Lloyd and I have farming in our blood. We grew up on dairy farms and have a lifelong association with the land. Buying our own farm in 1989 was the result of years of hard work. If things had gone differently, our adult children would now be taking over the farms for our grandchildren.
Instead, we’ve been forced to live with our daughter and granddaughter in Charters Towers, and now we’ve moved to Kununurra, WA, having lost a drawn-out battle with a high-profile bank that employs criminals. We have seen our two Queensland properties repossessed and sold.
Why did the bank lend us $4 million between 2005 and 2014 – a crippling loan that was impossible to service – and then not allow us to trade our way out of one of Queensland’s most savage droughts and then there was a livestock ban that broke hundreds of established farmers.
Over the years since our two grazing properties were sold in 2017, I have spent untold hours delving into a labyrinthine world of deception wherein the bank continually moved the goalposts, breached industry codes and standards, and hid behind privacy laws.
I have written hundreds of letters to politicians and regulators questioning my bank’s criminal conduct, the bank’s current and former chairman, and Chief Executive of the Australian Banking Association (ABA); the Financial Ombudsman; the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Services Industry; Chair and Deputy Chair of the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC); and the state and federal police.
And . . . We are still looking for answers. . .
On 31 October 1989, we bought Ballabay Station, an 8,215ha farming and grazing property north of Pentland, in north-western Queensland. Prior to this, we were managing a property in Queensland’s gulf country and, as we were in our mid-30s with three young children, we were keen to establish our own farm.
Having looked at many properties before settling on Ballabay. This farm was affordable (we borrowed $350,000 to buy the $920,000 property); it had the potential for diversification and was close to day schools for our children. Bringing up our children in an open, clean country environment was also our priority.
Ballabay was well placed for development. It was close to the bitumen highway, sale yards, and meatworks and offered an opportunity for us to diversify into farming as well as support the grazing of about 400 head of cattle. There was an abundant water supply, fertile river, and creek flats and the land was fenced into 11 main paddocks.
Between 1989 and 2005, we made significant improvements to the property – upgrading fencing and irrigation systems, eradicating noxious weeds, implementing rotational grazing, providing, and maintaining the wildlife corridors, and much more. We renovated the homestead and the workers’ cottage and built living quarters in the shed.
As our children grew up, they worked beside us on the property. Our family has always been a close-knit team, setting and achieving goals together and planning a productive future on the land.
2005 – 2011: BANKING SUPPORT
Sixteen years after buying Ballabay, we decided to refinance our $350,000 loan with a new bank. The finances show that we made a profit of $14,000 in 2004 and $8,801 in 2005. In June 2005, we estimated that the Ballabay property was worth $3,044,850. We then had 81.64 percent equity.
Rabobank is a Dutch multinational banking and financial services company that has a 123-year history of lending to farmers. In 2005 it advertised itself as having “the experience and knowledge to understand the distinctive needs of agribusiness and the cyclical nature of agriculture”.
On 23 May 2008, the partnership borrowed a further $60,000 for working capital and $165,000 for opening up new irrigation land for crops. The loan limit was now $985,000, but the partnership had made losses of $68,473 in 2006 and $79,156 in 2007. This is the cost farmers accept when developing their farms.
In 2008, I inherited 50 percent of my mother’s farm, Laurel Vale Station near Prairie, Queensland; my nieces inherited the other 50 percent, but they wanted to sell their share. Lloyd and I discussed this and then met with Peter Stevens, Rabobank’s Rural Bank Manager Townsville and we decided it was a good investment.
The price of $1,343,260 included plant and equipment and 275 heads of mixed cattle. In February 2009, Rabobank increased the overall loan to $2,585,000 to fund the purchase.
Laurel Vale is situated west of the Great Divide, some 100 kilometres west of Ballabay. It had a good water supply and pumping system that could be monitored remotely and a large Queenslander-style timber homestead. It worked well in conjunction with Ballabay and offered us an opportunity to reduce the risk of failed seasons on both properties. Meanwhile, we continued to make significant improvements to Ballabay.
2011–2013: PERFECT STORM
The global financial crisis of 2007-2009 left most of Australia relatively unscathed, but economic growth slowed, unemployment soared, and exports took a massive hit. The federal government’s ban on live cattle exports to Indonesia on 7 June 2011, started a period of extreme pain for cattle farmers in the north, exacerbated by a once-in-a-lifetime drought that sucked the farming country dry for several years.
In early 2012 farms had a good body of grass, but winter rain spoiled its quality of it. Cattle conditions dropped away, and cattle markets virtually came to a halt. To keep our properties going, in February 2012, we signed an application to increase the loan limit to $3,560,000.
I can recall that by early 2013, our farms were distressed by the drought and the export ban fiasco. We had to travel to Tully, in Queensland’s Far North, to cut and cart hay for our livestock. Lloyd lived with friends in Tully for six months, where he cut and wrapped 5,500 bales of donated hay. At the same time, our son carted the hay back to Ballabay and Laurel Vale – a journey of 500 kilometres – in his own truck with hired trailers. I was at home doing my best to feed the hay out to the cattle and keep everything going with help from Neil between him delivering loads of hay. The welfare of cattle was our highest priority.
In September 2013, I rang Peter Stevens to explain we would be unable to meet interest payments at the end of December, fully expecting the bank to understand and support us. I asked Stevens if Rabobank would support us with the Special Drought Assistance Loan package from Queensland Rural Adjustment Authority (QRAA). It was for up to $650,000. He did not respond or discuss this with us.
On 31 December 2013, we defaulted for the first time as we could not meet an interest payment of $126,374.32.
2014: DOWNWARD SPIRAL
On 14 January 2014, Peter Stevens, Rural Manager and Bob Ole, Special Asset Manager, met us at Ballabay. I asked, ‘What can we do,’ Ole said you need a financial adviser. I asked, ‘How much is that likely to cost us?’ He said about $20,000, I nearly fell off my chair. We didn’t have 20 cents and our animals had to be fed.
On 23 June 2014, with no property sold or contract signed Stevens rang and told us to open an account with another bank for our hay income and expenses and that all the money from cattle sales must go to Rabobank. It was seven days before the deadline, and Rabobank stopped us trading, effectively shutting down our ability to manage the farms and maintain animal welfare during the worst drought in Queensland’s history.
On 2 July 2014, Gadens lawyer Jacqueline Ogden, acting on behalf of the bank, wrote to us giving us 21 days to agree to participate in Farm Debt Mediation (FDM) with the bank. It was a threat. Gadens attached a service of notice pursuant to clause 3.1 of the Queensland Farm Debt Mediation Scheme, which meant the bank and its external lawyers had to attend FDM honestly and in good faith.
In August 2014, we applied for the Drought Concessional Loan through the Queensland Rural Adjustment Authority (QRAA). It was refused when Rabobank did not support it, despite the Partnership’s livestock revenue between 2011 and 2014 noting we were eligible to apply.
On 6 November 2014, we attended Farm Debt Mediation in Townsville. The object of it is to provide the efficient and equitable resolution of farm debt disputes. We were required to sign an 18-page agreement that had been prepared in advance. Although we didn’t know it then, requiring us to sign a pre-printed agreement was evidence that Rabobank and Scott Couper, Gadens, did not attend mediation honestly or in good faith.
Lee Nevison, the mediator, terminated the session so he and Rabobank’s Scott Couper could fly back to Brisbane that evening. We were under great pressure to sign the agreement, despite not understanding any of the ramifications. The Deed of Forbearance and Acknowledgement required us to sell one of our farms within six months.
When we attended FDM, Rabobank and its solicitors had concealed the most important document we were entitled to have, suggesting they were involved in concealing criminal practices. The mediator, Lee Nevison, did not require the bank to comply with the 2004 Code of Banking Practice or the Industry Standard.
Soon after FDM, Rabobank appointed valuers, Honnef North Australian Valuations. They valued the farms at $2,500,000 and $2,200,000 – not including livestock or plant.
2015 – 2016: DEMANDS ESCALATE
Gadens sent us the Demand for Possession on August 18, 2015, requiring us to vacant possession of Ballabay and Laurel Vale, plus livestock and goods (vehicles, plant and equipment, machinery, tools, stores, supplies, and crops, including hay) within seven days. At that time, the total amount outstanding was $4,499,347.93.
In 2015, we employed a new accountant, Mr. Greg Bloomfield, who filed a complaint with the bank, claiming it sold us predatory loans. Later that year, we filed complaints with the industry’s monitors, Code Compliance Monitoring Committee (CCMC) claiming Rabobank had not dealt with our complaints, as required under our loan contract. Further, we claimed the bank and the CCMC did not handle our complaints properly.
In May 2016, we received a letter from Will Colwell, Ferrier Hodgson. He said his company was appointed as the Receivers, noting they were “entitled to immediate possession of the properties and assets, and reserved all rights in this respect”.
Six months later, Scott Couper, Gadens, wrote to us, stating the receivers obtained an enforcement warrant for possession of the property and that the Court Bailiff would “soon attend to service of the enforcement warrant on you”.
2017: WE ONLY WANTED TIME
Our ongoing dispute with the bank took a shattering turn for the worse when the receivers took possession of Laurel Vale in February 2017. They were accompanied by eight police officers, arrived at the property, and served our son with a warrant. He was visiting Laurel Vale where he was agisting cattle. He was arrested, ordered not to go near either farm again, put on bail, and then, Neil’s bail conditions were overturned. Three weeks later, we were all evicted.
I recall events that terrible day. At 10.30 AM, two cars with police came screaming down the driveway and six police who jumped out climbed the fence, and were yelling at us “this property is under siege”.
The police told our son that ‘he is in breach of his bail’ and Lloyd and I no longer owned the farm. They said we had 30 minutes to collect personal effects and leave. Neil and I refused to go. Neil was then pulled from his chair by two police officers, deliberately tripped, pushed to the ground and handcuffed.
We were put in separate paddy wagons and taken to Charters Towers police station. Our son had previously been handcuffed and left in the wagon, in the direct sun, for two and a half hours without water. I could not accept this was happening to us. We are not criminals, but this was like a story on TV – unbelievable!
Lloyd and I, homeless, moved in with our daughter in Charters Towers. In June 2017, our farms, with cattle, were sold at auction by the receivers for a combined total of $6,325,000. Ballabay made $3.2M while Laurel Vale made $3.1M. Further cattle, hay, and machinery sales meant that the sale proceeds were $6.7M.
In November 2014, the bank required us to attend fam debt mediation when our debt was about $4.4M. Now, in 2017, under siege by the bank, our equity was lost.
2018 – NOW: OTHER RELATED MATTERS
In 2018, I wrote to the Office of the Australia Information Commissioner (OAIC) because I could not understand what happened to us. At that time, the CCMC had all the documents. When the OAIC provided copies of my documents, they included a conversation between staff employed by the CCMC and Rabobank. They had exchanged emails whereby the bank and the national monitors agreed to replace the 2004 Code, an essential document in our loan contract, with a 2013 Code.
The motive: Rabobank would not have to pay compensation if it was not prudent and diligent. I can only assume the national industry monitors did this because the federal regulators, ASIC, supervised by Treasurer Scott Morrison at that time would not prosecute such a serious crime.
When I obtained these documents, I believe banks and national industry monitors had been doing this in the past. There is sufficient evidence this crime is systemic. It meant Rabobank and other leading banks were being protected by ministers with powers to override the regulators. Therefore, when Rabobank and the national monitors were entrapped, no action was taken when it was reported to the federal cabinet last year.
In August 2018, I attended meetings at Parliament House with farmers who suffered similar practices by criminal bankers. We later discovered our bank also misled us by withholding essential documents from the 2004 Code.
In 2021, Federal Treasurers Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg; and the Federal Attorney Generals, Christian Porter, Michaelia Cash, and now Mark Dreyfus all had evidence of this crime. However, despite having powers to prosecute the guilty parties, they took no action.
Sometime later, ASIC and the responsible Ministers will have to comply with the Rule of Law. This must concern Anthony Albanese’s National Anti-Corruption Commission as it will have to deal with this, so the guilty parties will be removed from the industry.
NATIONAL ANTI-CORRUPTION COMMISSION
On 27 September 2022, Michael West Media writes about Callum Foote’s article ‘NACC or SNACC? Labor delivers its anti-corruption body but will we get to hear about it?’ The article states:
The day has finally arrived: an Australian government today made good on its commitment to legislate an integrity watchdog, the National Anti-Corruption Commission. But there is one major bone of contention … secrecy.
Helen Haines, the independent member for Indi, has long been an outspoken advocate for the necessity of all public hearings in any new federal anti-corruption body.
“For this commission to truly be the best it can be and have the trust of the Australian people, we need time to debate these issues in the public sphere, through the committee process,” Haines said earlier this month.
Helen Haines’ concerns are crucial because Rabobank’s conduct has been extraordinary. It claims to be the world’s foremost agribusiness bank and it may have committed a crime and kept the proceeds. In April 2022, when we filed complaints with ASIC, two Federal Treasurers, Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg were instructing ASIC and crimes weren’t discussed.
I am hopeful Prime Minister Anthony Albanese will support Helen Haines’ outspoken comments and ensure a National Anti-Corruption Commission is available to everybody.