The Farming Family Fighting The Government For A Fair Deal For Their Land

After running sheep on their property since 1919, the Nicolson family had it ripped out from under them by the Defence Department.

Cousins Andrew and Lockey are the fourth generation of sheep-farming Nicolsons to produce wool at their 1000 square kilometre property, Roopena Station, in north-west South Australia.

Having grown up on the property, Andrew’s daughter Lucy and Lockey’s daughter Ali had become the fifth.

“We had a very, very happy upbringing,” says Ali.

“Yeah, we spent a lot of time working with our Dads, a lot of time out in the paddock,” adds Lucy.

But in 2012, the Nicolsons’ world was turned upside down, when they found out Roopena was to be compulsorily acquired by the Defence Department, as it expanded a nearby military training base.

“The notice of acquisition was in the government notice section of the paper,” says Lucy, “and I was so confused because I thought, surely that can’t be it, because why would they put it in the paper and not tell us?”

“I felt a bit numb,” Lockey recalls, “then I was a bit angry. We were away buying rams when we actually heard, and we thought, we’ve just spent a considerable amount of money and what are we going to do with these rams?”

The family were given 9 months to wrap up farming operations and pack up their lives. They left in August 2013.

“It was the worst day,” Lucy says. “Seeing how upset my sister was and my father was and knowing that you’re just about to get in a car and drive, for nothing.”

But that was far from the end of the grief. While they were given an initial downpayment on the acquisition, what followed was nearly six years of waiting for the Government to determine what price they were prepared to pay for the property. In the meantime, the family rented places in Whyalla and Adelaide.

Fed up with waiting, Andrew purchased a small property and bought back a fraction of the family’s sheep.

Finally, in January this year, they received the Government’s final offer – and it was less than half the claim that they had made based on the property valuation and resultant loss of income.

And they say that given the rise in the market in the intervening years, the price offered is millions short of what they’d need to get a similar property, and get back to doing what they love.

Any Government department is entitled to compulsorily acquire private property for public purposes, as set out in Section 51 of the Constitution. The overriding principle is that the acquisition occurs on “just terms”.

The Nicholsons say that they trusted in the system and feel that they have been let down. They’re now appealing the decision, but from this point on will have to cover their own legal fees.

“I just feel like the Commonwealth have backed us into a corner and it’s just, you’re either going to lie down and take it or keep struggling on,” says Lockey.

“All we want is what’s fair and reasonable,” adds Lucy.

Statement from Department of Finance:

The Department of Finance does not comment on individual land acquisitions.

The Commonwealth acquires interests in land under the Lands Acquisition Act 1989.

Wherever possible, the Commonwealth will seek to acquire land by agreement and will always seek to do so by offering a fair price having regard to the relevant market. Where compulsory acquisitions have already occurred, the Lands Acquisition Act 1989 provides an entitlement to compensation for any party with an interest in the acquired land.

The Lands Acquisition Act 1989 provides the legal basis for the assessment of compensation claims.

The process for seeking compensation is set out in the Lands Acquisition Act 1989. The Commonwealth determines compensation on just terms in accordance with the legislation. Compensation claims are prepared and submitted by the claimant. TheLands Acquisition Act 1989 does not specify time limits for the lodgment of claims; claimants have control over when they lodge their claims for compensation.

In any event, soon after a property is acquired, the Commonwealth pays the claimant a minimum of 90 per cent of the market value of the land assessed at the time of acquisition. The Commonwealth also reimburses the claimant’s legal and professional fees.

Statement from Department of Defence:

The Australian Defence Force uses the Cultana Training Area for carrying out military manoeuvre and live fire training (including with air weapons and explosive ordnance).

The decision to compulsory acquire Roopena Station in SA was made in 2011, to allow for the expansion of the Cultana Training Area. Defence had been in discussions with graziers regarding the purchase of their properties since 2005.

Defence met with the pastoralists in 2011 to propose the compulsory acquisition as a mechanism to avoid any further delays in the acquisition process. There were several engagements directly with the pastoralists before the compulsory acquisition occurred.

Defence has used compulsory acquisition to acquire properties from private landowners for five acquisition projects since 2011. Compulsory acquisitions can often involve the Commonwealth working with willing sellers and jointly identifying compulsory acquisition as the preferred pathway to achieve a mutually acceptable outcome for the interest holders and the Commonwealth.