Aussie govt in a bind over training site for SAF troops

Australia's plans to develop a large site in northern Queensland as a training area for Singapore troops has run into trouble after farmers, who would be forced to sell their land, opposed the move.

The farmers say they do not oppose the training deal with Singapore but feel the land sale was unfair, and came as a "complete surprise".

They have called for the government to look at other locations, saying the properties have been held by their families for generations, and include fertile grazing land.

The proposal would involve about 23 farmers selling 200,000ha of farmland - nearly three times the size of Singapore.

The site near Townsville forms part of an A$2.25 billion (S$2.4 billion) deal signed by Singapore and Australia during Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's visit in October.

Under the deal, Singaporean troops would increase their presence in Australia from next year, and train at Townsville and another site farther south in Shoalwater Bay.

By 2021, up to 14,000 troops will train for 18 weeks a year, compared with about 6,600 troops who currently train for six weeks.

Australian troops would also use the training area.

The deal has been welcomed by the local community and will give a much-needed boost to the economy, which has suffered from the end of the mining boom.

After a series of meetings in recent weeks between farmers, MPs and defence officials, the federal government last week agreed to review its plans for the site and has ordered an independent review into the impact on the local community.

The government also said it will consider two alternative sites nearby, even though the Defence Department previously said these alternatives were "unsuitable".

Resources and Northern Australia Minister Matthew Canavan said the Singapore deal would provide a significant boost to the region but the government also wanted to maximise opportunities to develop agriculture and water infrastructure.

Speaking to The Sunday Times, Mr Canavan said: "The Singapore defence deal and the investment that will flow from it represent a great opportunity for central and northern Queensland.

"In recent weeks, the Department of Defence has been consulting widely with local landholders and community members.

"A socio-economic impact assessment will be conducted by KPMG as well as a broader masterplanning process in 2017." KPMG is an auditing and advisory firm.

It is believed the original site near Townsville was chosen because it features a variety of terrain types that will allow troops to train in different battlefield conditions.

The dispute has attracted growing media attention and is becoming a headache for the ruling coalition, which fears the issue could cost it public support in the state.

A lawyer representing several landholders, Mr Ian Conrad, said the farmers supported the Singapore deal but believed the proposed training site was unfair because it covered fertile land that was close to an abattoir and port.

Mr Conrad added that the farmers did not learn of the proposed forced sale until late last month and the move came as a "complete surprise".

He said: "Most of the farmers have been on the land a long time, and always planned to pass it on to their children and grandchildren. Their whole life is attached to the land."

Several prominent Queensland-based politicians have backed the farmers, including far-right MP and One Nation party leader Pauline Hanson, and long-serving popular independent MP Bob Katter.

This has worried the conservative coalition, which has been trying to stem a loss of support in Queensland to One Nation and Mr Katter's party.

Ms Hanson and Mr Katter have both visited the region and addressed local farmers.

During a visit to the area on Dec 16, Ms Hanson said she welcomed the Singapore deal and its potential boost to the region but insisted that it should not hurt local agriculture.

She said: "I can understand it will bring a lot of money to the area and benefits to Queensland but not to the detriment of farmers. We need this (land) because if we lost it, we will never get it back."

Defence Minister Marise Payne, speaking to The Courier Mail last week, said the government will now consider two alternative locations near the town of Pentland, to the west of the original site, and Greenvale, which lies a little farther north.

Singaporean troops will also train at an expanded site in Shoalwater Bay, where they have been training for more than 20 years.

For now, the federal government is wedged between its immediate political needs, the concerns of the farmers and securing the best interests of Australian and Singaporean troops.

This article was first published on December 25, 2016.
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