IT was early evening at Waterloo homestead on June 7, 2011. The three children were quiet in their beds. The cool dry-season night was closing in. Emily Brett settled against the back of the lounge-room sofa beside her husband, Dougal, and turned on the TV. The news began.
There was Joe Ludwig, the Federal Minister for Agriculture, looking solemn. Briskly, with sweeping words, he announced a suspension of Australia's live cattle export trade to Indonesia: limited at first, but soon to be widened into a blanket measure. Effective across the board. No exemptions. And so, Emily's world - her family's world - caved in. Uncertainty came into their lives, and it has never left. She looked at her husband. What, they thought, are we going to do? How will we pay our bills? How are we going to live?
That was just a week after the ABC's Four Corners program revealed brutal conditions in a handful of Indonesian abattoirs and sparked a furore of public outrage. It was the moment when Canberra reached up to the remote north and plunged a complex, finely calibrated industry and all its supply chains into chaos.
A year on, with the hum of the diesel generator in the background, the dogs barking, the two-way station radio crackling, Emily Brett, 37, looks out over the curve of the rangelands and the smoke in the sky. To the west is Lake Argyle, and the Kimberley; to the east, the Victoria River country; Darwin is nearly 500km northeast. All around is the pastoral lease-holding, 240,000 wild hectares her family bought eight years ago, when the prospects for the live export trade seemed unbounded, strong. Emily drove out from the east to her new home in an old Toyota; her husband flew the helicopter from his contract mustering business. For two years they lived together in a tin shed and built the station up. It seemed like a paradise to them: monsoonal rains every year, good transport links to the port nearby at Wyndham. It was as sure a bet as you could find. Their enterprise took shape; they invested heavily and took on debt. Soon there were new yards, fences and houses, and seven full- time stockmen on the staff, and 14 people were living on Waterloo. All was well - they had a road-train and trucking business to supplement their income; more than 10,000 head of Brahman cows passed through the yards each year.
Then Four Corners went to air. Pastoralists across the north tuned in. Emily and Dougal were sickened by what they saw: it was nothing they had known of, or approved of, or felt complicit in; they had always made sure all their cattle went to top-of-the-line Indonesian feedlots and approved, carefully monitored abattoirs. Indeed, a large consignment of their animals was ready to be trucked to port. It had been a long, difficult wet season. They were just sending off their first shipment for the year; it would be their first income in eight months. The shipment was blocked. The sale was promptly cancelled. Emily, who handles the finances for Waterloo while bringing up her three children, all under five years old, lay awake that night - and the nights that followed - in worry.
In the wider world, lobbying, protests and manoeuvres began unfolding. Public sentiment was running hot: real wounding, torturing and killing still makes a strong impact, even in this jaded age, on the viewing eye. The pastoralists, staggeringly inept in their public relations, were caught on the back foot. They had little skill in conveying the human face of their industry. The Northern Territory Cattlemen's Association put out an appeal to its members: were there any stories they could tell that might help illustrate their plight?
Emily was used to putting down her thoughts in words. She wrote a heartfelt letter to the nation at large, describing her life, asking for understanding. "We care about our cattle. Our lives revolve around our cattle." The NTCA promptly asked her to come to Canberra to help present their case. Suddenly, she was swept up. For a few days, she was the face of the live cattle export trade: and how strong the contrast was with the jowly men at the helm! She was clear and forthright; you could read her emotions plainly in her eyes. After her media appearances the public mood began to turn; support for the pastoralists picked up. A month later, the federal government, aware it had overreacted, lifted the export ban: reforms designed to improve conditions in Indonesian abattoirs were announced. Case closed? Not quite. The long-term damage was already done. It would be months before the trade resumed, and then at reduced levels.
Back at Waterloo, Emily tried to pick up the pieces. The family still had no income. The bank had extended the overdraft again. The station had outlaid $110,000 on fuel; the wages bill was running at $60,000 a month. Dougal Brett called his staff together and laid out a plan, telling them he hoped the bank would let him pay them. The stress levels were sky-high for everyone - and so they are to this day. It is the new story of the North: debt, falling asset prices, a contracting market, suppliers owed and owing money.
"It was an idyllic life here," says Emily, "before that 7th of June. This is special land, untouched land. It's a lovely place to bring up children, teaching them about the bush: an honest lifestyle for them, real and clean. They make their own amusement, they get to experience a lot of things other children never do - about animals, how to care for them, that animals are important, and where their food comes from, the reality that underpins us - they understand that, too."
Emily had known she wanted to live this kind of life ever since her childhood at Ben Lomond, near Armidale, NSW. She studied agricultural business management at what was then Sydney University's Orange campus. When she met Dougal Brett she found him humorous, capable. He ran his own show: he did his own mustering; he drove the cattle trucks himself. "Country, animals - those were the things that pulled us together," says Emily. "I thought he could provide me with a stable life on the land." She followed him as the Brett family expanded its pastoral stake. Dougal and his father, Colin, moved their business up to central Queensland but they knew the future was brightest in the North, where the rains were best. When the lease on Waterloo came up for sale, they felt it was their great chance. They could live an ordered life there, be independent, control their own destiny. "We like pattern, structure," says Emily. "I'm big on routine; I hate not knowing what's coming. I hate the uncertainty when you're thrown into a position like this where you have no control over what's to come. Station people don't live that way - their business runs on narrow margins; it needs to be predictable. A lot of people up here are still suffering - the people who grow the hay, the people who build dams and fences, the bore drillers who can't buy their pumps, the road-train operators who can't pay their contractors. This whole, interconnected world, it's hanging by a thread because of what a handful of people in Canberra thought and did."
IFanything, Emily Brett is understating the case. A once-in-a-generation upheaval in the northern pastoral industry has been unleashed. The signs of this phase change are everywhere. It is a shift both economic and cultural: all across the tropical savannah country, men and women are quietly asking themselves a long-avoided question: what is the land for? How can it be profitably, sustainably used? For a generation the chief answer has been live cattle export. Much of Australia's northern third was redesigned around this trade. There are about 200 pastoral leases in the Northern Territory, almost half of them family holdings like Waterloo: 100 more in the Kimberley and another 150-odd in north Queensland. The lion's share of those lying above the tropic of Capricorn breed their cattle for Asian markets. For years, the business looked strong. In 2010, three quarters of a million cattle were exported through Australia's northern ports. But that year Indonesia, keen to improve its own food security and develop the local industry, imposed a weight limit on Australian cattle, making it hard for northern pastoralists to hit the ideal window in the growth, fattening and transport of their stock. Other seismic shifts were also under way. Land prices had been driven sky-high in the Kimberley and Top End by managed investment schemes: for much of the past decade new entrants into the market were obliged to pay far above historic levels. Meanwhile, the Pilbara resources boom had drawn in the best skilled labourers and left station managers across the north struggling to attract experienced staff.
This was the background when the Federal Government intervened at the key point in the seasonal cycle and imposed its ban. When the live trade resumed it did so in spasmodic fashion. In 2011, under 400,000 animals were shipped on cattle boats from northern ports; this year, as the effects of the disruption work through the system, the figure will be at most about 280,000. Indonesia has imposed a cap on the numbers of export permits it issues, and these have been cut more sharply than Australian negotiators expected. It has also begun levying a 5 per cent tariff on all cattle bought from Australia, retrospective to the start of 2012. Some importers have been hit with million-dollar charges, which have to be passed down the chain to pastoralists in the form of lower market prices. This pattern of continually scaled-back trade translates directly into declining values for north Australian station land.
The atmosphere of uncertainty seems to mount each day. The past few months have been a cascade of new surprises and new shocks. Twice, with vast fanfare and publicity, Canberra has stepped in to buy Territory cattle properties for prices far above the old market rate and hand them over to private interests to be run as carbon trading and conservation pilot schemes - hardly a strong vote of confidence. An increasing number of marginal leases across the north are being held as "shadow" stations - pastoral ventures in name alone, maintained by their owners as wildlife, nature or cultural reserves.
Struggling cattle producers see these trends and dream of selling up. The big corporate interests see opportunity. The largest, Australian Agricultural Company (AACo), wants to build an $80 million abattoir near Darwin to process its non-export cattle (1000 head a day). AACo is in expansion mode: it has just unveiled a plan to take over from the Aboriginal-run Bunuba cattle company two of the prime leases in the Fitzroy Valley of the central Kimberley. An expansion, but also something like an end. Ever since the start of the campaign for land rights, the great dream of an autonomous Aboriginal cattle industry in the north with indigenous groups working the land on their own terms has shone bright: it may at last be fading as financial pressures hit home.
Other long-established features of the cattle world are changing. European private equity group Terra Firma took
control of the Packer family's vast northern empire, Consolidated Pastoral Company (CPC), in 2009. CPC's great architect, master cattleman Ken Warriner, stepped down from the board in July - the end of an era, as if a raja has left the throne. Just west of Warriner's old fief of Newcastle Waters lie the lush, well-stocked stations around Wave Hill, jewels of the sector. Three of them have recently gone to auction and failed to sell - but how could there be an easy, open sale today? For no one knows any more just what the value of pastoral land in the north really is. Some insiders speak of a 30 per cent drop in the underlying worth of cattle stations. The market, accordingly, has evaporated.
BLEAK times: times, also, for radical rethinking. Canny, hands-on cattlemen like Colin Brett, Emily's father-in- law, believe the moment has come for a complete reconfiguration of northern land use. Large parts of the north Kimberley and the infertile Top End and Cape York regions should be cattle-free, he argues. Pastoralism only makes sense in soft, rich country like the Barkly Tableland in the northeast NT and Victoria River district - regions where real value can be earned from running stock on the land.
Such ideas are also circulating among the northern cattle industry's close-knit band of theorists and lateral thinkers: figures like Sunday Creek station's Tom Stockwell, an agricultural scientist and former senior public servant who worked for two decades setting policy before he decided to set up a pastoral venture of his own and practise what he preached. His property is on the Sturt Plateau: 80,000ha of coolibah country, ironstone ridges giving way to black and red soil plain. His wife, Bev, was brought up here: it is a family operation, modest, but ordered; it bears the stamp of Stockwell's thinking in its design. A central access track divides the paddocks, much like a stately parkland's axial avenue. Fire management is the key to Sunday Creek. Fire is a part of this landscape's natural cycle; guided and checked by man's hand, early burning brings up the vital green feed. The 7000-strong herd of cross-bred Droughtmaster cattle can be sold both to Asia and to Australian east coast markets. Last year, Sunday Creek was lucky. It sold and shipped 30 per cent of its annual turnover just before the trade suspension was imposed. Stockwell knew well ahead that the Four Corners broadcast was coming; he expected it to be disquieting. "I don't think anyone was prepared for what they saw. We were quite stunned, like everyone. The thought that one of our animals could have gone through that - for nights on end we couldn't sleep. But I was even more stunned by the reaction of the Government - at how much was based on sentiment rather than the cold light of day."
Stockwell had just joined the executive of the NT Cattlemen's Association, which was meeting in Katherine on the day the suspension was declared. The news reached them from Jakarta: the Australian authorities didn't bother to give them a call. The cattlemen mobilised. They sent a team, including Stockwell, down to Canberra to plead for understanding, for support. They knew they were up against it in the national capital: only eight politicians in the federal parliament represent the northern pastoral country, even though it makes up 45 per cent of the Australian land mass. Although the cattlemen didn't quite realise it at first, they had their secret weapon: Emily Brett, who could sway hearts by plain speech at media calls. Negotiations ground on in the back rooms, hard and slow. Federal Parliament, says Stockwell, is "just such a Macchiavellian joint! People you think are allies turn around in a split second. You have to curry favour with one person to get to see another. Everything's just different games. Here, if you want to say something to your neighbour, you just say it."
Across the northern bush, all was chaos: overfilled stockyards, empty ports, companies without cash flow. Stockwell travelled around and saw the signs. "The northern cattle industry is inherently difficult," he says. "It's managing a production system in a wild environment. When you put a spoke in the wheels the whole thing goes haywire. Output and the financial cycle become impossible to read. The effects are devastating; they take years to unwind." Like every other northern property, Sunday Creek has tightened the belt - stopped spending, deferred capital development. The whole rural economy of the north has slowed to a trickle. Businesses are failing, closing, leaving the small towns.
There is an irony here. The cattle industry was close to a point of transformation a year ago. The signals from Indonesia already suggested that exports might be slowed. Producers like those in Stockwell's circle were already thinking of plans for more intensive, graduated land use, a new way of using the country with technologies and methods that are only now emerging. Pastoralism can be a creative art, as Stockwell hints: "It may be all productivity and economics, but there's a fair bit of you in what you want a herd of cattle to be." There's also room for innovation: for developing a spread of animals, for growing crops on small tracts of station land, even for thinking beyond beef. Some of the soils on Sunday Creek station resemble the Ord Valley of the Kimberley, where irrigated horticulture dominates. The red-soil basin southwest of Katherine could play host to improved pastures and fodder cropping: it is the old dream of a developed north, with linked and complementary primary industries flourishing - a dream that has repeatedly been taken up and never quite followed through.
When Stockwell and his young colleagues were driving the Northern Territory's agricultural expansion after self- government in 1978, blueprints of this kind were constantly being thrown up. It was a time of promise, long gone.
One way of reacting to the northern crisis would be to take a long view again, as Stockwell and his kind suggest: build up small-scale irrigation schemes along the corridor from Katherine to Kununurra, ease land use restrictions, permit more intensive agriculture where possible. It is a vision shared by many leading pastoralists in the Kimberley and the Gulf.
There is a compelling logic to this counter-cyclical approach. Everyone understands that the present chill over the north is political: self-imposed by the Australian Government and matched by the Indonesian desire to limit import dependency and boost its domestic meat production. But everyone can also read the long-term prospects. Indonesia is growing, becoming wealthier each year. North Australia can provide the food supply its neighbour needs, and at fine economies of scale. The fit is perfect. "From a Territory perspective," argues Stockwell, "we've put so much work into injecting ourselves into the Asian region. We need to reinvigorate that, not abandon it. I'm convinced in 15 years there will be a much bigger live export trade than now. Economics and population figures alone are enough to tell us that there's a big market for the low-cost producer to fulfil."
THEY don't come any lower-cost than Bill Bright, the magician of the Gulf savannah, the driven, autonomy- craving leaseholder of Carpentaria Downs, and the North's most enigmatic cattleman. His story is emblematic at once of life's vicissitudes and the path to pastoral industry success.
Bright was born into the cattle industry, travelling north with his family as a young teenager in 1969. His father was a contract fencer who graduated to station management. They seemed like good years with untroubled prospects: in 1974, the Brights bought Robinson River station, on the shores of the Gulf, just before a great cattle crash - "a perfect example of a wonderful opportunity at the worst possible time". Three years later, Bright's father died, aged only 39, from a rare, hereditary, incurable kidney disease. The station was deep in debt; the market had evaporated.
It was much the same scenario the North faces today. Bright told himself he would never let himself be caught like that again. He was already amassing a trove of local knowledge - how cattle act, how the country works, a million details no manual holds. The Brights regrouped, bought into Pungalina station with friends who owned the Borroloola store, and built the place up. Four years on they sold it and went contract bull-catching. By this stage, Bright had met his wife, Cissy, the high-octane camp-draft queen of the Gulflands. They bought Kiana station. Bright ran it on Cartesian lines, with everything designed around production; conversion of low-grade savannah grass to healthy cattle. He deployed his great instruments of judgment, experience, skill. Kiana proved how well his methods worked. He sold up two decades later, but not for money, though it made him a rich man. A shadow had appeared; his kidneys were failing. The disease that killed his father was stalking him. But Bright, unlike his father, had an ideal donor in his sister. The successful transplant was four years ago. The land and cattle called him back. He leased Carpentaria Downs, 77,000 savannah hectares of fragile soils. It was Aboriginal-held; there was no serviceable paddock fencing, no water-points. It had never been seriously stocked.
"I like this world, this landscape," he says. "I know it very well: I rode it on horseback as a boy; I've done thousands of hours above it, heli-mustering. In May it's the most beautiful country you can imagine; in September it can be as hard as you could imagine, but every now and then you'll fly over a gorge, or a waterfall, and it'll just catch you. When you feel the first south-easterlies start blowing, you just know that's when things start happening - you have to be up here."
Today, on his own, Bright presides over an empire of 4500 Droughtmaster cross cattle, a helicopter and a bush trayback his sole implements. Efficiency and prudence guide him in everything - his cattle were sold last year very early in the season, before the government ban came in. He had long anticipated problems in the live cattle export trade and bought a separate fattening property in central Queensland so he could send his road-trains east.
Every lesson he could absorb from the harsh business cycles he has lived through seems stamped in the forefront of his thoughts. For many bush pastoralists, cattle provide the basis for a lifestyle. For Bright, beef production is a fierce obsession, the demonstration of a theory, a philosophy made visible, playing out in time. When evening draws near, on his veranda, he writes his tracts. "I get a bit carried away sometimes. To me there's a real art in being able to put your thoughts concisely into a form that others can read and understand." What most carries him away, though, is his longing for clear thought and for truth about the cattle trade. Bright articulates what many northern pastoralists think but hold back from saying: that Australia needs its meat supply, and needs to
understand what cattle production is, the growing and then the killing of animals; that cattle production must be successful and efficient to be able to pay for and guarantee the welfare of animals; that there is a place for the animal welfare lobby in debate, and the raw hunt for profit should be balanced by strict safeguards and standards for the treatment of stock. Lastly, the cattle industry not only needs to be on the front foot defending the welfare of its animals, but must be seen to be doing so - for image, impression, in this fast-shifting world, is all.
He lays aside his trusty iPad. The light lengthens. From Waterloo station to Sunday Creek to Carpentaria Downs, all across the wide face of the country the shadows stretch - three stories, three trajectories, three sets of shifting circumstances: long shadows of uncertainty across Australia's north.