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Sacked, Then Run Out Of Town

The Sunday Age

Sunday May 29, 2005

RUSSELL SKELTON

THE image that Jim McBride cannot banish from his mind is that of a skinny, 18-year-old boy hanging from a tree by a piece of fencing wire.

"One minute he was climbing up the tree, the next he was hanging there. It was the middle of the day, his family was looking on in disbelief.

"I rushed over, lifted him up and untied him. His body was limp, but he was OK. I got to him in about 15 seconds. He had been sniffing petrol for two days, he was totally out of it."

When McBride reported the incident to police he says they showed no concern. He left the police station wondering why the officers so readily accepted the Third World social circumstances that they worked in. "In Kintore, 200 kilometres down the road, there is a blue-light disco to give kids something to do and road blocks to stop grog smugglers. I did not see anything like that happening in Papunya," McBride told The Sunday Age.

He accepted the position of housing manager at Papunya last August and remembers his first encounter with Steven Hanley, the then town clerk. "Steve told me not to take the job too seriously, that there were many hidden benefits to be had working in his part of the world and I could enjoy them if I played my cards right.

"His attitude shocked me, but I just went along with it because there was a job to be done and I wanted to do it. The community was physically run-down, but the kids were great."

An experienced builder, the 28-year-old had worked as a site manager at Federation Square before heading to the Western Desert community. McBride's first task was to conduct an assessment of the community's 60 houses, discovering that 10 were uninhabitable. Some had broken or blocked toilets, others were without water, electricity or solar heating.

In some houses he found that sewage from blocked toilets had flowed into backyards where children played.

To his surprise a maintenance plan he prepared for Hanley went ignored. He only realised it had been dismissed without consideration when he found it in the council office rubbish bin. The plan had involved employing four residents under the work-for-the-dole scheme to help him repair the houses. "The four I selected had drinking and petrol-sniffing problems, but they were keen to work. They had shown great commitment and aptitude. They wanted something to do."

As McBride went about his daily tasks he noticed that Hanley and other council employees showed no enthusiasm for what they were doing. When he ordered a septic tank for four houses he was rebuked for spending too much money. "It was a strange reaction, because I found out that there was a $180,000-a-year repair budget for housing maintenance, so there should have been money to burn, especially as my position had been vacant for years.

"I was bluntly told there was no point in fixing anything, because whatever was fixed would be broken again a week later. I regularly saw Hanley and his other employees parading around in government-bought Land Cruisers, doing absolutely nothing."

McBride said he was dismayed by what he saw. "There were 200 rubbish bins that were never distributed and a waste truck that was never used. Mr Hanley had his own lock-up shed with a vast assortment of power tools and equipment purchased with council funds but designated for his use only." After three months in his role McBride found himself without a job, even though he had been promised a 12-month contract. When he asked why he was being fired, Hanley told him there were insufficient funds to keep him on. "The letter stated that council had decided to terminate my position, but the decision was really taken by Hanley and the accountant, Peter Vroom. The local people were furious that their money was being spent elsewhere and a meeting was called to get me my job back. The protest fell on deaf ears.

"I didn't believe what I was told. In the following three weeks the council employed three people, including Hanley's brother, Freddy."

McBride said he was so incensed by his dismissal and the reluctance of Hanley to spend money on the basic housing needs that he stuck the front page of a local newspaper report about Hanley and his wife, Alison Anderson, on the general store noticeboard. The report alleged that Hanley was facing stealing charges and this would have implications for his wife, who is an endorsed ALP candidate. The Hanley family operates the store.

That is when, McBride says, the family used their influence to have him expelled from the community.

"The police said if I removed the press report, nothing would happen, I would not be charged. But when I got down to the store the Hanley clan was waiting.

"They abused me, threatened to kill me, turn their dogs on me, you name it, they said it. It was a set-up. It was clear to me that I could no longer work there."

© 2005 The Sunday Age

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