MENTION the name Rod Culleton in and around the small town of Williams in WA’s south-east Wheatbelt and it’s unlikely to invoke a glowing response, never mind a vote to support his new political career in Canberra, representing farmers.
Mr Culleton was elected 11th for the WA Senate at the July 2 federal election for Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party which captured about 52,500 votes, or just under 4 per cent of the State’s total.
But that result has upset and shocked some people in the Senator’s former home farming district, about 200kms south-east of Perth.
Several of them are now determined to challenge the validity of his election by lodging a dispute in the Court of Disputed Returns and making legal inquiries.
Bruce Dixon farms at Cuballing near Williams and says he handed Mr Culleton more than $100,000 since they first met in February 2015, to aid his fight against the ANZ Bank to retain his farm, after he defaulted on his loan in March last year.
Mr Dixon said the Culleton name invoked strong feelings amongst the local farming and business community due to historical debts linked to the family’s agricultural business interests.
“A lot of farmers got burnt because they (Culletons) went around buying a heap of wool and then the farmers never got paid for it,” he said.
“I don’t know where the money went, or whether the wool got sold but Rodney’s got a version of what happened and it’s to do with the wool reserve price scheme and wool stockpile, in the 1990’s.”
Mr Dixon said the local community believed Mr Culleton’s election to the Senate was “a joke”.
“People can’t believe that he’s actually got in there and they’re saying ‘what’s going wrong with this country if Rodney Culleton got in’,” he said.
“He was elected by a lot of people who don’t know his background (but) this could be happening everywhere.”
Local farmer and Shire of Wagin President Phillip Blight said Mr Culleton’s election had left a bitter taste in the mouths of many local farmers and their families and the general community.
He said Mr Culleton had been a director of several companies over the last 20 years which had failed, leaving substantial debts to small enterprises, wool growers, grain-growers, small mechanical operations in the towns from Williams to Lake King and beyond.
“It concerns me that this person is now likely to be a member of the Senate,” he said.
“It questions the authenticity of the Australian Senate to make sound decisions, based on the needs of all Australians.”
Mr Blight said in the first instance many people didn’t think or believe Mr Culleton would actually be elected to the Senate.
He said locals who knew Mr Culleton’s business history failed to take action towards educating the wider public during the election campaign, “and now they’re very disappointed in themselves”.
“For me personally, I’m disappointed that I did not speak up too,” he said.
“As for the bigger picture, in a very tightly balanced Senate, Australia’s future is held in the hands of a few members and with Rodney Culleton being one of them, that’s very scary.
“That would be the sentiment of most people in this area.
“Most people will roll their eyes and walk away; they don’t want to be involved with him in any way.”
Asked about the community anger, Mr Culleton said many growers and locals were “staunch” National and Liberal party supporters, as he once was, and his election for One Nation was “a real culture shock” especially beating the Nationals by 20,000 votes.
“What certain people may be saying is reflecting back to when I was involved in my father’s business in the wool industry,” he said.
“It was a very successful business that operated and gave farmers a service for 25-30 years unblemished and then employed 21 people in the town and was a big player in the private side of the wool buying.
“My father became a victim in his business through force majeure in the early 1990’s (when) the government shut down the wool floor price.
“It wasn’t through my father’s non-ability to be a good business man; it was through government stepping in and we’re seeing it now in the dairy industry.
“Overnight people are looking to walk off their farms.”
Mr Culleton said Mr Blight had a farm handed to him “but has not been a real go getter”.
“I had to buy every acre I had,” he said.
He said Mr Blight may have been a creditor for one or two bales of crutchings and “nothing that would be life changing” and his father’s business was taken to a creditors’ vote and farmers involved in that process chose to wind-up the company.
“Everything was done according to the law,” he said.
“We haven’t done anything (wrong) and it was a decision that weighed heavily on my father.
“They are not creditors - they chose for it to be wound up and it closed the files.
“They had the call and Phil Blight put personality before anything else.”
Mr Blight said his family had farmed in Wagin for about 110 years and the business was also in his blood.
But he said Mr Culleton had only farmed for about 15 to 20 years and to therefore badge himself as a farmer for One Nation, now representing farmers in Canberra was, “demeaning to the term, in the utmost”.
“Australia has a very strong banking system that withstood the global financial crisis magnificently,” he said of Mr Culleton’s election claims to hold a Royal Commission into bank lending issues impacting farmers like Mr Dixon, stemming from the 2010 sale of the Landmark rural loans book to the ANZ Bank.
“We have a set of rules that work for the majority of people and when you take a loan from a bank you have to meet the terms of the contract.
“It's hard to fault the bank if you fail to meet those terms.”
Mr Blight said “technicality” he voted for Mr Culleton but placed him last at number 79 on the WA Senate ballot.
“He got my 79th preference out of 79,” he said.
“I voted deliberately below the line to ensure he was last on my voting ticket and I know one other person who did the same; my wife.
“But I want to ask the question; how many people in Australia know they that divorced their voting rights by voting above the line and blew it by electing people like Rod Culleton.”
Mr Blight said he regarded Mr Culleton as a friend until the day he visited the family farm’s shearing shed and offered to buy his wool for Culletons, but left no cheque.
“Then two days later on my 40th birthday my wife called and asked if I got the money off Rod Culleton and I said, ‘no why’s that?’ and she said she’d heard that his business had just gone into administration – and here I am today.
“He fleeced me of that $3100 and 20 years later, I’m still cranky.
“I was busting my ass to survive and that’s what he did to me; he was a mate.
Mr Culleton has also taken out a defamation claim seeking $250,000 for alleged personal reputational damage from social media “attacks” linked to the 60 Minutes program that covered foreclosure issues on his farm and Mr Dixon’s property.
The legal action was filed in March this year in the WA Supreme Court against 18 individuals over comments posted on the Channel Nine 60 Minutes Facebook page, in April 2015.
Most of the defendants are located in the Williams agricultural district - with others also based in Queensland and Victoria - but several of them have declined to comment on the matter to Fairfax Agricultural Media
Mr Culleton has said he wants an apology for the “attacks”.