While NSW government services for rural landowners morphed into Local Land Services (LLS) on January 1, a class action against LLS claims the revenue collected is unconstitutional and is not value for money, especially for those who don’t run stock or grow crops.
The centralising of services is the ‘biggest change to agricultural services in 60 years’, says the body representing NSW Farmers, and has seen the LLS replace the Livestock Health and Pest Authorities (LHPA) and Catchment Management Authorities (CMA).
The class action comes as Goonengerry resident Howard Furner faces a pre-trial court hearing in Lismore on February 25 over unpaid LHPA rates for his property. Furner’s land has been reforested after years of cattle use, and therefore is without livestock or food crops. He told The Echo, ‘I don’t even open their letters any more because they don’t provide any services.’
Apart from LHPA failing to help with the wild dog crisis in the shire around 2011, Furner claims that LHPA annual returns show millions were spent on consultants.
Russell Preston is in a similar situation, because his land doesn’t run stock or grow crops.
The Brisbane-based theoretical physicist owns 12 hectares in The Pocket, and told The Echo he refuses to pay LHPA rates ‘as it is of no value’.
And as Preston found out, the state government has the power to claim private property for unpaid rates. ‘Despite registering my property in a voluntary conservation agreement, the then-Rural Land Protection Board (RLPB) put my property up for sale for unpaid rates in 2003. It was only averted moments before an auction was to take place.’
He added that ‘no politicians have been any use’ with his cause.
A recent survey conducted by NSW Farmers revealed 56 per cent of respondents say that LHPA is not value for money.
So is the new LLS an unwieldy bureaucratic behemoth acting illegally? ‘This is bigger than the Titanic and no media are reporting on it,’ says 75-year-old landowner Trevor Kirk, who has set up a class action against the LLS.
The retired corporate accountant describes himself as a ‘habitat and fresh air farmer’ and has been fighting the ‘funding regime of the NSW government’ since 2006 on the grounds it is ‘discriminatory, in breach of the Australian Constitution, persecutes landholders and is in their worst interests’.
‘Under Sir Lunch-a-lot [disgraced Labor primary industries minister, Ian McDonald], they reduced the land size from ten to four hectares, but there was an uproar and they changed it back.’
Kirk’s aim is to get landowners to contribute to a ‘fighting fund’ that will enable a High Court challenge.
‘I believe it’s unconstitutional for a state government to create any tax or levy,’ he says. ‘The federal government set taxes, and the state can only raise taxes, not impose them.’
He also claims that despite the name changes, NSW Liberal, Nationals and Labor parties have let the rort continue.
‘In this new LLS structure, MP Katrina Hodgkinson controls 58 per cent of the votes and she has set the rules.
‘She appears to be appointing stooges like her predecessors did.’
Despite Kirk’s claims of ‘business as usual’, there are now new managers and bureaucrats in charge.
Bruce Brown is one of the new crop and is the new north coast general manager of LLS, based in Coffs Harbour.
And as with the North Coast Holiday Parks, there is a corporate tone to the government-run organisation. Brown told The Echo he comes to the job as a former NSW Farmers and corporate lobbyist, and ‘did work with helping banks develop connections with the farming sector.’
‘I’m from the private sector and am commercially driven,’ he said, ‘and we will be triple-bottom-line focused with economic growth, as the sector has dipped in previous years.’
To achieve this, he said, the LLS will hold workshops and provide advice and education. And while the budget of the north coast LLS was still being finalised, Brown said the region – which covers Port Macquarie to Tweed – employs ‘around 40’.
But hard questions are still on the drawing board, with Brown admitting that the exemption sugarcane farmers had with LHPA is being reconsidered, as is the rateable system of land for ratepayers.
As for upcoming board member elections, enrolments closed Monday, and Brown conceded that 1,000-odd enrolments was a ‘low’ figure.
Upon hearing of Mr Furner’s court case, he said he would be ‘delighted’ to come and attend any group meeting with landowners who are dissatisfied with LSS services.
For more contact the Grafton office on 6642 0625.