06 February 2017

There are many reasons why a government might justifiably keep information secret or unavailable.
Matters relating to the national interest and national security are obvious examples. As a former Minister for Defence, I understand this.

The Labor Party understands this too, as do most Australians.

But is it OK to deceive Australians when the reason for your secrecy is that you intend to seize their property?

The Turnbull intention to make compulsory land acquisitions as part of its expansion of Defence training areas at Shoalwater Bay and Townsville Field has been poorly handled from the outset.

It is true that a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with Singapore is a good thing for Australia and the arrangement will inject about $2.2 billion of investment into the region.
But saying one thing before an election and something else after is unacceptable.

The handling of the Defence training area expansion has not only been a political debacle for the Prime Minister and his deputy Barnaby Joyce, but it has also pointed to a communication problem at the heart of the Government.

Like proverbial mushrooms, the people of the Capricornia Coast region first heard of the training area expansions after the election and were only officially told by letter of an expansion of the two Defence training areas on November 22, 2016.

The Governments letters to residents contained no actionable information, except the announcement that information meetings would be held in the area from December 7-9.

When held, those information meetings gave no specifics about land acquisitions. The true agenda only emerged when, during the lead-up to Christmas, land owners in the area were individually targeted with letters warning of land acquisitions.

It was a cynical and disruptive way for a government to behave. And as the holidays ended and the locals communicated with one another, it was left to the residents of places such as Marlborough, to piece together the Governments real plans.

As citizens shared their information, it became clear that some farmers had already been approached and had agreed to sell their land to the Government.

The conversations were firm and formal. Clearly, the Government had a land acquisition strategy operating in parallel to what the public is being told.

When Defence Minister Marise Payne visited Rockhampton to answer questions about the training area expansions, there was more ducking and weaving than in a boxing match. And after a second round of information meetings, the Minister was still unable to tell residents about Defence land acquisitions. However, she was able to confirm that KPMG was undertaking an assessment of the expansions.

There is also a master plan, which is promised before the end of February.

A master plan? If the people of Capricornia are receiving offers for their land, the master plan has probably already been written. If so, what is the master plan?

The mayhem finally forced Deputy Prime Minister and Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce to visit Rockhampton last Friday. Sadly, he arrived with no answers or assurances.

What could have been a positive initiative to form closer defence ties with our regional neighbours has descended into a political debacle and in many ways, our Defence Force is among those adversely affected.

The ongoing secrecy and arrogance that put the Government in this embarrassing place is making the problem worse.
Theres only one way forward from the current mess and thats for Malcolm Turnbull and Barnaby Joyce to stand up and do their jobs to show leadership.

Its not difficult you start with the truth, make the case, communicate it and take people with you.

Joel Fitzgibbon is Shadow Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry and Shadow Minister for Rural and Regional Australia. This opinion piece first appeared in The Courier Mail on Tuesday, 7 February 2017.