Legal fight brews over leases

Brad ThompsonThe West Australian

Pastoralists and the State Government look set for a legal showdown over leases covering 90 million hectares of agricultural land in WA.

The Pastoralists and Graziers Association said yesterday the Government had no right to impose onerous new conditions when existing leases expire in 2015.

The PGA's stand is backed by its legal advice and separate lawyers' advice to individual pastoralists concerned about the ramifications of a draft lease circulated for comment by the Department of Lands.

Pastoralists fear the new leases will give the Government unprecedented powers of termination on financial, animal welfare and environmental grounds, with no right of appeal.

Banks are understood to share some of the concerns, partic- ularly a clause which allows the Government to terminate leases in cases where pastoralists go into liquidation or threaten to cease business.

PGA president Rob Gillam has told the department and its pastoral lands unit the draft lease is unacceptable to industry and legally flawed.

The Government has renewed leases on an ad hoc basis for years and they have decades left to run, creating a legal minefield around the nominal 2015 expiry date.

Lawyers told the PGA the Government has no right to impose new lease documents as a condition of the 2015 renewal.

"If the State wished to propose new lease terms, such as the draft new 2015 pastoral lease, this should have been disclosed as a condition of the original renewal offers," Mr Gillam said in a letter to the lands unit.

"Accordingly, the PGA considers that the State is bound by its previous offers to renew, and should issue new lease documents on similar terms to existing lease documents."

Department of Lands acting director-general Mike Bradford said the existing leases dated back to the 1960s and did not reflect current legislation. He said the draft lease had been subject to extensive legal advice.

"It is the view of the department that it is not possible to carry forward the current lease," Mr Bradford said. "Some requirements have been introduced in line with modern commercial leases relating to areas such as indemnity and insurance.

"The department intends to consult in-depth with the financial sector once it has had an opportunity to consider comments provided by industry."

The PGA hit out a day after the Aboriginal Lands Trust warned at least two of six pastoral leases it controlled might be terminated in 2015 unless the Government stopped dithering over a plan to cull thousands of feral horses.

The ALT has received breach notices over its failure to control feral animals.

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