Kevin Curnow and the Vision Splendid
Cletus | May 17, 2009 at 03:43 amby
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Finally, ten years after the painful events played out their tragedy on the sunlight plains of the Kimberley, a book is under production about Balangarri describes how a collection of miscreants and misfits destroyed Curnow’s work and lead to the loss of Aboriginal traditional lands in what would have been the greatest single purchase of aboriginal lands in Australian history.
The facts read like fiction, but it is a tragedy on every level.
The Indigenous Land Corporation was a statutory creation of the Keating Labour government in 1995 and it was set up to fund the acquisition of traditional lands for the traditional owners when that land was outside of the system of land claims under any prevailing legislation. It was heavily funded by the Federal Government.
The Kitja and Djaru people of the East Kimberley in Western Australia came from traditional lands that centered near the Argyle Diamond Mine, about 200 kilometres south of Kununurra on the Great Northern Highway. The traditional lands stretched from the Western Australian-Northern Territory border out to the coast. The lands were partly subject to various land claims under federal legislation, but a very large proportion of the lands were held in pastoral leases.
For the uninitiated (no pun intended), a pastoral lease is a lease of limited tenure granted by the State Government over state lands that gave the sole and exclusive right to graze cattle. It granted no mineral rights or rights of permanent possession, and was limited to that which was ancillary to grazing cattle. However, to all intents and purposes, it was regarded as similar to freehold – even though it was not.
Cattle stations formed a huge part of the shared cultural heritage of the Kitja and Djaru people. In fact, the same is true throughout outback Australia. Pre-1966, the traditional owners of lands that were within a cattle station lease usually lived and worked on the station. They were subservient; often not paid cash at all; but to a greater or lesser degree the ‘station’ was their family and life – the owners and managers were responsible morally for their care and upkeep and it was a moral obligation that was lived up to in varying degrees – in some places it was poor and it others it was much better. There was no doubt that the overall system was paternalistic; failed to provide a decent living; and failed in very many things – but it was what it was – it was like being in a family – some are better than others; some are more or less generous than others; but it is still what you know and what you have been brought up with – it was their life.
Then came 1966 – and for better or worse – and it was worse – the Labour Government insisted that all Aboriginal people living and working on cattle stations be paid full award wages as they were now counted as humans and citizens of the country following a referendum.
This was a great and misguided folly. The intent was good but it demonstrated as clearly as anything ever needed to be demonstrated that the policy makers had no idea what they were doing. The very hard economic facts of life is that cattle stations – unless they are the best of the best and heavily capitalised – were at that time – and for most – still are – very marginal enterprises indeed. Most were family owned and there was no possibility of them being able to meet the labour bill that the federal government wanted them to pay. The consequence was that almost immediately, the cattle-station ‘family’ broke down. The company owned stations acted first and ejected all aboriginals who lived on their stations as they wanted no wage claims from them. The family owned stations acted soon after and the results were disastrous.
The ejected aboriginals immediately clustered on what passed for towns in the remote regions. These were often little more than a store and a pub, but with drinking rights, unemployment benefits and nothing else, rough camps sprung up everywhere – no health facilities; no education facilities; but the pubs did a roaring trade and the stores sold modern foods to people who ate them until diabetes set in. It was a social disaster of biblical proportions that happened far away from the eyes of Australia and went to the greatest degree unnoticed.
Not totally unnoticed because there was a varying degree of response from the government and charity and support groups, but by the time of the 1990’s – and the expenditure of huge resources – there was little to differentiate 1996 from 1966.
The Kitja and Djaru peoples land were represented in a series of stations – Lissadel, Mabel Downs, Texas Downs, Springvale and Alice Downs. These had been slowly accumulated by EG Green and Sons, which was a slaughter house operation in the south of Western Australia. The stations were managed as one entity as individually, they all had faults, but collectively, they were a valuable enterprise. The trade in cattle was not for slaughter in southern markets, but was for live export off cattle to Indonesia and other SE Asian destinations. EG Green was running over 26,000 cattle in a well managed operation, but for reasons best known to themselves, EG Green had the stations on the market for $26 million. The price was high, but so were cattle sales. It was a price that would only attract corporate buyers, but it was a time of consolidation and hold-back as many of the corporate players had already satisfied their appetites for land and there were better places in Australia to acquire land – the Kimberley is a hard place to do most things.
The Kitja and Djaru people had centered themselves in three places in the Kimberley – Kununurra, Warmun and Halls Creek. Kununurra was the government administrative centre – a modern and planned town, close to the NT border and with a large number of liquor outlets. It was attractive to the aboriginal people, but a large police presence meant that most used the place to buy supplies and leave. Warmun was 200 kilometres south – not far from the Argyle Diamond Mine on Lissadel Station. It had a road house, and aboriginal community and two resource agencies – more of them later. It was also dry – no alcohol. While people lived there – if they wanted alcohol they went to Kununurra or Halls Creek. Halls Creek was 120km south of Warmun and it is hard to describe. It is even harder to love or even like. Its main economic activity was to live off the aboriginal economic activity – the people sold stores to the aboriginals; sold alcohol to them; housed a few; and turned a blind eye to most of the outrageous drunken activities that went on there. It has a few claims to fame – sleeping drunks have been eaten by dog packs; tribal wars have erupted over drinking rights in the pub car park and riots have been known to almost destroy police stations. Interesting place.
The jobs in the area are few and far between. The Argyle Diamond Mine is a world unto itself. The diamond deposits were discovered as a result of helicopter surveys of the mineral despots in all of the creek lines in the area. They were looking for indicators of diamonds – that is those minerals usually found where you found diamonds – in Argyles case they actually picked up diamonds. Initially it had two operations – an alluvial one that mined a creek bed until it disappeared under the waters of Lake Argyle and then the hard rock mine that chased the kimberlitic pipe deep into the ground. Most of the workers at the mine were fly-in, fly-out workers from Perth who lived in very comfortable accommodations on the mine site and were well paid for their time. There was a very limited employment opportunity for the local aboriginals. A very select few were given jobs; trained in using some machinery and formed an elite among the community that looked on their luck with envy. Apart from them – no-one was allowed on the mine site – it was fenced and secured.
The EG Green Stations – like all stations – were light on labour. During the wet season, nothing happened anyway and so little was needed. In the dry season, most mustering was by helicopter and the cattle yard work was performed by white ringers from other States who would work hard and say little for the benefit of being able to say they had worked there. Occasionally a few aboriginals were employed for a greater or lesser time, but this became less and less until there was practically nothing.
There were other minor employers, but by far the majority of all Aboriginals were employed – if that is the right word - on CDEP schemes – and CDEP even became a word – not an an acronym - pronounced ‘CeeDeeP’.
CDEP was a federal government response to the aboriginal crisis – it was effectively ‘work for the dole’ – something that no white person would ever agree to but which sold well in the aboriginal communities. Every family group – it was less than tribal – it was family – has an outstation. This was a small excision of land from the surrounding cattle stations where they set up camp; tried to establish community life to get away from the terrors of the drink and failed miserably at doing it because there was no money to support it. Some outstations had some houses – most had little – none had electricity, safe water, education or health facilities and they became weekend retreats from the joys of Kununurra, Halls creek or Warmun. The idea of CDEP was that the government would fund each of these outstations to employ their people for 20 hours per week to do work on the outstation and in return they would receive CEP which was $40 per fortnight higher than the standard dole. That was not an act of generosity by the government – it in fact cost the government more than $40 per fortnight to administer a single dole so they in fact saved money by undertaking the scheme. What was the attraction for aboriginal people? Well, $40 more a fortnight and no-one ever expected you to work.
Each outstation could not administer their own CDEP because the government paperwork was onerous - even by government standards – and so the government funded resource agencies to act as a collective reception and payment centre for collections of CDEP schemes. This was what happened at Warmun. The Warmun Community looked after the CDEP for the people living in Warmun – and there were many. The Balangarri Aboriginal Corporation looked after the interest of 13 outstations spread over a large portion of the area between Kununurra and Halls Creek.
Managing a CDEP scheme was an art in shuffling paper – the better you were at shuffling paper, the more money was to be gained. Every quarter, the resource agencies would put in their lists of people who were still continuing on CDEP schemes and the numbers who had ‘signed on’ – that is, wanted to join in the following quarter. BAC was good at that and the numbers on the CDEP scheme continued to grow each quarter as more ‘signed on’ until it was the biggest in the East Kimberley.
The Coordinator from 1996-to January 1999 was Kevin Curnow. He came to the BAC from another resource agency in Derby and lived with his wife and two small boys in a house next to the BAC office in Warmun. From the very start it was clear to him that there was an opportunity for the Kitja and Djaru people that could bring all of the history and current circumstances together and achieve something worth having – something that would and could offer life and employment to the aboriginal people on a sustainable basis for a very long time – the idea was easy to say – buy back the stations. It was a little harder to do.
Curnow’s wife, Carole, was a beautiful dreamer and the idea was termed the Vision Splendid – after the lines from Clancy of the Overflow. If you ever go to the Kimberly, you will see why that is an apt description.
The possibility was to interest the ILC in buying the stations for the Kitja and Djaru people. It needed a plan. The BAC engaged KPMG from Queensland to do a feasibility study on the purchase of the stations. KPMG has a long history of involvement with the cattle industry in Australia and its opinion is to be respected. The opinion was favourable. The report went to the ILC with the request for funding. As the momentum started to build, there were many other bit players who started to engage in the process.
The first was the Kimberley Land Council which was the mandated body to deal with all matters relating to traditional ownership. While it did not have a direct role in respect of the EG Green acquisitions, its support was vital, for credibility, and also for future potential management of various traditional interests. They were supportive.
The second was the Kimberley Development Commission in Kununurra that brought to the table two experts – a geologist from Tasmania and a financial expert from London who had developed a methodology of using the financial markets to raise substantial on-going funds from the mineral potential of the land. And there was substantial mineral potential – both diamonds, bit more particularly nickel as the mineralisation of the area looked like one of the largest nickel mineralization’s in the world.
There were others – the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, the Kimberley pastoralists Association – all and others wanted in on the acquisition – and they were welcomed to the table.
Very large meetings were held at Warmun and the Chair of the ILC and his staff attended and it became known that the ILC had allocated $18 million towards the purchase – and that it was to go forward. That amount was most probably not enough, but it was an amount that could be built on and the acquisition looked like it was to proceed.
Then the world fell apart.
There is an unpalatable reality that many won’t mention, but it has to be said anyway. Full blood aborigines do not trust half-caste aboriginals even if they are relations – and they mistrust relations more than most. Half-castes are angry and disenfranchised because they have no traditional claims because of their white blood and feel on the outside of both communities. Then there is the Clampet and McCoy factor – within aboriginal communities family jealousy, and rivalry boils over into hate, violence and mindless acts of revenge. And such was the case in BAC.
The Rivers and Butters families base out of Halls Creek and are mainly half-castes. The Mosquito family bases out of Nicholson Station on the WA border and the rivalry and violence between all of them is the stuff of legend. At any opportunity they will physically attack each other and verbal abuse was the less of so many evils they all practiced.
As 1998 drew to a close, the Butters and Rivers family attempted to oust Jock Mosquito from his long held position as Chairman of BAC. As Chairman, he gained substantial kudos from the on-going moves in respect of EG Green and the Rivers and Butters families wanted him gone. They failed. They attempted to rig an election and even lost that – but only by one vote. The Clampet and McCoy reaction set in.
Judy Butters and Anne Rivers, two of the most bitter and vocal opponents of Jock Mosquito wrote to the Registrar of Aboriginal Corporations making a series of allegations in respect of the running and operation of BAC. These have never been made public. They were assisted by a white accountant, Julie Barnes, who had both an alcohol problem and no experience except for a book-keeping job with a real estate agent.
The Registrar of Aboriginal Corporations had a suspect relationship with a Darwin accountant, Peter ‘Merv’ Sullivan. Both were of Indian extraction and Sullivan held the majority of the work that emanated from the Registrar’s office. (The Registrar used Sullivan’s Darwin office as his own whenever he visited Darwin).
The Registrar sent Sullivan to BAC to undertake a statutory report into the affairs of BAC based on the matters raised by Butters and Rivers. He did this in November 1998 and his report will go down for ever as a major work of fiction. Sullivan alleged many areas of financial lack of management – all of which were false. A simple example – Sullivan alleged that BAC had not issued the income statements to CDEP participants – when not only had they been issued but all income tax refunds had been made by the tax department with days of the close of the financial year.
BAC had instructed solicitors to take the matter to the Federal Court for review as to the matters of fact. The Registrar struck first. In combination with Julie Barnes and another white, Bob ‘Krusty the Clown’ Dreschler, the Registrar ensured that Curnow was suspended from his position while he was on holiday at Christmas time. He was instructed not to return to Warmun. The court case was cancelled by Barnes and BAC accepted the appointment of an administrator by the Registrar. Initially this was Barnes, but she was very rapidly replaced by a young surfer from southern WA.
When Curnow was suspended, BAC had over $800,000 in the bank to meet its expenses. The continued operation of BAC was dependent on two things – the continued funding of the CDEP scheme by ATSIC and the recovery from the CDEP wage payments of debts due to BAC. ATSIC ceased funding BAC immediately. From the time of Curnow’s suspension, ATSIC made no further payments. Barnes also refused to recover any funds owed to BAC or pay any bills and simply paid out the $800,000 as CDEP payments until the coffers were bare 6 months later.
The administrator appointed by the Registrar spent no time at BAC – he publicly said that he could not stand the place or the people and when the money ran out in the bank accounts, he called in the liquidators.
The ILC immediately backed off. The funding was dependant on the traditional owners being a cohesive group – the Butters/Rivers/Sullivan/Registrar/Barnes actions fractured the possibility of any cohesion – and the funding was shelved then quietly withdrawn. The Clampets and the McCoys had sent the entire $18 million down the wasteline of history.
A tragedy? Of course. A farce? Yes. To be expected? Possibly. But then it went from bad to worse.
Two years after Curnow had been terminated, Julie Barnes contacted Four Corners, an ABC show with pretensions of investigative journalism, but closer to a visual tabloid rag. The allegation was that Curnow did it all – he had pillaged BAC and it was all his fault. And that is the line that Sally Neighbour, the Four Corners journalist ran. In a program in 2001 she made a series of major allegations against Curnow that the failure of BAC was all his fault. There was only one problem – when the police investigated her claims – they could not substantiate one of them – not a single one. Not surprising given that Neighbour could not articulate beyond vague statements any wrong doing and all of the persons interviewed on her program were people who had personal axes to grind against Curnow – see the list below.
Did this make her feel good? Who cares. What it did was make her look so stupid because the real story was the loss of the stations – the loss of the Vision Splendid. Curnow gave all the detail to Neighbours but she chose to ignore it and run a tabloid beat-up instead. But the beat-up turned around and beat her up – no-one believes her because independent investigation could substantiate nothing – absolutely nothing – that she alleged Did anyone report on that? No. Will they? Yes, they will – we will. This is the summary of what happened – read the book for the detail – it’s enough to make you cry.
Sally Neighbours ‘Witnesses’ of Fact
Judy Butters – half-caste from Halls Creek – Curnow met her once in three years when she attended a meeting at BAC and where she said nothing. Curnow dismissed her brother Paul Butters from BAC for being drunk and wrecking a Toyota Landcruiser. Butters can know no facts of her own knowledge as she was never involved with BAC in any way – but she hated Jock Mosquito and was one main Clampets and McCoys. Butters appeared only after Curnow was terminated and the ILC funding was still a live issue.
Marcia Purdie – half-caste from Warmun terminated from BAC for stealing CDEP funds. A relative of Judy Butters.
Tony Oliver – an ‘art dealer’ from Melbourne with no involvement with BAC. In 1998 Curnow’s wife reported Oliver to Children Services at Kununurra about his activities with a minor at an outstation.
‘Merv’ Sullivan - Indian from Seychelles. Failed his accountancy exams in England; joined the NT public service and passed exams at the Darwin Community College; had a questionable business relationship with the Registrar of Aboriginal Corporations who gave him a disproportionate amount of official business; notorious in northern Australia for being a ‘serial finder of fault’ and then taking over the community; the author of a highly suspect report that was due for review by the Federal Court who needed Curnow removed and the review quashed. Neighbour tried to get his report from the Registrar – who refused – not surprisingly.
Julie Barnes - a former barmaid from Geelong with an alcohol problem and only one accounting job in a real estate agency before she joined BAC. No experience with government funding. Was about to be terminated for incompetence. The person that ATSIC not surprisingly refused to fund after she orchestrated Curnow’s removal.
Joe Thomas - full blood aboriginal very much involved in the anti Jock Mosquito faction as internal power struggles were fought out in BAC over influence with respect to the cattle station purchases.
Sandy Thomas – full blood aboriginal relation of Marcia Purdie and Joe Thomas. Major grudge against Curnow over family and traffic matters.
Geoff James - former law partner of Kevin Curnow. Husband of an ABC stringer in Darwin – the only person Neighbour could inveigle to say anything.
Some list of reliable witnesses of fact – but it’s not a court case – it’s Sally Neighbour charade – and with this list of nothings, no-ones and know-nothings – is it any wonder the police investigation went nowhere.
What is the crime here? The crime is in fact a tragedy. It is a crime that Julie Barnes, Judy Butters, Anne Rivers and Merv Sullivan destroyed all hopes of traditional owners regaining their land and denied their descendants a future. It is a crime that the Registrar of Aboriginal Corporations acted in concert with Merv Sullivan to ensure that Federal Court would not be able to bring instant justice. It is a crime that Julie Barnes was left in charge of BAC after Curnow was terminated. And last but not least – it is a crime and a disgrace that the supposed major investigative TV program in Australia ran a beat-up worthy of the worst tabloid and missed the real story. For that, j’accuse Sally Neighbour. J’accuse.
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