TEARS have been shed at the first public hearing of the Senate Select Committee’s inquiry into rural lending to primary producers, being held today at Charters Towers in Queensland.
Looking to expose sensitive issues regarding farmers and their banks, the inquiry is being chaired by One Nation Queensland Senator Malcolm Roberts with NSW Nationals Senator John “Wacka” Williams the deputy-chair.
Speakers at today’s hearing include Lloyd and Nolene Bradshaw of Ballabay Station at Pentland in Queensland and Laurel Vale at Prairie.
The Bradshaws’ submission claims they were unlawfully evicted off both properties in February, 2017 by Rabobank, their purported receiver managers, Ferrier Hodgson, Gaden Lawyers, the Townsville Sherriff and Queensland Police Force.
Ms Bradshaw was reduced to tears as she told the story of her family’s issues in dealing with their bank over recent years, under parliamentary privilege, saying the farm business income and its debt was impacted by extended problems, including severe drought in 2013 and the 2011 live export ban.
“Our first farm experienced very hot and windy conditions and it was very hard to establish new lucerne crops,” she said.
Ms Bradshaw said the bank failed to recognise the changed farming conditions and imposed new ones on the borrowings that caused ongoing issues.
She also highlighted concerns and failings with the farm debt mediation processes.
“At mediation we were listened to but not heard,” she said.
Breaking into tears, Ms Bradshaw said the circumstances between her family and the bank were “unfair” and “unconscionable” and also alleged they were victims of “predatory lending” that led to the farms being sold, leaving them homeless and dependent on government welfare.
“We have never been served a notice of default,” she said.
“All they have done is put unreasonable demands on us.
“We have every confidence that we could have traded our way out.”
The two properties were sold for over $6 million in June, she told the hearing, and the total debt to the bank was $5.2m.
“Why were we sold up?” she said.
“Banks are bullying fellow Australians – who is supporting us?”
Ms Bradshaw also claimed cattle on the property were valued at about $1m but had no details of the actual sale figures and final numbers of the stock, by the receivers.
She broke down in tears again when she talked about the support she received by her son Neil, who was also listed to appear at the hearing as a witness today, and claims he was unlawfully evicted off both family properties in February 2017 during the foreclosure proceedings.
“I do not have any connection to Rabobank, I have simply worked and supported my parents on the land with a big picture plan to eventually owning these properties one day,” Neil Bradshaw submitted.
“This eviction and assault has taken my lively hood, some plant my cattle, my partner and son away from me.”
Senator Williams also asked if the bank had offered or suggested to Ms Bradshaw to sell one of the farming properties and they would then reassess the debt.
Ms Bradshaw said “I don’t believe so”.
Senator Roberts said he acknowledged the Bradshaw’s pain and thanked them for coming forward with their evidence.
Other individual farmers are expected to give evidence at today’s hearing and an open mic session will also be held later in the day, to gather more testimony.
Former One Nation Senator and WA farmer Rod Culleton who was disqualified from parliament earlier this year - but entered politics to try and gain a Royal Commission into banking focussed on farm lending issues - is understood to have made a submission to the inquiry but many have remained confidential.
Senator Williams said the 2011 Indonesian live cattle ban was a “disgraceful” decision by the former government and Ms Bradshaw acknowledged that it had impacted the business cash-flow.
He also asked about Ms Bradshaw’s links with Mr Culleton - as a private citizen and as a former Senator - and his involvement in putting an offer to the bank, to resolve the debt issues.
Ms Bradshaw said Senator Culleton had said to her, ‘we would put something forward’ at the time that they were in negotiations with banks.
Senator Williams asked if Mr Culleton had helped the Bradshaws out with their ongoing dealings with the banks.
“I didn’t even know who this man was and someone else recommended him – he had helped other people in Western Australia – but we listened to him,” she said.
Senator Williams said he was told by Mr Culleton in February - when the Bradshaws were evicted from their property - in his Canberra office, that he had saved the family from the banks and kept them on their property.
But Ms Bradshaw said that wasn’t the case.
“It’d be nice if he had of,” she said.
Earlier this year, Ms Bradshaw lodged an affidavit that offered to provide about $300,000 to pay Mr Culleton’s debt, in a legal case that saw him ruled bankrupt by the Federal Court, in a last ditch effort to try and retain his place in federal parliament.
In December last year, Ms Bradshaw posted on Facebook to a page titled, ‘The Culley Gang - Culleton's Support Team’, saying “Rodney, we’ve got your back”.
“Some days ago, it was brought to our attention that there is an urgent need to raise funds, to enable Senator Culleton to defend his constitutional rights as a citizen of the Commonwealth of Australia,” the post said.
“Last week we formed a steering committee and are in the process of opening a ‘Trust Account’ where you will be able to support Senator Culleton and help him defend his ‘Rights’ and the ‘Rights’ of all fellow Australians.”
Ms Bradshaw told the hearing that she did not have the $300,000 that was reported earlier this year, to pay Mr Culleton’s debt, but she was prepared to help find that money however she could not pay it, personally.
North Queensland prawn farmer Sam Sciacca said Mr Culleton had been involved with lawyer Stewart Levitt in trying to start a class action claim against the ANZ bank to try and pursue matters relating to the take-over of the Landmark rural loans book.
Mr Sciacca said while Mr Levitt had anticipated the class action case may attract thousands of farmers it never went ahead as only 32 had joined, according to a letter he received from the lawyer.
Senator Williams asked if 32 clients/farmers would be enough to move ahead with a class action claim.
“I would suspect that (number) would be more than enough,” Mr Sciacca said.
The Department of Agriculture and Water Resource’s inquiry submission said total indebtedness of the agriculture, forestry and fishing industries to institutional lenders was $69.5 billion at June 30 last year.
It said bank lending accounted for 95 per cent of total institutional lending to the sector and more than 95 per cent of broadacre and dairy farms are family owned and operated.