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Feel the spirit

Feel the spirit

Posted 27 November 2013

What has happened since 4 July 2011 [Native Title Determination] is exciting, it excites the spirit. I am confident that great things can happen and will happen. Goodwill, that’s the key; things happen with goodwill’. – Uncle Bob Anderson, Quandamooka Elder and Director, Minjerribah Camping Pty Ltd

Ask any stakeholder in Minjerribah Camping Pty Ltd about the success of their new business, and the answer will invariably include the word ‘goodwill’. Goodwill sustained both IBA and the Quandamooka Yoolooburrabee Aboriginal Corporation Registered Native Title Body Corporate (QYAC) through three years of negotiations to finalise the Minjerribah Camping joint venture agreement. Goodwill has resulted in the realisation of its first business venture, Straddie Camping.

And goodwill is now driving forward a business committed to Caring for Country while generating economic, employment and social benefits for the Quandamooka people of North Stradbroke Island.

Thirteen kilometres from the Brisbane mainland a ferry is pulling up on North Stradbroke Island – ‘Straddie’. As its ramp is lowered, 4WD, car and motorcycle engines roar to life as drivers and foot passengers prepare to disembark.

Among the passengers are some of the island’s 2,000 or so residents, returning home from work or other activities on the mainland. If it’s holiday season, the majority will be campers keen to kick-start their island adventure, and they’ll be making a beeline for the booking office of Straddie Camping. Many will be repeat visitors, getting their regular fix of the Straddie vibe: white sandy beaches, magnificent sunsets, world-class fishing and a warm welcome from laid-back locals.

At the Straddie Camping booking office, the Guest Services team are standing ready to issue camping and 4WD permits, dispense information about tides, weather and fishing conditions, or just let people know where to buy bread and milk. As the first point of contact for many visitors to the island, and as proud Traditional Owners, the team are enjoying every opportunity to invite their guests to ‘Feel the Spirit of Quandamooka Country’.

It’s a simple invitation representing a long journey to self-determination. That journey ended - and also began afresh – in February 2013 when Quandamooka Elders bestowed their blessing, prayers and gifts upon the stakeholders and head office of Straddie Camping.

The long-held aspirations of those Elders, and the broader island community, were realised in July 2011 when a historic Native Title Determination transferred ownership of the island’s existing camping business, Straddie Holiday Parks, and control of the land on which it was operating, from Queensland’s Redland City Council (as trustees) to QYAC.

Prior to that determination and in partnership with IBA, QYAC (which represents 11 family groups) was already negotiating with Redland City Council to purchase the camping business, after identifying its potential to generate employment and revenue for the island’s Indigenous population. The events of July 2011 turned those negotiations on their head.

QYAC Chair Cameron Costello who led the negotiations alongside Elder Uncle Bob Anderson recalls:

‘It was very unique! It was initially IBA and QYAC negotiating with Redland City Council. But when the Native Title Determination came down, and we were suddenly trustees of the island, it became QYAC negotiating with IBA. That was an interesting situation because suddenly Uncle Bob and I were on opposite sides of the table to David Vigar [Head of Acquisitions] and Will Tynan [Manager Acquisitions] from IBA having these hardcore discussions’, he said. ‘And then at the end – because we all wanted the same outcome - we’d shake hands and say “see you in the boardroom later mate”’.

After three years of frank and robust negotiations, sustained by mutual respect and commitment to seeing the investment realised for the benefit of the Quandamooka people, IBA and QYAC signed their joint venture agreement in November 2012. ‘The dynamic on the board is fantastic’, said Cameron. ‘There is no misconception; this will take time. The camping ground is going back to Aboriginal people to manage as trustees of the land. There will be teething problems, and cultural protocols to go through – there is always that, and that will take time to get the machine in motion. It’s the display of goodwill from Redland to start with, IBA and the Quandamooka people that is making this successful – that commitment and goodwill’.

The signing of the agreement has enabled Straddie Camping to take over administration and management of the island’s six holiday parks and two foreshore camping grounds (a total of 1,200 sites). With more than 85,000 visitors to Straddie each year, the joint venture is producing significant employment and income outcomes for the Quandamooka community. Currently 50 per cent of staff are Indigenous, with further employment expected from a capital works program to upgrade and expand camping facilities; create new public art and signage across the island; and further develop its tourism and cultural potential.

Uncle Bob Anderson believes the employment being generated by the business will encourage Quandamooka people to remain – or return to - living and working on their island home.

‘It will provide an opportunity for those who left the Island to come home, and I am confident that will happen... ‘, he said. ‘People who are living on the mainland have got skills, and their very presence back here [has] started to broaden it out; you can feel the warmth and strength of all that spirit’.

Cameron credits Uncle Bob and the island’s Indigenous and non-Indigenous community with driving the Minjerribah Camping joint venture forward. ‘We need to acknowledge local residents on the island including Auntie Joan Hendriks, Darren Burns and Jan Aldenhoven’, he said. ‘They and others stepped in at an early stage of the native title fight and said “this is our community’s opportunity to be involved in our Island’s future”. It’s important to recognise that the Indigenous and non-Indigenous residents were the people who instigated this process, and without them the Native Title Determination would have had little impact, because the camping business could have been tendered out’.

The Chief Executive Officer of Straddie Camping, Clare Carroll, grew up on the island and remembers those early conversations. ‘My dad was a doctor here on the island’, she said, ‘and he was a vocal member of the community, fighting to see opportunities created for its youth and elderly in particular... Not everyone agreed with his ways and his views, but what all those community leaders had in common was they wanted a better life that included jobs, economic opportunities and improved access to health services for all’.

‘This business covers generations of past conversations and arguments, and encapsulates the dreams and wishes of many people. This is something everyone has been talking about – just in different ways’, she said.

Both Cameron and Clare say the ceremonial blessing of the joint venture was culturally very significant and emotional. ‘I felt the “clouds of witnesses” were there wishing us on our way’, said Clare. ‘All our ancestors who had fought for this type of business opportunity were there wishing us well. And for some staff it was the first time the penny dropped about who and what this enterprise really is. It was truly evident that this business is a remedy to right past wrongs’.

Cameron said the blessing also delivered an important message to the Indigenous community about their ownership of the joint venture. ‘The blessing was very important because Quandamooka people were concerned that the “IBA juggernaut” was going to come into the business and our people would get lost’, he said. ‘So that was one of the concerns we had to address at a community level. The blessing was a really good and important way to say this is not an IBA thing; this is actually our business, in partnership with IBA’.

Straddie Camping has thus far been successful because of the strength of its partnerships, based on the desire for a strong economic and social future for the island. ‘We have a shared vision, we believe in it and we are serious about its outcomes’, said Clare. ‘We communicate, are inclusive and respectful, we value input from our community and respect the rights of all members who love and share our Island. We are focused on delivering profits and benefits to our shareholders and our whole community, and to achieve that we are ultimately striving to provide great beach camping holiday experiences’.

Delivering those benefits relies on the venture succeeding as a business enterprise, and Cameron says that in turn requires strong governance and setting realistic expectations. ‘This needs to be a sustainable business first and foremost’, he said. ‘We have been waiting a long time for native title to come down, and everyone wants to see the benefits straightaway. So it’s an education process about what this element of our journey is about’.

‘In addition to my role on the board of Minjerribah Camping, as Chair of QYAC I have to create an environment where we can flourish politically, socially, culturally and economically’, said Cameron. ‘For us to do that, we have to have a stable board, stable partnerships with all our key stakeholders – and a stable community. We aren’t always going to have all those things at the same time, but sometimes they align and if you are ready, you can take advantage of the opportunities’.

Back at the Straddie Camping booking office the pride in what the business has already achieved is evident among the Guest Services team.

‘The beauty of this venture’, said Cameron, ‘is that if you start with the core of it being a Quandamooka business, it shows and demonstrates to our Mob that we can be successful, which is a massive thing, because success breeds success. It’s our first business venture and we will make it work, and that will influence and grow our capacity and our social capital as businesspeople and professionals’.

‘It’s such as massive task’, he added, ‘But I believe that as a business and as a community we will go from strength to strength. We have the spirit of so many great Quandamooka people gone before us, and so many still around us’.

If you too would like to ‘Feel the Spirit of Quandamooka Country’, the Straddie Camping team is waiting to welcome you.

Meanwhile we invite you to meet the proud Quandamooka women who make up the Guest Services team at Straddie Camping in our article People Power.

Or find out more about Straddle Camping and  IBA’s Investments Program.