instance, is far more generous to landholders than it is in Queensland,” he said.
“If you’ve got land on one side of the border, in New South Wales, and you’ve got land on the other side in Queensland, the person in New South Wales is going to be receiving more compensation than the person in Queensland.
“Everybody will appreciate that there’s trauma that comes with losing land.
“In New South Wales, you’re entitled to an amount of money in relation to that trauma.
“In Queensland, that’s not recognised under the legislation. What I can’t understand is why our politicians aren’t addressing this inequity.”
Sally Taylor said she and her husband had a sense they were not being treated fairly.
“If it was a mining company for instance, because we know a lot of people who’ve been bought out by mines and things, they negotiate with you because they want your land,” she said.
“The difference is the government can come and take it.”
Local economic development group Toowoomba and Surat Basin Enterprise (TSBE) is leading the charge for Inland Rail to push ahead locally, urging the newly elected Labor federal government to keep the project on track.
TSBE chief executive Ali Davenport said construction on Inland Rail should have been underway in Queensland two years ago and the costs were increasing because of the delay.
“There have been five reviews into the alignment, plus the recent flood modelling study and because of this the project has experienced significant delays,” Davenport said.
“We’re now calling for the construction to get underway without further delay or distraction.
“I think landholders that are going to be impacted need to be adequately compensated, there’s no doubt about that.”
Condamine MP Pat Weir told the Caller while no landholders had contacted his office with concerns about TMR, or the office of Southern Downs MP James Lister, he was “ready to go into bat” for anyone concerned about TMR’s handling of the compensation agreements.
Adair Donaldson said there was a “simple solution” to streamline the compensation process.
“When it comes to negotiating compensation for landholders, that is the responsibility of the Queensland Government, so it is the Queensland Government that is not looking after landholders,” he said.
“The solution is getting rid of the Queensland Government altogether.”
He’s proposing ARTC continue the work it started with landholders and negotiate the final sale of properties as well.
While it would require legislative change, Donaldson said it was a common sense solution.
“Why isn’t it just the Federal Government or the ARTC that is negotiating the compensation for these landholders?” he said.
“Why is there then this incredible waste, where they have to go and negotiate with the Queensland Government and then pay the Queensland Government for the privilege of negotiating with the landholders?
“ARTC is establishing relationships with the landholders, they are making assurances to the landholders, but they are then passing that over to the Queensland Government, which we don’t believe is then honouring the promises and assurances that have been made by ARTC.”
ARTC was approached for comment and while it was happy to discuss the process, it did not think it was appropriate to go on the record.
While there’s a chance the newly elected Albanese Government could review the current alignment, Adair Donaldson said ultimately, the rail line would have to go somewhere and landholders like the Taylors deserved to be looked after.
“The majority of our clients will say ‘we appreciate that someone’s got to cop it. If it’s not us copping it it’s someone else copping it’,” Donaldson said.
“They shouldn’t be any worse off than what they are, so it should be streamlined and it should be a smooth transition that manages the trauma of losing your land.”
While a TMR spokesperson said “TMR is working collaboratively with the ARTC to ensure landowners are treated fairly and equitably,” Sally Taylor said she didn’t feel that had been her experience so far.
She had a simple message for the bureaucrats and politicians deciding what the next chapter of her life will look like.
“Look after us – give us a decent compensation package and we will move on,” she said.
“Treat us fairly and justly.”