Social Demolition Won By Political Correctness
'White Dreaming Of A Black Future Rots Into The Desert' (The Australian 22/7/2000)

Something bad happened here. There are two dead horses, still alive with the stink of decay, down in the mechanics' inspection pit. Just outside the workshop, a complete horse skeleton rests neatly on its side. At a bore, 500m from the homestead, the bones of cattle lie scattered on the ground.

Some say up to 2000 head of cattle and 100 horses might have perished on Ngulupi station, just inside the West Australian border in the Tanami Desert.

One person claims to have seen dead cattle lying along the fence. They'd tried to push across to Mongrel Downs on the Northern Territory side.

One thing is clear: it was not drought that did this, but indifference.

Aboriginal trust land is coloured yellow on the maps, sometimes adding to the impression that it is nothing but useless desert.

Yet the Tanami gets good rains and even now, late in July, the Ngulupi paddocks are green. It is remote land, not bad land.

Two or three years back, Ngulupi was finally abandoned by its Aboriginal owners. The homestead, built by Paliottine missionaries 30 years ago from locally quarried rocks, is now home to bats, crows and snakes. It is trashed. So are the four or five stockmen's homes in the surrounding village, and the school.

Two brand new windmills lie on their sides, never erected. Perkins and Ford diesel generators — big enough to power three cattle stations — stand wasted in their sheds. The walk-in cool room and freezer have new power units attached to them, but they lie idle, deteriorating.

The stockyards, with lights to work the cattle by night, still stand, because they would never fall. They were fashioned from the old north-south rail line. A former manager and his Aboriginal staff went to Pine Creek, nearly 1000km away, to unbolt the track.

The hard work and pride are still evident, although indolence and liquor have taken the upper hand.

What happened to the horses and cattle can be surmised. These were neither brumbies nor scrubbers that roam wild and find their own water, but station animals that hung near the bores they knew. The cattle knew they were near water, so they waited. But the bore wasn't working, because no one was looking after it.

The horses were likely branded and broken working animals that had wandered into the pit to drink the water that had collected there. They couldn't get out and, like the cattle, died of thirst or hunger.

There is real anger at the nearest towns, Balgo and Halls Creek, over what has happened at Ngulupi, but few are willing to discuss it publicly. Many of them rely on Aboriginal money for their survival and many fear reprisals. One man says that if he talks about Ngulupi, his own place will be burned to the ground.

Among the Catholic priests who created the station, there is also anger but, foremost, sadness. Ngulupi was not strictly a pastoral lease, but a cattle enterprise run on a part of the old Balwina Reserve, a huge desert area set aside for the purpose and use of Aborigines.

Designed to eventually make the people of the area self-sufficient, Ngulupi ran more than 6000 head and provided for a number of Aboriginal stockmen's families.

Ngulupi was established by Father John McGuire, now in a nursing home in Victoria. He acquired the original cattle herd from Vesteys and imported thoroughbred sires and brood mares from generous friends in the south. In the late 1960s, Ngulupi was said to have the best horses in the Kimberleys.

When McGuire was taken ill in 1969, Father Ray Hevern took over the Balgo Mission and continued to engage white managers on Ngulupi. The idea had always been to build up Ngulupi to the point where Aborigines would take over.

But in 1983, in the early days of the Hawke government, progressive types from the then Department of Aboriginal Affairs came down from Kununurra and forced the issue.

"The DAA were trying to get the church out of all Aboriginal communities on the grounds they were too authoritarian and paternalistic," Hevern says. "I was at the meeting when they came down and publicly told the community that if they kicked the church out, they would give them millions of dollars to run their own show and they didn't have to listen to us priests any more."

Hevern says that when he went to Rome for a meeting in 1983, a DAA agent led a coup that ousted him from the administration of Balgo Mission. He stayed on as Balgo's parish priest until 1985, as the so-called "Aboriginal era" began.

The Aboriginal era meant that a succession of white people were brought in to oversee Ngulupi and other Aboriginal interests in Balgo, 110km away. They employed part-Aboriginal stockmen to manage Ngulupi. These men could handle stock, but they generally lacked the wider skills needed to run the station.

Whereas once the managers allowed no one to stay on Ngulupi who wasn't prepared to work, it began to transform into a community, with only a few Aborigines working and the rest on "sit-down money".

With the priests and their managers gone, the grog-runs into Ngulupi began. One of the white administrators decided he could look after the business from Kununurra. Then he moved to Perth. Grant money filtered in to keep the place going and the small school was built. Bureaucrats in the south had a picture of an idyllic community, going it on its own. But Ngulupi, and its people, were losing their way.

Those involved with the Catholics said the new white administration took the political view that people at Ngulupi didn't have to work if they didn't want to. The sons of Aboriginal stockmen who had worked with the Pallottines were now young men, and constantly drunk.

It is said that one of the latter-day part-Aboriginal managers was jailed for selling Ngulupi cattle — still bearing the old 3JM (for Jesus and Mary) brand — for cash. He said he'd done it because the white administrator refused to pay the men wages.

Kingfisher — the airline started by the priests and handed to the Aboriginal-run corporation — fell apart last year. Everyone had been taking free rides. It didn't help that one of the planes went missing — while parked on an airfield.

A former pastoral manager at Ngulupi, John Kersh, who worked for the Catholics, says:

"None of the new people had the dedication or the honesty of the priests or sisters who gave their lives to the place, just for love."

Kersh says that although many Australians have the view that Aborigines and good stockmanship are synonymous, his own experience indicates otherwise.

"These people were one generation out of the desert. Their experience with animals was basically to wear them down and maim them with weapons, after which they could be killed and eaten. It's far removed from Western, domesticated animals, where good husbandry and a caring mentality for livestock is needed."

By 1996, when Kersh revisited Ngulupi, there were a handful of people still living there. Both generators were running flat out, even though they had nothing to power but a few lights and fridges.

"It seemed to me to have been taken over by administrative idealists who simply couldn't weigh up the realities of the Aborigines' abilities to look after the place," Kersh says. "They were expecting them to grasp the management situation, when they really didn't even have any concept of the conserving of fodder. And this man in Kununurra was running it. I was horrified."
A Halls Creek man who worked at Ngulupi says the homestead was "really beautiful, something to be proud of. To then go and smash it up well, they reckon it was the kids that did it. I said to the parents: 'Where were you when they were smashing it up?' They said, 'Oh.' They don't like to hear that sort of thing, although a lot of them did work there for many years. You would've thought the fact they worked there meant they'd care."

Today, the road in to Ngulupi is heavily overgrown. Camels, donkeys and brumbies run on paddocks that, at a conservative guess, could provide a $1-million-a-year profit to the local people if they were stocked with cattle.

There are mutterings in Halls Creek that locals want to ask the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission to get the place going again.

Kersh, an experienced stockman, had worked on Ngulupi initially as a volunteer, because he believed Aborigines needed such enterprises to forge a way ahead.

His first instinct on returning in 1996 was to stay and fix the place up. But by then he had his own pastoral business in Queensland. Besides, he couldn't see the point.

"In my frustration and horror of seeing what was happening to the people — the loss of work ethic plus the grog, all the young men with a terrible mortality rate from rolling cars — I thought, if that's better than the system of caring religious people, well hell, I don't think it takes much to put up a ledger to show which situation was better."