Rural elder statesman fights for what's right

CENTRAL FIGURE: John Purcell (centre) with his family at his OAM award ceremony (from left) son Jason, wife Mary, and daughters Patrice Brown and Rebecca Reid.
CENTRAL FIGURE: John Purcell (centre) with his family at his OAM award ceremony (from left) son Jason, wife Mary, and daughters Patrice Brown and Rebecca Reid. Stu Riley

TRAVERSING the 80km stretch from Marlborough to the 100-strong community of Clarke Creek, the winding road gives way to beautiful views over the range before you are met by Yatton, where Alick John Purcell has called home for 53 years.

Today, John lives a quiet life with his wife Mary in a modest homestead built of blue gum taken from Isaac River country. Considered old in 1900, it's stood the test of time and the childhoods of his four children.

He's spent his years standing up and speaking out for others, from his fellow graziers to the indigenous communities of Far North Queensland. And for that commitment and contribution to agriculture he was this year awarded the Order of Australia.

They took the cattle out in the paddock and they shot them. That was really rough times.

Growing up the only child for 150 miles on the property his parents managed south-west of Longreach, John was, from a young age, used to standing out.

"I think a few people thought 'this kid's a bit dopey' because he goes around blowing on horns and doing stupid things," John said. "But if you're on your own, I think what happens is your lonely but you stand up for yourself."

He was sent to boarding school at the tender age of eight and was at Rockhampton Grammar School when the Japanese surrendered in the Second World War - they were given the day off school. After a few years, he decided he wanted to attend The Southport School, on the Gold Coast.

"I always wanted to be on the land and the big influence, of course, was because of The Southport School," he said. "At that time, I would suggest that it was at least 80% of people drawn from the bush, probably more."

He started his career with the Scottish Australian Company as a jackaroo, working his way up to be one of the youngest overseers in the company - only in his early 20s - before he and his brother drew the ballot for Yatton in 1959.

After nine years of their 30-year lease had passed, the government stepped in to take part of the property for the Brigalow Scheme.

There was a lot of push and pull between the brothers and the Lands Department and, eventually, after putting up a good fight, they came to an agreement.

"We should've been able to hang on to that country. The reason why, you see, I stand up and punch anybody who gets in my road is because the crown had given us the right to ballot for this 46,000 acres and we had only used nine years of that." That attitude has stayed with John - he was a foundation member of the Cattlemen's Union and played an instrumental role in the blockade of the Gracemere saleyards in May, 1977.

"We were radical," John said. "What really kicked it off was the price of cattle and people going broke and no one had any money. So we got stuck into them."

At the time, cattle producers were receiving as little as $15 a head - $1.50 for calves - and, in a dire move, a group of Rolleston graziers donated their cattle, painting their deserving price on their sides.

"(When) they didn't get it, they took the cattle out in the paddock and they shot them. That was really rough times," John said.

"It shows that when people are really in trouble, they'll get up and go and stand up and we did that at Gracemere.

"We had the Prime Minister (Malcolm Fraser) and one of his offsiders there the next day saying what the hell's going on up here.

"The whole thing, it had to happen because people were just getting pushed off their properties."

John's passion for the Cattleman's Union is obvious even now, years after it was disbanded.

"The Cattleman's Union battled on for 20 years but then it folded up, much to my sorrow," John said.

"We were about 10,000 people. We weren't the only group but the Cattleman's Union was 10-to-one better than anyone who was around. I say that but I was chairman for 20% of its lifespan!"

And his passion for the cattle industry has also afforded him the opportunity of travel.

"In the interests of the industry I've been to every place I can think of - the United States, Canada, South-East Asia, Brazil, Argentina."

In the mid-'90s, his desire to help people put him at odds with some landholders but it's left him with a lifelong friendship with Aboriginal advocate Noel Pearson.

"In Far North Queensland... the Aborigines kept on wanting more recognition and to get some land and they weren't getting anywhere much.

"I thought it was about time the people in the Cape and the Aborigines should stop throwing rocks at one another and that both parties should get together and be able to work together - and the first thing we did was we had this convention down at Roma and I invited Noel Pearson down.

"Over a period of time they realised they had to get together. There was lots of people who didn't like the look of me because they thought I was too close to the Aborigines.

"As far as the relationship between Noel and myself goes, it'll always be there. He's a very bright person and I'm pleased to call him a friend."

When John was finally starting to wind down, a friend called with a plea for help.

"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," John said.

"I retired, came back here (to Yatton) and I had a call from a fella called Ashley McKay, he comes from Augathella... he was very good in the Cattleman's Union as well."

Mr McKay had been charged with two counts of illegal tree-clearing and Mary and John decided to travel to Charleville for the trial.

"We sat in the courtroom and we watched a man who was a very strong character fight like hell," John said.

"He was half sick, he was coughing and sneezing and the pressure he was under, I could tell you there was a tear in the corner of his eye.

"Mary and I sat in the car and we looked at each other and we both said we've got to help the poor bugger."

After deciding to help Mr McKay, John became actively involved in Property Rights Australia and was chairman from 2005-09. This saw the couple embark on another period of protests and standing up for what's right. In the end, their efforts were rewarded and the governement was defeated by the PRA team backing Mr McKay.

"Everyone was up in arms against these kind of tree-clearing charges," Mary said.

"Some of them were very unfair and Ashley was cleared in the end but it took years - the personal, psychological stress was just shocking. It was very heavy-handed.

"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."

John's wife Mary is the first to attest to John's persistence and determination to stand up for himself and others. After 20 years as a bachelor following the collapse of his first marriage, John tracked Mary down after she had happened upon his son and eventually turned up in Noosa, looking quite out of place.

"He rolled up in the Toyota with the bull bar, so that was a bit much for the bushie to navigate the streets of Noosa," Mary said.

"(He said) when I come I'll be the one with the big smile and the flowers, but I had said all along I don't want to go back to the bush.

"He's very persuasive. I've been here almost 12 years."

And it's a trait that has impacted upon both their personal and professional lives.

"I think John from when he was that little boy - he is that kind of a person," Mary said.

"He just stands up for what's right and he just doesn't sit back - and it doesn't matter what anybody thinks."

Topics:  grazier indigenous affairs livestock

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