The ability to see opportunity for all where others saw fear
This tribute was compiled by Property Rights Australia president Dale Stiller and follows in depth discussions with family, friends and former colleagues of the late John Purcell OAM, who passed away in Rockhampton last week.
John Purcell OAM (1936 – 2015) in his passing has left large footprints across Australia, having secured advancement for the beef industry and being resolute in the seeking of justice as part of Property Rights Australia.
John Purcell was an inaugural member of the Cattlemen’s Union of Australia (CU). He served twice as President – 1984-1986 and again from 1994-1997. John at various times served as a member of the Cattle Council of Australia, Computer Aided Livestock Marketing Board, Meat Research Selection Committee, Australian Quarantine and Inspection Policy Council, Qld Meat and Livestock Authority and was the NFF representative with CSRIO/DPIE screw-worm fly research and a played a key role in the Brucellosis and TB eradication programs in Northern Australia.
This would have been when most rested on their laurels, but not John Purcell. As Richard Golden (elected CU council 1995) observed, “John Purcell never felt that he shouldn’t pick up the baton ever again. John saw injustice and put up his hand. He never felt comfortable merely cheering from the sideline.”
Reflecting on the past achievements in an interview at the time of receiving his OAM in 2012, John Purcell said, “The Cattleman’s Union battled on for 20 years but then it folded up, much to my sorrow. I retired, came back here (to Yatton) and I had a call from a fella called Ashley McKay, he comes from Augathella. [Ashley McKay had been charged with illegal tree clearing] The fines were colossal and a lot of it was really unfair and Ashley had tried to do all the right things, procuring his initial permit and then it got very messy. You couldn’t stand back and let this happen.”
Property Rights Australia (PRA) was formed in 2003, and it was this organisation which fronted up to help Ashley. John Purcell was active and served as PRA Chairman 2005 – 2009.
A common theme emerges talking to John’s former colleagues from the CU and PRA about John Purcell – determination and unselfishness. Maurice Binstead (CU President 1978 to 1981) now 93, retired in Rockhampton, said about John, “He gave a lot of life to the cattle industry to the detriment of his own business. John was a fighter for right and wrong. You always knew where you stood with John Purcell; steadfast with strong beliefs which he carried through with action. But he was always one of a team.”
In 1959 John and his brother Bill were successful in drawing a block, “Yatton,” on the Isaac River in Central Queensland. With a few horses, saddles and dogs the two young brothers made their early money trapping cleanskin cattle. He married Miriam McIver in 1960 and together they had four children Patrice, Verena, Jason and Rebecca.
CU was a good fit for John Purcell when it was formed in May 1976 with 1000 people gathering at the Leichhardt Hotel in Rockhampton pledging their commitment to fight for the rights of the Australian cattlemen and women. CU sought to achieve results and did not bind itself with old conventions. Just like CU, Richard Golden said about John Purcell that he was, “Never interested in the Status Quo.”
The following year in 1977 the CU earned it stripes by being prepared to take what was seen as more radical action. “John Purcell played a pivotal role with Ron Bahnisch (Regional Chairman) and others in organising the blockade of the Gracemere Saleyards and successfully stopped the sale on Monday 16th May 1977. This was the time of the great cattle slump when producers were sometimes receiving bills instead of proceeds from cattle sales while processors were paying dividends of up to 22% to shareholders,” quoted Joanne Rea in a tribute about John Purcell when PRA awarded Life Membership to John in 2012. Joanne served in many roles in both organisations including the CU Council and PRA Chair 2011 -2013.
Ashley McKay, also very active in both organisations, takes up the account, “There had been a collapse of cattle prices across Australia, people were going bankrupt left, right and centre. The blockade made national headlines and at the same time John Carter started to shoot his cattle down in NSW and this all got incredible media coverage. The CU agenda grew legs, politicians took notice and subsequently Prime Ministers came to our conferences. It put the cattle industry back on the map.”
The achievements of CU were many, Maurice Binstead highlights, “commencement of beef carcase product description was the big game changer.” In an earlier interview Mr Binstead is quoted, “proof of their [Cattlemen’s Union] success is that these days in Australia, we don’t often eat a bad piece of meat, thanks to a meat language and quality standards developed over the years.” Joanne Rea wrote, “CU had played a major role in combating the inaccurate claims of the Animal Liberation Movement” and “In John Purcell’s chairman’s report in 1984, John told members that it was time that society stopped looking on stock stealing as a romantic pastime. “
But there is one achievement beyond all others and it would not have been successful without John Purcell – the Cape York Heads of Agreement in 1996. The significance of this agreement endures to this day, with it still being referred to as “historic”, “a landmark agreement.” The key players in a successful outcome were Noel Pearson of the Cape York Land Council, the late Rick Farley representing the National Native Title Tribunal and John Purcell representing pastoralists. Rick Farley had worked with John before, having been employed by CU soon after its foundation in 1976 as publicity officer and then as executive director until leaving in 1985. Rick was employed by NFF 1985 – 1995, during which time the High Court Mabo decision was made (1992), so he had gained a lot of experience in native title issues.
Not only did John Purcell help with a successful outcome but he also gained a lifetime friendship with aboriginal leader, Noel Pearson. John’s daughter, Patrice Brown sent a message for this tribute saying that, “We have had so many lovely calls and well wishes from people from all walks of life offering their condolences on our loss. I’ve received some beautiful messages from Traditional Owners in the Cape including one from Gerhardt Pearson – ‘Your Old Man was the epitome of leadership with a vision, intellect and a deep sense of what was right for our country and our people on the land. Rest in Peace.’ ”
Barrister Phillip Sheridan was involved with John Purcell when PRA established 12 court victories out of 13 cases fighting on behalf of embattled landowners unjustly prosecuted under Queensland’s Vegetation Management Act. It is notable that when asked what he thought was John Purcell’s greatest achievement, he stated unreservedly, The Cape York Heads of Agreement. “On that day he went out on a limb; native title was a red hot issue in the bush. But ultimately John was proven to be right. John Purcell had the rare gift of distinguishing an opportunity out of what others saw as a threat. He could take the fear out of a situation, work to get people onside and change their minds.”
Ashley McKay, reflecting on John Purcell’s ability to negotiate said, “John’s greatest strength was that he stuck to the facts to form his views and his pathway. Compelling evidence could change his view, but rubbish was swept away. This meant that John gained respect from those who supported and opposed him.”
Current advocate for the property rights of all people in Cape York, David Kempton stated, “His single handed and purposeful devotion to bringing balance to the native title debate in Cape York at a time when a national battle was raging in the Courts and the media will be long remembered. He crossed battle lines in the face of industry criticism and political derision to bring lasting agreement between cattlemen and traditional owners. He was a great Queenslander and true statesman and a friend to us all in Cape York.”
John Purcell said at the time of the official signing of the Cape York Heads of Agreement on the 5th February 1996, “Reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians must be founded on justice if it is to be durable. Reconciliation essentially concerns our future co-existence. Fine words crafted to describe our aspirations will be sterile unless they are supported by an alignment of interests that will draw us together, rather than draw us into conflict and dispute. The alignment of Indigenous and non-Indigenous rights to land will be a critical part of this balance of interests. It must rest on fairness and equality.”
Patrice Brown wrote, “In his career the two things that Dad was especially proud of was his role in the Cape York Heads of Agreement and the battle to right the wrong of Ashely McKay’s case. As Dad and I discussed on many occasions the agreement is a blueprint for the way in which land rights and land use should be managed in Australia to ensure the protection of grazing rights, the protection of native title interests and protection of cultural and environmental values and natural resources. This agreement made a significant difference to the people in the Cape and the opportunities that could be achieved more effectively by the various stakeholders banding together. Dad in his final months still spoke about the agreement and his hopes for the people in the Cape to work together for the greater good rather than for self-interest by individuals or groups or to appease do-gooders living far, far away”.
Patrice again takes up the narrative, “When he retired as president of the CU he returned to his much loved property “Yatton” and enjoyed time back on the land. He then married Mary Green before again dedicating his time and energy to PRA to stand up for common sense in decision making that could affect people on the land.”
Ashley McKay is most appreciative of John Purcell’s efforts. “When John saw injustices and when he saw people being damaged he fought tooth and nail to resolve the situation. He always went with the facts taking into account legal and scientific advice.”
There from the very beginning of CU and again with the start of PRA was Ron Bahnisch, Chair of PRA 2009 – 2011, who recalled John Purcell’s ability to manage large groups of people. “In his heyday John was a renowned orator. He could command an audience and when chairing meetings up to 1200 people it was noted that he had the ability to address almost everyone from the stage by first name.”
In PRA’s early years there were many large meetings and rallies. Ron Bahnisch continues, “While chairman, John Purcell organised demonstrations and mass meetings protesting against the Vegetation Management Act. There were marches and demonstrations held at Charleville, Brisbane, Rockhampton and Emerald. He organised a meeting attended by approximately 500 people at Mt Perry showground and a big meeting at Paradise Lagoons attended by the Qld DNRM Minister Steven Robertson and Professor Suri Ratnapala. The professor laid out in no uncertain terms what a travesty the VMA was.”
It was John Purcell who was instrumental in building a fighting fund which subsequently was used to win 12 court cases out of the 13 in which PRA took up the cause of farming families unjustly treated by the overzealous enforcement of the Act.
To Patrice her father’s dedication fighting for the rights of others was inevitable. “Dad’s first battle with injustice was at eight years of age when his shiny red toy truck was stolen on his first day at boarding school and later when the Queensland Lands Department ignored the conditions in the long term lease that John and his brother held. The Government ordered resumption of some of their land, offering to convert the remainder to freehold, to open up the area for closer settlement. The brothers were successful in retaining a large portion of land through true grit and taking the Government to task, triggering John’s lifetime commitment to fight for the man on the land and for land rights.”
PRA must also thank John’s second wife Mary for ably assisting John when he was the Chairman. In a 2012 interview John also acknowledged Mary’s role, “Mary and I had done a fair bit of work for Property Rights Australia … I give a lot of credit to Mary, who was also very active in PRA along with all members who fought hard against all of the people that were trying to knock us about and particularly the Queensland Government”
Patrice on behalf of herself and siblings, Verena, Jason and Rebecca, wrote, “Many people probably don’t appreciate or understand the sacrifices that leaders such as John make, spending years away from their families, their own homes and their businesses in the interest of other people (who in Dad’s case were predominantly the cattle men and women of Australia).”
All interviewed for this tribute remarked on how unselfish was the character of John Purcell and they knew of the cost his work away from home had on his own business.
Maurice Binstead: “John was very unselfish; he gave away many years of his life.”
Richard Golden: “He was out the front leading with energy – a stunning sort of bloke.”
Ashley McKay: “He was a great guy, what you saw is what you got, John was spin free.”
Pat Moran: “John did so much for the cattle industry, not many of us could have done what he did.”
Daryl Palm: “John was a true friend. We had many fun times together in the CU days. He liked a good argument but he had this great ability to get people to come together to sort out difficult situations. I will miss him.”
Joanne Rea: “Never one to forget who he was representing. The petty rivalries between groups were of no importance and debate was all based on sound philosophy, good policy development, true representation and fairness.”
Patrice writes about John Purcell’s last few years and the family’s words of farewell, “In 2012 John was thrilled to be awarded the Order of Australia medal for his contribution to agripolitics, an award that was well deserved for a lifetime of fighting for people on the land and his role in the Cape York Heads of Agreement.”
“When his time fighting for others was done and dusted Dad then had to fight his own health battles, prostate cancer in 2009 which he defeated and Lewy Body Dementia in recent years. Similar to Alzheimer’s this disease robs people of their way of life. In early 2013 when the disease became too hard for John to cope with on his own he moved to Rockhampton to live with us before moving into full time care in late 2013. Over the last two years John had a special time with his four children and their families and supported by his wonderful friends from his jackeroo days (Ian Fogg), Cattlemen Union days (Daryl Palm) and his neighbour and mate from Clarke Creek (Pat Moran).”
“Our father could be a stubborn man to deal with if he believed in a cause; he was apolitical and supported people who stood by their own beliefs. Importantly he was a loving dad and grandad who encouraged us all to give life its best shot. He was proud of his family, was thrilled to tell stories about the CU and PRA days, enjoyed his own company and loved nothing better than sitting on the verandah at “Yatton” in the evening having a cold beer listening to cattle bellowing in the yards and joking about the ventures of the day and planning jobs for us all the next morning”.
John Purcell passed away as the raindrops started to fall, in the arms of two of his daughters with his Akubra hat on his chest proudly displaying the CU badge.
RIP John Purcell, you deserve the time to rest.
Property Rights Australia has lost a founding father but John Purcell’s philosophy lives on. PRA will continue to establish positions about issues that are evidence based, taking on board legal and scientific advice. PRA will continue not to be afraid to say what needs to be said. PRA will not be bound by establishment, entitlement or viewing one person less in need of justice than another.
John Purcell stood up for those disadvantaged. It was he that created the motto for PRA:
STAND YOUR GROUND
The Funeral for John Purcell will be on Friday 11th December 2015 at 3pm at St Paul’s Cathedral, 89 William St, Rockhampton.
 “Cattlemen’s Union, The First Decade” by Penny Schmalkuche