News & media

Kimberley and the cowboys

John Butler, photo by Tim Watters

In the land of the lucky the cowboys are primed to cash in their chips, writes Tabatha Fulker.

Resources are a cowboy’s currency. Gold, oil, rocks or gas, if you’re inclined to try your luck you’d wrangle your horse for Australia’s western border. Looking for a new frontier you’d pass the Pilbara. Sights set for new opportunity you’d steer your stead toward the Kimberley.

James Price Point, near Broome in the Kimberley, is the proposed site of the world’s largest gas processing plant. It’s a cowboy’s dream. Gas never smelt so ripe. Stick it in a bottle and label it opportunity.

But rightly so, some folks don’t see it that way.

The proposed gas hub is smack bang in the middle of a humpback whale nursery; a critically endangered bilby habitat; and the site of the world’s longest stretch of dinosaur footprints

The land was acquired under threat of compulsory acquisition by the state government and it continues to struggle against stern community opposition and growing national discord.

For John Butler, the personal blurs into the political as he translates his experiences of the place into story and song. He met his wife on this land, Goolarabooloo country, and it’s where his family camps. His friend, Traditional Owner Joseph Roe, calls it home.

“I went up to the Kimberley for the first time over 10 years ago. I met my wife Danielle there and that’s when my relationship with the Kimberley started. She was living on Joseph Roe’s block. I connected to Joe camping and fishing over the years.”

The Perth-based musician is a seasoned social and environmental justice advocate.

The Kimberley is clearly close to John Butler's heart and his guitar gently weeps for it

His guitar guides his storytelling, weaving fact with a sense of place, injustice, politics and alternative narratives. He is determined to name and shame cowboy politics.

“This is a huge social justice issue – compulsory acquisition has been held as a gun to the head of the Traditional Owners. It’s an extremely undemocratic process – liberty and law by the state government. The government is selling it as everybody deserves jobs. That’s true, but WA citizens have no lack of jobs, we are giving them away.

“This is about the Kimberley as the next Pilbara. It’s opening the doors to fully industrialise the Kimberley.  We are told indigenous communities deserve access to health, social services and education. All citizens deserve this, it is the most basic of human rights to have a house and access to school, but I didn’t have to sell my land to get access to a home or schooling.

“Environmentally it will create a 52 kilometre dead zone, the clearing of rare vine thickets and disturbance to natural habitat including bilbies. The annual return on investment going ahead at James Price Point is 11 per cent; it’s 15 per cent at the alternative North West Shelf. On all fronts – social, environmental and economically, it’s not sustainable. You can give the facts to a five-year-old to work it out.”

The politics of the proposed development have found their way to our federal courts. The community continues to protest with their bodies, blocking roads forged without formal approval. It recently lured the Sea Shepherd’s ship Steve Irwin away from the Japanese whale slaughter to take action against the state government’s proposed whale genocide.

“I got the opportunity to go up in a helicopter with Joe and see that beautiful coastline from above. I could see the land clearing without official permission. I talked to Joe. He was quite upset at the size of the dam. He mentioned it twice; it’s a big deal if Joe mentions something twice. All this on the land his ancestors are buried.”

The dissent of the larger Broome community is clear and Butler is determined to bring it to the consciousness of the city. He talks about it at gigs, fronts the media and has released the song Kimberley.

The landscape that defines our sense of self, our identity, is at the mercy of resource extraction

“The iconic Australian shots we send as postcards to overseas friends are of the Kimberley. This land is in Australians' hearts and minds. It’s a cultural priority. We are dealing with resource-addicted cowboys. It’s overwhelming at times, yet we have the resolve to do the right thing. We need a national intervention.”

An Australia framed as happy to put jobs and a dollar before culture concerns Butler. It’s an argument that arouses false confidence in economic rationalism.

The facts paint a bleaker picture for the local community. The proposed gas hub is expected to create 6,000 construction jobs – 85 per cent for fly in fly out workers. Up to 600 operational jobs are expected with a 75 per cent FIFO workforce.

“This whole operation is giving to very little to Broome in terms of jobs and economy. The $700 million tourism industry will be trashed.

“We need to connect the dots. Both federally and at a state level this is a voting issue. It comes back to politics. People would be shocked to connect the photos they have seen of the Kimberley with the world’s largest gas plant.”

Piping gas to the existing North West Shelf is a viable alternative and international briefings have been held for the project’s investors. The strength of opposition to the project continues to grow, along with a protest camp at JPP. The local community is only too aware that though the nature of this relaxed coastal town glints gold in the eyes of cowboys, its future is inevitably in the hands of all Australians.

  • ACF's Investor Alert is raising awareness amongst investors of the risks of a gas hub at James Price Point.
  • For the full John Butler interview, the 'Kimberley' song, photos and video, download the habitat iPad magazine at the Apple App Store.
  • Find out more about our Kimberley campaign 

Comments (2)

Geraldine Gillen
16 October 2012 - 10:54pm

I am yet to get the opportunity to go to Broome and the Kimberley. I want to see it in all its natural beauty, not industrialized and ugly. Thank you John for raising the profile of this unsustainable development.

3 May 2013 - 9:49am

Politics indeed! And the moral majority is losing a deep battle over jobs and the economy at any cost. We are bereft of national and political leadership on the Kimberly, CSG, the Tarkine etc When are we going tyo see a Greens Unity party contest and win seats?