Agriculture and mining and the industries dependent on them are the creators of all primary wealth for Business in Queensland. Every Queenslander has a vested interest in the health of these workhorses of our economic wagon and should be alert to politicians who may frighten the horses, plunder the load or knock the wheels off the wagon.
One of the many government enquiries operating in Queensland today is the Crown Leasehold Review Committee. One of its objectives is to “recommend a land policy which will enhance sustainable economic growth in Queensland”.
If that is truly the objective of Queensland Government land policy I can write the recommendation which should emerge from this committee in one sentence. “Sell all leasehold land as soon as possible, preferably to the current leaseholders”.
What is sustainable agriculture? It can be defined as “profitable agricultural practices which do not deplete or degrade the land resources in the long term”.
Secure freehold title is the key which guarantees that land is used in a sustainable fashion. Leasehold title leads to stagnation or degradation.
The reason for this is simple. In any leasehold tenure the capital value of the asset belongs to the absentee landlord (in this case the Land Commissars) and all the farmer or grazier can do is maximise the production he can extract from the land during the term of the lease. During the dying years of the lease, development slows to a standstill because of the insecure tenure. Neither the occupier nor his bankers are prepared to risk additional investment on land in danger of being resumed by the government without adequate compensation for improvements.
Thus under leasehold tenure most tenants take as much wealth out of the land as they can and put back no more than is absolutely necessary. Anyone who doubts this, has obviously never rented his house.
Land policies have been even more perverse than this. Should a lessee spend a lot of sweat and capital in developing his lease into a prosperous and sustainable block, the government is likely to resume and sub-divide it. (Usually into uneconomic blocks, thus prone to overgrazing and degradation.) Even worse, the dis-enfranchised tenant is seldom offered just compensation for the assets he has built on the insecure foundation of leasehold land. If lucky he may be offered a truncated homestead block on which he is expected to start the development process over again while watching a blow-in win his assets and his land in a marble-drawn land ballot.
I recommend that the Leasehold Review Committee get a copy of Country Crisis by the late Charles Russell, a great Queensland pastoralist from Jimbour with an uncanny understanding of the causes of many of our rural and economic problems. I specially recommend they read his chapter entitled “Leasehold Wilderness.” He explains clearly why leasehold states such as Queensland are more backward than freehold states such as “the Garden State” of Victoria. He concludes:
If I could make a single recommendation to the government in connection with land development, I would say it is vital to give security of tenure … As a result of extensive pastoral experience in two states (Qld and NSW) I would say that a lessee is ill-advised to improve leasehold land beyond the requirements laid down at the commencement of the lease … I have had a great deal of experience of developing terminable lease country in Queensland and would say that, if I could have my life again, I would not develop it over and above the bare necessity.
As another example, 1981, Pioneer Sugar Mills Ltd, a century-old Queensland company, sold its six Queensland cattle properties. The Chairman, Mr J.F. Leggo, said that state legislation did not allow big companies to buy the cattle properties they leased. He said:
The best security is freehold.
It should thus be of great concern to every Queenslander that governments own more than 70% of the state and our biggest absentee landlord is the un-elected Land Commission which presides over the stagnation of some 300 million acres of Queensland land.
And those concerned about locking up huge tracts of land should reflect that most of the largest properties in Australia are leasehold land whereas in freehold areas, the blocks are generally smaller, better developed and more productive. Unlike the forced, infrequent and often uneconomic splitting up of leasehold land, freehold subdivides itself continuously and the land shifts peacefully and voluntarily into younger, smarter or financially stronger hands.
Moreover freehold land aggregates more easily when economic conditions demand it.
This is not an issue for wealthy graziers — the security of land tenure will determine the prosperity of every business and resident in Queensland long after this committee has been forgotten. The people currently starving all across the comrade societies may not connect their sorry plight with the communalisation of the breadbasket lands in Ukraine and Eastern Europe over 70 years ago, but the link exists, whether they recognise it or not.
However, their leaders have recognised the link. Michael Gorbachev recently announced moves to dissolve Gosagroprom, the super-ministry of Agriculture, and to grant long term leases to Soviet farmers. His chief adviser on agriculture has called for lifetime leases that could be inherited by farmers’ children.
It has been said that Queensland has more government owned land than anywhere outside the communist block. If we don’t act soon, we may, by default, win the world crown.
Every Queenslander should demand that state land is denationalised now. Just a quick glance across the world will show that rural prosperity depends not on soil nor climate nor technology — more than any other factor, it depends on private farmers operating secure freehold land.
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