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WA’s remote Fitzroy Crossing communities suffer poverty and suicide, while a business set up to benefit them prospers. By Mick Daley.

Fitzroy Crossing still waiting on promised funds

On a bad day, Forrest Road is as squalid as any Third World street. To a stranger, the heat is a bewildering, omnipotent presence. Indigenous locals endure the glowering sky under scraps of shade. Playgrounds are a shambles, broken glass littering the tar where barefoot children wander listlessly. Side streets are adrift with rubbish through which mangy dogs forage and four-wheel-drives occasionally whisper by.

This is the main strip of Fitzroy Crossing today, in the Kimberley region of Western Australia, 26 years after the federal government fostered a business scheme meant to give Indigenous communities economic independence. It is nearly a decade since a succession of scandalised inquiries and reports alerted the public to conditions in this grog-addled town, including its appallingly high suicide rate.

But not everyone is suffering. A company established in joint venture with the federal government’s Indigenous Business Australia (IBA) is thriving. There is little sign, however, that its profits are being shared with the local people for whose benefit it was created.

 

In 2007 a damning report was presented to Joe Hockey, then minister for employment and workplace relations. Written by senior barrister George Irving, the report detailed the consequences of a lack of accountability and transparency in the dealings of Leedal, the IBA’s business partner, owned and directed by the six Indigenous communities in the Fitzroy Valley.

Leedal aimed to “secure long-term, social and economic development” for the communities, through management of a range of businesses, including Fitzroy Crossing’s only pub, the historic Crossing Inn.

Fitzroy Crossing’s Indigenous elders vigorously opposed the joint venture when it was founded in 1989, warning of dire social consequences from Leedal’s establishment as an alcohol provider. They were warily won over by the stated intention “to provide … some control over the sale of alcohol”.

Leedal operates the Fitzroy Crossing Trust, with the six communities as its beneficiaries. Its legal structure was designed to prevent its beneficiaries from acting against the venture’s financial interests.

Leedal’s businesses, also including the luxury tourist facility Fitzroy River Lodge and the Tarunda IGA supermarket, proved highly prosperous. Yet from 1989 to this day its beneficiary communities have yet to be paid a substantial dividend.

Instead, the Fitzroy Valley suffered enormously from the ravages of Leedal’s business model. A coronial inquest in 2007 described an environment where one in three people regularly drank to excess, and investigated a spate of 13 suicides in as many months. It reported foetal alcohol syndrome affecting up to 30 per cent of children.

The WA coroner described the extreme poverty he witnessed as “a national disaster with no disaster response”.

To date, a parliamentary inquiry, the WA coroner’s inquest and 38 investigative reports in The West Australian newspaper have documented the town’s agony in forensic detail.

However, despite alcohol accords – where businesses, council and police co-operate on education and safety programs to reduce alcohol-related problems – bans on takeaway grog and endless recommendations to the highest levels of government, nothing has really changed.

Few of the respondents I spoke to were prepared to go on the record. Most, including women involved in the Marninwarntikura Women’s Resource Centre (MWRC), who fought for an alcohol accord in 2007, declined requests for an interview. They cited death threats and other brutal forms of intimidation. Joe Ross, a community leader who has been a conspicuous voice, initially agreed to an interview, then did not answer my calls.

A white member of the Bayulu Community – one of the six beneficiaries of the trust – maintains anonymously that Leedal are deliberately obstructive in their dealings.

“We have never received a financial statement or a dividend,” he said. “What Leedal have actually said to me is, we do make a financial statement available but … you’re not allowed to take photos or copy it. But you can look at it and then go away and scratch your head.”

In 1999 Leedal engaged consultants to restructure their executive decision-making processes, but refused to supply critical information, thus effectively sinking the review. When a two-year-old in the care of a group of drinkers drowned in 2007, they engaged the services of the PR firm Hawker Britton WA. Yet when the state government’s liquor licensing director placed a six-month ban on takeaway sales of full- and mid-strength alcohol in Fitzroy Crossing, in October the same year, Leedal chairman Patrick Green told The West Australian it would “result in greater social harm”.

By October 2007 state health department figures showed a 50 per cent drop in alcohol-related injuries. Hospital admissions were reduced by 45 per cent and alcohol-related violence by 27 per cent. School attendance increased by 14 per cent. The changes suggested that the community was prepared to address what Joe Ross had described as “legalised genocide”.

In December 2006, at the urging of the MWRC, the Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Cultural Centre (KALACC) wrote to the state coroner investigating 22 suicides: “KALACC considers these series of deaths, either by suicide or other causes, to be absolutely linked with the abuse of alcohol in the Fitzroy Valley.”

It became the focus of the stream of stories in The West Australian that documented the communities’ fight against Leedal, and its chief operations manager John Rodrigues and chairman Green.

Wes Morris, CEO of KALACC, remarked of the struggle to put an alcohol accord in place: “It was vehemently opposed by Leedal at the time and that was deeply disappointing to us. It was
a very nasty period in Fitzroy’s history.”

The stand created a stir across Western Australia that Joe Hockey was unable to ignore. Hockey asked the IBA to launch an inquiry. After a 10-day investigation, George Irving found that Leedal had comprehensively retreated from its obligations to the community.

Irving’s report includes a chapter devoted to evidence that Leedal’s “tide of alcohol” was responsible for “devastating their community”. It concluded that: “The social, economic and health problems caused by excessive alcohol consumption remain as intractable as they were in 1988.”

In response, Green told The West Australian the report was “flawed and defamatory” and said the company had been building up an asset base worth $8 million in order to implement a “meaningful dividend plan”. A subsequent inquest by the state coroner was told by Leedal that the six-month alcohol ban was a “knee-jerk reaction” to the town’s problems. 

The coroner’s report agreed with Irving, however, going further to state: “If success is measured … in terms of improvements to the community’s wellbeing, then the Fitzroy Project must be judged as having failed the community it set out to benefit.”

The report said the “seriously flawed” delivery of health and education services was costing billions of dollars and endangering a generation of young people. The Fitzroy Valley’s suicide rates were abnormally high. Deaths from alcohol and diet-related conditions maintained a constant procession of funerals. Depression was rife.

 

In July 2013, Rodrigues and Green hired Mark Savic as manager of the Crossing Inn. An experienced publican and lawyer, Savic had also worked for New South Wales TAFE, training young people in hospitality. Initially enthused by the position, he quickly became disillusioned.

“I arrived early and spent two days having a look at the business,” Savic told me recently. “The place was being run very poorly. One of the things I noticed was rubbish was being burnt in 44-gallon drums, which were smouldering all day. There was quite a lot of raw sewage leaking down into the river. So the place was very uninviting to the tourist trade.”

Savic claimed he found a culture of irresponsible service of alcohol – bouncers taking bribes, selling single cigarettes and stealing from the bar, despite an extensive surveillance network of CCTV cameras that Rodrigues and Green accessed from their mobile phones.

Savic initiated a few improvements, cleaning up the riverbank, fixing the septic system and feeding the patrons at the bar, in accord with standard Responsible Service of Alcohol practices.

“I could see that the board members weren’t happy with what I was doing, they were saying things like, ‘Don’t fix things that aren’t broken.’ ”

Nonetheless, the new manager started a movie night for kids, feeding them popcorn and hosting a sausage sizzle.

“[Rodrigues and Green] expressed some disapproval, phrased in things like, ‘Why spend money on that? You don’t get a return from it.’ ”

He said that at meetings he raised training and employment opportunities for Indigenous people, which were ignored.

By now completely disillusioned with Leedal’s dealings, Savic was given a copy of Irving’s report. It confirmed his misgivings. After an incident involving a Leedal employee, whom Savic had alleged was spying on him and other employees, Savic left Fitzroy Crossing. He also alleged that the board of Leedal had paid themselves handsome wages and that there had been problems with the accounts.

Wes Morris is more cautious.

“There seems to be a prima facie case that an organisation that was set up with a trust document, which says that it exists for the purposes of providing a benefit for the communities, has in 20 years never provided a benefit to those communities,” he says.

Morris agrees with the police that an ongoing problem with the supply of alcohol into town is bootlegging. But he maintains that lack of support from the state government in enforcing alcohol accords is the biggest issue.

“They are only a first measure and the government needs to follow up those with a whole range of support mechanisms. The government hasn’t done that.”

The measure of Leedal’s failures, and of state and federal governments’ deafness to the “legalised genocide” being enacted in their most vulnerable electorate, is in their ongoing failure to enforce legal and social contracts in Fitzroy Crossing. Seven years after Irving’s investigation and 26 years after the federal government started the Fitzroy Crossing project, its Indigenous communities still languish in despair and poverty.

Postscript: The chief executive of the Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Cultural Centre (KALACC), Wes Morris, clarifies his position by saying: “There is a Leedal Youth Trust which certainly has provided support to a range of organisations. And Leedal entities, including Tarunda Supermarket, regularly support any number of community groups – including KALACC.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 21, 2015 as "Double crossing". Subscribe here.

Mick Daley
is a Sydney-based freelance journalist.

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