Cover Story: The Roebuck Plains land scandalby Dennis SchulzNews Weekly
, July 1, 2000
When the incoming Aboriginal chairman of the Indigenous Land Corporation queried the high price paid for a Kimberley cattle station, all hell broke loose. Darwin-based journalist Dennis Schulz explains what is going on.
When Mary Manolis heard that the Indigenous Land Corporation (ILC) bought Roebuck Plains station, she thought her life-long dream had been fulfilled. The ILC was created to purchase land for dispossessed Aborigines, so the acquisition of the property meant that the sprawling Kimberley cattle station was now back in indigenous hands. As a recognised traditional owner of that area, Mary, the 69-year-old mother of 14, would finally be able to move out there to “sit down and live” in her mother’s country, the place the Yawuru speaking Aborigines called ‘Idarr’. Mary’s son Mark had made an application for the ILC to purchase the station in 1998 and she believed when the ILC purchased the property, Mark’s application must have been successful.
But Mary Manolis’ joy was short-lived. She soon discovered her son’s submission had actually failed and when the ILC bought the station they went into partnership with the vendor. Aborigines would play no part in the new Roebuck Plain. The ILC said they did not even know who the traditional owners were, so they set up the Roebuck Plains Working Group to identify them.
But Mary, along with other Aborigines with close cultural ties with Roebuck, were never included in that Working Group. Left out of negotiations was Jack Lee whose Leregon Aboriginal Corporation has an extensive Native Title claim over a section of Roebuck Plains.
“I am the traditional owner of part of Roebuck Plains,” states Lee, “and I have never been consulted about any development there.”
Why had the 750,000 hectare property been purchased with public funds with scant benefit going to local Aborigines like Mary Manolis? According to the ILC annual report, the Commonwealth body spends about $50 million a year, “to assist indigenous peoples to acquire and manage land so as to provide economic, environmental, social or cultural benefits for themselves and future generations.” Yet the ILC purchased Roebuck Plains with no plans for traditional owner living areas, no jobs for Aborigines, and no training programs for young blacks seeking station work.
They were questions that also attracted the interest of incoming Aboriginal chairman of the ILC Board of Directors, Sharon Firebrace. Why, she asked, did the ILC purchase the station lease for $8 million when the vendor paid just $1.3 million for the same property lease the year before? Why did the ILC then enter into a 15 year management program with the vendor, the Great Northern Pastoral Company, sharing the profits while their partner puts up few capital operating costs? Why was there no cattle count at the time of purchase? Why were Aboriginal people like Mary Manolis not included in discussions involving the identification of traditional owners?
Ms Firebrace was demanding answers from the ILC, a funding body which will reach its full potential in 2004 when a fund of $1.3 billion will be available to purchase land for dispossessed Aborigines.
It had been reported in the Sydney Morning Herald that in 1999, under the direction of then ILC chair David Ross and Deputy chair Peter Yu, the ILC paid $8 million for the Roebuck Plains lease. Of that $8 million, $4.2 million went for 15,000 head of cattle. However, Ms Firebrace found that when the purchase was made the cattle had not been counted. The ILC paid $280 each for an estimated 15,000 head but an accurate count was not carried out until December 1999. According to Great Northern Pastoral, that December muster tallied 18,000 head.
Great Northern Pastoral’s director Peter McCoy believes the station’s sale price was realistic. Though his company paid only $1.3 million for it in 1997, they had previously paid $5 million in a complicated set of tax deductible lease payments a year before. “The property owed us $7 million,” he said. Mr McCoy is backed by the buyer. “We had an independently commissioned valuation and the price we paid was directly related to that valuation,” states ILC chief executive officer John Wilson.
Others disagree. “We paid $4 million too much,” calculates Ms Firebrace. “Whether you talk to the WA Lands Department, or the Pastoralist and Graziers Association or business entrepreneurs in the west, they all continue to question the sale.”
The WA Pastoralist and Graziers Association met with Ms Firebrace last year, raising their concerns about the sale and the future of Roebuck Plains. “We just don’t want to see the ILC money wasted,” says WA Pastoralist and Graziers’ president Barry Court. “They obviously paid millions of dollars above the government valuation of $3.6 million.” Another WA pastoral official agreed, contending that the ILC “paid at least $3 million over the property’s value”.
The ILC defended the purchase and the resulting 15-year management contract by declaring they wanted to take advantage of Great Northern’s experience in the industry. Mr McCoy concedes, however, his company has only been in the cattle business since buying Roebuck Plains just one year before the ILC sale.
The ILC also asked the company to manage another of its holdings, nearby Myroodah/Luluigui Station. While Mr McCoy states that Myroodah has been profitable, with the ILC banking $1.5 million in station earnings in the last half of 1999, there have been management problems. Hundreds of cattle suffocated in the yards at one Myroodah mustering disaster last year. “They were wild cattle and it’s very unusual,” said Mr McCoy. The RSPCA are currently investigating the incident saying a prosecution is possible.
Great Northern Pastoral and the ILC share a grand plan that recognises Roebuck’s strategic importance in the Kimberley, an area where 25 Aboriginal owned stations range from operational to virtually insolvent. “The idea that the previous Board had, and it’s been supported by this Board, is that we may get involved in a cattle business which is a jewel rather than a basket case,” says Mr Wilson. “By doing that we may be able to work out some cooperative models that will enable some of those [Aboriginal] producers to run profitable and viable businesses.”
Pastoral properties have been purchased for Aboriginal groups in the Kimberley for over a decade, first by ATSIC and later by the ILC. Many properties are turned over in desperate condition, stripped of most cattle and other valuable assets by their vendors and delivered to Aborigines as dead businesses. Blacks with cultural affiliations to those places moved back to their homelands after the purchases, shooting wild cattle for food and living off the dole. Few Aboriginal stations remain viable businesses, most declining into enclaves of poverty.
The ILC plan is to use Roebuck’s close proximity to the port of Broome, just 40 kms away from the homestead. Producers would truck cattle to Roebuck to fatten before loading them on ships to Asian ports as part of the live cattle trade. It appears a strong strategy on paper but some question its long-term viability. “You take cattle from heavy, well-vegetated inland country and put them on this coastal plain and it takes a very long time for them to adjust and fatten,” says David Thom, manager of Roebuck for 8 years when the property was owned by English peer, Alistair McAlpine.
Ms Firebrace found that the more questions she asked about the Roebuck deal, the more answers were denied her. She decided to order an independent inquiry into the purchase, a call that was supported by ATSIC’s Office of Evaluation and Audit.
“We need to satisfy all the questions that have been raised to fulfill our responsibility to Aboriginal people and to the taxpayers to whom we are answerable,” said Ms Firebrace. She called for the National Crime Authority to conduct the probe, utilising its wide ranging powers of investigation.
It was not a move supported by the ILC Board and its chief executive officer. Ms Firebrace’s queries ignited fierce conflicts between her and the Board members (four of whom were on the Board that wrote the deal) went on to vote a motion of no confidence in its chairman, demanding she immediately step down. She was locked out of the Roebuck Plains files. “Why is it dangerous for the chairman to have knowledge of the project?”, she asked, refusing to resign. Firebrace began looking for support from those that appointed her.
The media attention that followed Ms Firebrace’s uncompromising call for an inquiry last month sparked tremors in the ILC that shook the corporation from Canberra to Broome. The ILC called Great Northern Pastoral’s directors to Canberra, offering to buy them out of their management agreement and then called for an emergency Board meeting to ratify the offer. It is understood that the offer, still under review, will amount to a pay-out of nearly a million dollars to Great Northern as well as written absolution from any wrongdoing.
The ILC also abandoned their Roebuck Plains Working Group, local Broome Aborigines who were assigned to identify Roebuck’s traditional owners. After a year of meetings, all Working Group efforts at achieving consensus have failed. “When the ILC walked into the process they wasn’t talking to the right people,” charged Working Group member and respected Broome Aboriginal traditional lawman, Joseph Roe. “They was stupid. They should have been talking to the traditional owners from day one.” Mr Roe believes the ILC now must begin consultations with Roebuck’s known traditional owners but questions remain as to why some of them have been locked out of negotiations.
When some of the traditional owners of the Roebuck Plains area read of Sharon Firebrace’s call for an inquiry, they immediately sent Senator John Herron a letter backing the ILC chairman’s efforts. “We fully support Ms Firebrace and stand side by side with her to call on an investigation,” they wrote. “This is important to our people [because] we feel that our culture and heritage are being traded off without our knowledge or consent.”
Appointed to the ILC chair last August by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Ms Firebrace wrote to the Prime Minister and Aboriginal Affairs Minister, Senator Herron alleging conflicts of interest by Board members, “secret commissions” and “conspiracy on an international level”. The minister reluctantly backed her call for a probe.
Writing to all ILC Board members, he encouraged them to hold an independent inquiry but refused to order one into Roebuck Plains himself.
This week, the ILC board acceded to Senator Herron’s push for a Roebuck Inquiry and concurrently the Minister called one of his own. While the ILC will hold an investigation into their purchase of Roebuck Plains, the Minister will hold another into the conflicts existing within the ILC. He will conduct his investigation behind closed doors, checking into “improper disclosures” in the media, misuses of allowances, and “misbehavior” among Board directors. Paradoxically, it was Firebrace who demanded an inquiry but now she finds the ILC investigation is aimed at discrediting her.
After the announcement of the inquiries, the Board voted to isolate Firebrace in her residence outside Canberra. They stripped her of all travelling allowances to and from Canberra and ILC-paid communications installed in the rural Victorian home she uses as an office. “It’s deliberate obstruction,” she charges, waiting to hear if Senator Herron supports the Board’s moves.
If Sharon Firebrace has her way, there will be no emergency Board meeting aimed at renegotiating the Great Northern Pastoral Company’s management contracts until after the ILC probe. She sees straightening out the Roebuck Plains situation as being a pivotal element in establishing the ILC’s credibility with indigenous people and the taxpaying public.
Mary Manolis doesn’t much care whether an inquiry is called into the Roebuck Plains deal or not. Tired of waiting for corporate players to adjudicate on their future, she and husband Manny have made their decision to leave the “humbug” of Broome and move out to her beloved Idarr. They bought an old caravan to tow out to the spot in the sunbaked scrub where Manny will sink a bore. It’s near the place where a youthful Mary and her mother spent hours watching brolga cranes leap and flutter in the afternoon light. “We won’t need to live flash out in Idarr,” smiles Mary. “We’ll live like blackfellas again.”