The Death of Property Rights

skull in wigAustralian regulatory attacks on modern agriculture have vastly reduced the capacity of the farming sector to adapt to new technologies and markets and have damaged the nation’s agricultural productivity. 

In the case of the Murray-Darling Basin, Australia’s only really significant irrigated agriculture province, until recently farmers used about half of the rivers’ water.  Inspired by fallacious notions, including that salinization is occurring, bodies of self-appointed scientists and activists like the Wentworth Group lobbied to pressure governments into buying a quarter of the irrigation water farmers formerly used. This water was then directed to unproductive environmental uses.  Governments’ susceptibility to agreeing to such unfortunate policy measures was reinforced by claims of their appointed soothsayers, notably Ross Garnaut, who maintained that climate change will make irrigation impossible in the Murray-Darling Basin.

At least in the case of water, governments actually bought the rights from farmers (though in the spirit of Communist electoral victories, those promoting the purchases have sought to foreclose opportunities for successors to unpick them).  In the case of land, farmers’ rights have simply been stolen through regulations that make the land unproductive.

One landowner who took a stance against this was Peter Spencer.  The Federal Court of Australia in July of last year decided against his claim that the value of his property had been taken by the NSW government and the commonwealth acting in concert.  Mr Spencer, who has appealed the decision, maintained that NSW  had enacted restrictions on land clearing that had expropriated the value of the property and this process enabled the Commonwealth to acquit the greenhouse gas abatement obligations it accepted under the Kyoto Protocol signed in 1997.

The judge found that the New South Wales government had in fact “sterilised” or “taken” Mr Spencer’s land.  She found that this took place sequentially from 1972.  Under a process between then and 1984, the Soil Conservation Act had subjected 88% of Mr Spencer’s land to a prohibition or restriction upon clearing that rendered it unviable for farming.  The State Environmental Planning Policy 46 – Protection and Management of Native Vegetation, enacted in August 1995 took the remaining 1,915 hectares of the property.

In 2007, the NSW government offered to buy Mr Spencer’s land for $2.17 million, which it said was fair value, given that its regulatory measures had all but eliminated the land’s productive capacity.  A valuation Mr Spencer had had prepared put its worth at $9 million in the absence of the regulatory restraints on its use.  The judge insouciantly suggested that “given Mr Spencer’s evidence of his current somewhat desperate and strained circumstances, his refusal to take up the exit assistance package could be characterised as unfortunate.”[1].

Although the judge accepted that the regulatory measures of the NSW Government amounted to a taking of the property, she merely shrugged her shoulders with regard to this, accepting, as others in the judiciary had previously done, that land theft by state governments was a fact of life.  The most generous interpretation of her decision was contained in one of her statements[2], “there may have been a “taking” but there was no acquisition” because although the state had rendered the land all but valueless it did not actually take it off the owner!

In comparison to state actions, land theft by the Commonwealth is, or was, more difficult to excuse because of section 51(xxxi) of the Constitution.  Made famous by the film The Castle, this formally requires the Commonwealth to provide fair compensation if it takes property.

In addition to showing an indifference to state government takings of private property, the courts have also allowed a whittling away of the Constitutional safeguards to property from Commonwealth seizure.  And in the recent High Court decision on plain packaging of cigarettes the decision was that no compensation was due because, although the tobacco companies’ property rights had been taken, those rights had been extinguished rather than used by the government.

The judge in the Spencer case used a variation of such mangled logic in considering whether the Commonwealth owed compensation.  The taking of the property provided “benefits” to the Commonwealth in that it helped achieve the target that had been agreed in the Kyoto Protocol.  The Howard Government sought to meet this even though the Protocol was only ratified under the Rudd Government in 2007.

The judge accepted that without the prevention of land clearing Mr Spencer “could have pursued his projects and development plans throughout the later 2000s and onwards. Emissions from his clearing of land would then have been counted in Australia’s inventory and would have contributed to an increase in emissions reported[3].”  This would have required the Commonwealth to find offsetting savings elsewhere.  She also recognised that this was clearly part of “the impetus for the intergovernmental agreements and the increase in regulation over the clearing of native vegetation, in New South Wales and in other parts of Australia[4].”

Nonetheless she rejected that an informal arrangement was in place between the Commonwealth and the State, an arrangement that might allow an avoidance of Commonwealth compensation under the “just terms” clause of the Constitution.

Coming to that decision required considerable verbal gymnastics.  David Kemp, federal Minister for the Environment and Heritage from 2001 to 2004, said the Commonwealth Government had been concerned to reduce emissions in order to meet its Kyoto Protocol targets, and to encourage that reduction the Commonwealth was keen to see broadscale land clearing reduced or stopped in Queensland and New South Wales (the principal states responsible for emissions of greenhouse gases from land clearing in Australia).  He communicated this to those States. As the judge expressed it, “He stated that the Commonwealth was concerned by the lack of effective action in New South Wales at the time and was seeking reform of the way in which the NSW Government managed vegetation clearance, including by way of Commonwealth programs seeking to influence the rate and character of vegetation clearing. Commonwealth’s only real concern with the NSW legislation was that it did not prevent the Commonwealth pursuing its strategies and that New South Wales was prepared to cooperate with the Commonwealth in pursuit of those strategies[5].”

Similarly then-Premier Bob Carr on the ABC – Lateline with Phillip Adams and in Federal Parliament delivering his maiden speech was pleased to admit he and Premier Beattie had stopped Land clearing in NSW and Queensland and by doing so had enabled Prime Minister Howard to meet his Kyoto targets[6].

In spite of this evidence and more, the Judge managed to find that an informal arrangement between the states and the Commonwealth was not proven[7].

Mr Spencer’s case is unusual only because he has chosen to make a fuss about the theft of his land.  Barnaby Joyce[8] has suggested that the expropriation of farmers for the carbon sequestration alone had cost them $200 billion.  This figure (which was not contested in the Parliament) was apparently arrived at by comparing land values where regulation prevented productive use, to values of land that was unaffected.  If confined to land that was value-impaired as a result of greenhouse gas abatement provisions, the $200 billion works out at $2,300 per tonne of CO2.  This is based on the official estimates of emission reductions from ceasing land clearing, 87.5 million tonnes a year; over the course of a century $2,300 per tonne would, coincidentally, amount to $23 per tonne per annum, a figure similar to that of the carbon tax that the Gillard Government introduced and that the Abbott Government repealed.

In adverting to these costs, Mr Joyce argued that we should “change the legislation to bring back a sense of justice for the theft of this asset and return it to the people from whom it was stolen.”  Interestingly, Dr. Kemp said there was no intention to acquire property – at least that of Mr Spencer- on other than just terms.  There is however no record of him seeking such compensation provisions in the course of pressuring the NSW to take regulatory action to prevent clearing.

The fact is that regulations over land have progressively created the costs.  But governments, rather than incurring these costs on behalf of the people as a whole, paying “just terms” for the taking and spreading the costs across the community, have simply seized the assets from landowners with no compensation.

This is the nadir of legal decision making.  The courts have stood by while state governments have robbed particular citizens to achieve the environmental benefits they claim the people as a whole want.  In imposing such costs on a narrow section of the community, governments were acknowledging that the benefits they claimed were not valued sufficiently strongly by the community as a whole.  Governments were confident that the theft would avoid any general opprobrium that would accompany general increases in taxation.The courts have shamelessly allowed such transgressions to take place.  In doing so, they have sheltered behind a concocted fiction of precedents.  These have gradually chipped away at the notion of property rights protected from arbitrary taking by the government.  The courts cavalierly dismiss any “just terms” requirements under state law because they are not mentioned in state constitutions.  And they reinterpret the federal Constitutional provision to make it easier governments to override.

From medieval times, common law and commercial law developed on the basis of judgements grafting common sense to principles of fairness in dealing with property.  In the fractured Christendom of continental Europe, this “merchant law” was enforced by embargo – a jurisdiction that got a reputation for swindling merchants would soon see trade dry up as merchants decided risks were too high to do business there.

In England, united under a single jurisdiction, the common law developed whereby judges agreed to follow each other’s decisions to ensure consistency.  And as Jim Spigelman[9] reminds us, Magna Carta, which had many precursors and was reaffirmed over 50 times in the years following 1215, was essentially about preventing the king taking property.

The fundamental principle that governments would not take property from individuals for public purposes except on “just terms” became the Fifth Amendment of the American Constitution in 1790 once the former colonials realised that the absence of a king did not mean the absence of potential sovereign seizure.  The Fifth Amendment was a recognition that one-man-one vote could bring about the now all-too-familiar tyranny of the majority.

In watered-down fundamental rights set out formally in constitutions and implicitly in other legal jurisdictions, the legal fraternity would seem to have had a philosophical change of attitude to the promotion of benefits. Until relatively recently courts tended to be biased in favour of productive activities against unproductive. Thus in 1927, the US Supreme Court (276 U.S. 272 (1928) decided cedar tree owners’ trees in Virginia must be destroyed without compensation since diseased cedar trees could damage apple orchards and apple growing was a “principal agricultural pursuit”.

Whatever the underlying cause, we are seeing a judiciary that has ceased to be the impartial protector of property rights that was its original contribution to nurturing prosperity.  Using sophistry, courts seek out loopholes through which law becomes interpreted not in ways that maintain its tradition of defending property rights against the government but which provide a rationalisation for the seizure of private property to meet public needs.  Justice and liberty aside this has deep seated implications for the efficient operation of economies.  Individuals’ uncertainties over the rights to enjoy and prosper from ownership of property will mean a weakening of the wealth creation process.

[1] [1] Mortimer J, Spencer v Commonwealth of Australia (2015) FCA 754 (201)

FCA 754 (386)

[3] FCA 754 (247).

[4] FCA 754 (248)

[5] FCA 754 (97)

[6] FCA 754 (344)

[7] FCA 754 (385

[8] 9/04/2010 Hansard: Finance and Public Administration Reference Committee, Reference: Native vegetation laws, greenhouse gas abatement and climate change measures

[9] http://www.supremecourt.justice.nsw.gov.au/Documents/spigelman_22042015.pdf

8 thoughts on “The Death of Property Rights

  • Jody says:

    How fortunate to be a public service, with a guaranteed huge Defined Benefits superannuation package, and to be able to determine the fate of farmers as acceptable because of the national interest.

    I have relatives in Griffith and they are all adversely affected by the politics of water. Not enough to have to deal with the vagaries and cruelties of the climate, their political masters are even more capricious, predatory and destructive.

    On the basis of this essay, I’d say government is more than relieved to have the automobile industry shut down in this country because of Kyoto targets. Now let’s see them forcing motorists off the road, or curtailing their mileage. Burning of fossil fuels is far more dangerous to the environment than cutting down trees. I demand that government is more honest and open about its motives and actively advocate for less cars on our roads. Until then, it’s a cheap strategy to go after the easiest targets – there are so few of them.

    • ianl says:

      > “Now let’s see them forcing motorists off the road, or curtailing their mileage”

      You’re a worry, Jody. You state you have relatives in the regional area of Griffith, yet advocate that their freedom of movement be restricted by attacking their use of motor vehicles. This is maladroit – such “policies” hurt regional populations far more than city demographics, yet of course the majority of Parliamentary seats are in the cities.

      As Alan Moran points out, the whole raison d’etre of common law was to protect the lives and property rights of individuals against the tyranny of the majority – yet here you are arguing against that with a potency that will appeal directly to the inner city greenies … precisely the demographic Alan Moran’s essay is stripping out. Abuse of power is inevitable – to grasp power is to abuse – but encouraging it ?

      • bemartin39@bigpond.com says:

        ianl – it seems you got the wrong end of the stick concerning Jody’s comment about “forcing motorists off the road”. I feel pretty certain that she was being facetious and sarcastic, rather than advocating such a measure. She might care to confirm or contradict my assumption.

  • Meniscus says:

    The above government mentality when it comes to property is encapsulated perfectly in the following case of the City of Fremantle trying the Venezuelan method of ‘co-operative’ property development. Apparently, it’s a dirty thing for developers and private interests to make money with land:


  • Lawrie Ayres says:

    OK. I’ll admit to being vindictive when it comes to politicians and judges who to my way of thinking were spawned by the same malodorous creature. Wouldn’t it be nice for a truly good Premier to acquire without compensation the physical assets of all those involved in sending Peter Spencer to the wall. The precedent for acquisition without compensation has already been set, it would affect a small number of people who are largely despised anyway and the action would be seen by most as quite fair. Kemp and Carr could squirm as should John Howard who started it all. To watch would be the best entertainment as I know how Peter felt and I know how irrigators feel when their life blood is taken from them. That dreadful Neville Wran stole from me and other dairy farmers back in the early seventies just to buy some votes.

    It must be nearly time to renew the Magna Carta and to remind the Canberra princes and princesses that they work for us.

  • mandiephilip says:

    The author does not understand the law. It has always been the case and it’s nothing new that the States could acquire property under legislation without constitutional restrictions. Fair compensation if any is a matter for State legislatures. The complaint should be made against our elected representatives and not the judiciary who are merely applying long recognised principles of statutory interpretation. Conservative commentators would be the first to criticise if ” unelected judges” were to invent the law to remedy legislative injustice.

    • Jody says:

      It’s the MEANS used to “acquire” the property. In the case of farmland it is the wholesale control of water, through a very dodgy buyback scheme, and legislative restrictions on their ability to use the land which is forcing farmers off their land because their properties are rendered useless. That kind of ‘acquisition’ is tantamount to dictatorship.

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