Pastoralists navigate lease limbo

Rueben HaleThe West Australian
Mt Magnet pastoralist Jorgen Jensen is unhappy with the new proposal.
Camera IconMt Magnet pastoralist Jorgen Jensen is unhappy with the new proposal. Credit: The West Australian

The Pastoralists and Graziers Association has accused the State Government of creating unnecessary uncertainty over WA pastoral leases.

The public consultation period for a new Pastoral Lease Renewals system closed last week and the PGA says it has little option than to recommend to members to reject the Government's new plan.

WA's 508 pastoral leases will expire on June 30 next year.

In May, pastoralists received two lease options and have had until now to lodge a submission to the department with their concerns.

The Department of Lands held consultation meetings throughout the State to discuss the alternatives.

Option one is a renewal of the existing lease arrangement, effectively rolling over the same terms and conditions of the current lease.

Option two is a modernised lease, which the PGA says holds a bevy of extra provisions to strengthen the State Government's leasehold protections.

The PGA has been involved in long-running and, at times, messy and unsuccessful negotiations with the department to lessen these restrictions and make this option more acceptable to pastoralists.

In its most recent submission, the PGA said it rejected the department's view the existing leases created uncertainty.

The submission said the current leases had attracted no uncertainty or legal challenges over their current term.

"Any challenge would be limited to actions by the State or pastoralists seeking to confirm the precise terms of the lease, rather than any third parties," it said.

The submission also said the second option would amount to potentially litigious outcomes for pastoralists.

It said the latest option would force pastoralists to take out expensive liability insurance to indemnify themselves or a third party for actions taken on their property.

Countryman understands the policies would need to cover about $20 million of liability, which many pastoralists could not afford or even find an insurance company willing to underwrite.

"Many of the new provisions are not imposed on other non-exclusive lessees, including tenement holders under the Mining Act whose activities are likely to have a significant greater potential impact on the underlying land," it said.

"It seems unreasonable that pastoralists are being asked to obtain insurance and provide indemnities where mining companies are not.

"In this regard, there appears to be a disconnect between the level of rights given to pastoralists under pastoral leases and the level of obligation being imposed under the new lease instrument."

A PGA spokesman said on top of the concerns outlined in its submission, the lobby group remained very concerned the new lease option would also expose pastoralists to the additional burden of native title claim.

"The department has failed to deliver an assurance over native title so far," he said.

PGA president Tony Seabrook said pastoralists were being asked to expose themselves to unnecessary risk.

"Unless our concerns are addressed, the PGA would be hesitant to recommend option two to our members or anybody else," he said.

Mr Seabrook said the department should be held accountable for making a mess of the lease renewal process.

"It should have been a very simple process, but instead it has evolved into a complex bureaucratic mess," he said.

"The PGA will be extremely disappointed if all the effort that has been made to consult with its members and the Government to broker a workable lease, turns out to be a waste of time."

Mt Magnet pastoralist Jorgen Jensen said he felt a real opportunity had been squandered.

Mr Jensen, of Yowergabbbie Station, said the State Government had a lot of time to prepare the new lease, so "they should have got it right".

"I was concerned about the lack of information given to us on the potential for future native title claims under the new lease," he said.

"With this current lease situation, I feel like I am being prodded with a fork before being presented with a butcher's knife."

Regional Development Minister Terry Redman said he was pleased with how the forums went across regional WA.

He said he welcomed feedback as part of the consultation process and looked forward to the finalisation of lease renewals by November.

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