My father, Chas Manners, was trained for farming at the Ballarat Agricultural College with a long-term view to run the Manners’ family farm at Denmark in Western Australia. The job started early when Dad was pulled out of college prematurely, in 1913. His father, WG Manners (WGM), had returned from three years in South Africa to discover that one of his other sons had made a complete mess of the land.
Dad, the second son, was given the task of running it (plus attend World War I) until WGM got cancer in 1924. That’s when Dad returned to Kalgoorlie to take over his father’s engineering business. This business still thrives but it is continually changing and is now based in my West Perth office.
The bureaucrats got me in the end
Despite the ups and downs of the mining industry, Dad always had a yearning to get back and tackle the land. I saw an opportunity for us to do this in the late 1950s when the State Government started releasing Conditional Purchase land in Esperance at two shillings (20 cents) per acre. That sounded dirt cheap and the attached conditions didn’t sound all that difficult. You simply had to clear 20 per cent of the land each year and convert it into productive farm land. These responsibilities had a crippling compounding effect if you didn’t have a solid cash flow from elsewhere to finance your farming.
However, this didn’t worry us and we applied to the Land Board four times, each time being resoundingly rejected. The investigating panel had no difficulty recognising our inability to meet these financial conditions. Not to be outdone by the bureaucrats, I found a second way around this challenge when I met an Eastern States farmer who had been granted a block of land and was experiencing difficulty meeting the conditions. His name was Jack Jehu. He had no hesitation in assigning his commitments to us. Of course the agreement stated that we had to pay him a healthy cash sum once we had completed our development commitments and converted the land to freehold.
I think one of the problems with this agreement was that it was highly illegal to transfer one’s commitments in this way, and the bureaucrats once again became involved in what normally would be seen to be a voluntary transaction between consenting adults.
Opportunity number three came along when I found another 1000 acres (405 hectares) of violently undulating countryside, relatively close to Esperance. It was just over the other side of Pink Lake and almost stretched to 11 Mile Beach. An American farmer, Jesse Skoss, and his wife, Rosemary, had been doing their best to farm this land but had continuously been defeated by the aggressive wattle re-growth, and an unwilling Shire Council which wouldn’t provide an access road from Pink Lake Road.
After a few years of doing battle with this same aggressive re-growth and still being without an access road, I started casting around for some slightly more friendly land. I knew the land around Esperance extremely well as I had attended school in Esperance when I was eight or nine. Not much notice was taken of the attendance record and this gave me lots of opportunities to roam the countryside on a borrowed horse. I remembered galloping all over interesting, but relatively uninhabited land surrounding the old race course. In my memory this land had always been called ‘Pop Hancock’s farm’. Pop Hancock had earlier been a prime land owner in the main street of Esperance. A title search showed that Pop Hancock had passed on and the land was now held by a Perth-based solicitor, Charles Hopkins.
After spending a few days wandering around this land and finding everything in a general state of disrepair, with most of the fences either burnt or pushed over by marauding shooting parties, I took myself off to Perth after phoning and making an appointment with Hopkins. I arrived for the appointment in an appropriate ‘poverty’ suit.
Hopkins was curious about my visit but expressed a quickening interest when he realised I may be prepared to make an offer for this “useless bit of land that obviously he was unable to farm from Perth, and how I might be able to run a few stock there simply because I was based in Esperance and didn’t have anything else to do”. Hopkins explained to me that although the property was in his name, he wasn’t the beneficial owner but simply acting for the owner as a trustee. He explained that the owner had been talked into purchasing it by a person in Esperance who didn’t have sufficient money at that time, and despite many promises, the Esperance person had not yet repaid the “loan” to the owner, even though the Esperance person had taken possession of the farm.
Hopkins had not seen the 1600 acre (648 hectare) property himself, nor had the present owner, however their Esperance partner had been recently telling them how this land was not up to his original expectations and that he had intended to make something of a token offer to the beneficial owner in an endeavour to ameliorate his losses in the transaction.
I was heartened to realise that they didn’t appear to have any positive plans for the property so I encouraged him to ring the beneficial owner and mention my interest. He did this and I heard the owner say: “Well the young fellow’s description of the land pretty much matches Mick’s description, so you’d better grab his money while you can, but I suppose you should phone Mick Lalor in Esperance and at least let him know what’s happening.”
Hopkins then tried to ring Mick Lalor and was told that he was out of Esperance for a few days. He turned to me and said: “What should we do now?” To me it seemed pretty simple — they should accept my modest offer as it appeared there was a very willing seller receiving advice that the land was no good and that I was a reasonably willing buyer. Hopkins thought this was a good idea so he asked me to wait outside while he dictated a Contract of Sale to his secretary. This was ready for my enthusiastic signature half an hour later and I was back after lunch with the borrowed deposit.
I bought a bundle of aerial photos from the Lands Department and then travelled back to Kalgoorlie that night to proudly show my father our latest acquisition. A couple of weeks later I ran into Mick Lalor, who loudly proclaimed me to be “a bastard”. I was curious enough to approach him and enquire as to his reason for the compliment and he mutteringly questioned me: “Who the hell told you what I was up to?” Although I had no prior knowledge of Mick Lalor’s involvement in the land, it seems he had the opportunity to purchase it but didn’t have the cash at the time. He’d got this other person involved and had terrorised him with talk of how rotten the land was in the hope of picking up a bargain. This happened about the same time as I walked into Charles Hopkin’s office. Each time Mick saw me after that he repeatedly expressed disbelief that I wasn’t somehow in on the plot.
All in the family
Over the 40 years of ownership of that piece of land, known as Maluka Ranch, it played an important part in our family’s life. Mainly happy, but not always. It was on that property that Dad died in 1966 when herding sheep from one paddock to another. We used to run stock there ourselves, as in the early 1960s there wasn’t much happening in Kalgoorlie and we were able to spend time in Esperance. So I know the joys of buying stock at the top of the market and selling at the bottom. We were continuously advised to get out of sheep and into cattle, and vice versa. Just after getting out of sheep, I remember John Crisp (our farm manager) picking up a destitute bunch of sheep for 20 cents each. Tie ran them on our place for a while and made an absolute fortune. I admired his timing.
One interesting diversion for me occurred in the early 1960s when I took on the challenge of confronting the extreme salinity on some parts of the farm, in particular one 32-acre paddock which didn’t contain even one good acre. I had read in an overseas farming magazine of a new species of salt- tolerant seed that had been developed in Turkey. This Puccinellia species was said to grow vigorously on salt affected land and its sturdy stem, when trodden on by animals’ hooves, created a suitable surface mulch which enabled other plant species to germinate.
I managed to import a limited quantity of this expensive seed from Turkey and the planting was so successful in the paddock that I was soon harvesting the seed with a Victa lawnmower hanging off the back of my yellow Jeep (World War II vintage). Fellow Esperance farmer, Ian Hay, was one of my first clients and I understand that he had considerable success with his own planting.
I am only mentioning this because, a couple of years later, I was selected, ahead of fierce competition, for the Duke of Edinburgh’s Study Conference. I was always mystified as to why I had been selected but, many years later, when I again met one of the selection panel members, the late Senator Dorothy Tangney, I found out why. She remembered me clearly which led me to ask if she could remember why I had been chosen. She quickly said, “Yes, you were that bright young bugger who decided he wasn’t going to be beaten by a bit of salt land so you went out and found a solution. That was the first Puccinellia in Australia and we thought this was a good example of problem solving and, as such, should be encouraged”.
So, you never know where your curiosity might lead you!
A day in court
During this 40-year farming experience on Maluka Ranch I appeared to be constantly persecuted by members of the bureaucracy. I remember one occasion when a drunken shearer travelling home from the pub one night ran into a cow near our property. He may have been drunk, but not too drunk to cut off the cow’s ear. It wasn’t long before I received a summons accusing me of permitting my stock to stray on the public road. We never found the cow’s ear. This may have helped identify whose cow it was. However, I had an interesting day in court as the Shire sued me personally on the assumption that the cattle and the farm were my own personal property. Fortunately, I brought to court our company balance sheets which showed that the cows were company property and, as I was self-de fended, I suggested the charge be dismissed.
However, the Shire Council’s solicitor succeeded in gaining a 20- minute adjournment while he raced back to the council offices and did a title search to find in which company name the farm was held. The re-energised solicitor then re-presented his case to the Magistrate and I thoroughly enjoyed perforating the solicitor’s pomposity by agreeing that the farm may have been held in the name of Chasmann Properties Pty Ltd, however the balance sheets proved that the cows in fact were the property of Mannwest Pty Ltd.
The Magistrate did not hesitate to dismiss the case and award costs against the Shire Council. I never heard what happened to the drunken shearer.
Property rights — an introduction
However, all that aside, for over 40 years Maluka Ranch has acted as a friendly banker to our family and to our mining activities. Each time we had trouble paying the creditors, or feeding the family, or paying for some exploration, or drilling a few holes, or under writing a mining company float, we would sell off another bit of the farm. Now, with 40 years of hindsight, I would say that Maluka Ranch has performed better as a residential subdivision than as a farm. It became home to 48 families.
My goal for the remaining 403 hectares was to adopt a detailed plan prepared by Whelans (town planning surveyors) in conjunction with Graham Gath (surveyor). They had carefully identified the various soil types and separated the fragile land from the lake system and from the more robust land classifications. The robust land was to have provided us with another 47 sub-divided small holdings and a large area to be contributed as public open space, including all the fragile wetlands. All this had taken seven years of battling with various branches of the bureaucracy and eventually we managed to obtain approvals from five of the required six bureaucratic entities.
The Department of Conservation and Land Management’s (CALM) approval was still not forthcoming and, after an 18-month delay, we received a negative response. During a heated phone conversation with the relevant officer, I ended up giving him a lecture on property rights. It was based on The Birth of the Property Rights Movement, by Steven J Eagle. The gist of it was that in most civilised countries, when you own freehold title, you can do what you like with the land as long as you don’t violate the rights of others.
He didn’t seem to understand this so I suggested that if they wanted to make decisions about the land as though it was their own, they should be adult enough to simply purchase it outright. Then they would own the “property rights” and they could develop a whole new generation of endangered species if that’s what they wanted to do. There followed a strange silence at the end of the phone before he said: “Would you really sell it to us?” Naturally, I didn’t mind who I sold it to, as long as I could get a break from dealing with the bureaucracy. So a sale was quickly concluded.
This quotation from William Butler Yeats summerises my experiences well and I dedicate it to all bureaucrats, in the hope that in an enlightened society their powers may be diminished:
I have spread my dreams under your feet,
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.