Honouring courage with a shiny statue in a dump

NO TRIBUTE: A wanted poster for Australia's 'Lady Bushranger' Jessie Hickman, and a Hunter Valley mine site. There are renewed calls for the land to be rehabilitated.
NO TRIBUTE: A wanted poster for Australia's 'Lady Bushranger' Jessie Hickman, and a Hunter Valley mine site. There are renewed calls for the land to be rehabilitated.

HOW do you memorialise the ‘Lady Bushranger’, a woman who was sold and bought and sold again until she escaped her crappy lot and found freedom?

As reported by Joanne McCarthy, Muswellbrook Shire Council has recently secured what was rightfully theirs – a $5 million community fund from Ridgelands Coal Resources, part of which will now be used to memorialise Jessie Hickman, The ‘Lady Bushranger’. If you haven't heard of Jessie Hickman, you must have been living under a rock. Which is fine, if you can get it.

Jessie Hickman lived under a rock. Or, more accurately, she hid out in the wilderness of the Widden Ranges, sheltered by rock pagodas and sandstone cliffs, with views of gorges and canyons. Through the 1920s, she roamed across what would later be known as the Hunter and Western Coal Fields, stealing horses and cattle.

I spent seven years researching and writing a novel inspired by her life. The book, The Burial, has been published in 10 countries. This year it will be made into a feature film with the support of Screen Australia, directed by Jasmin Tarasin.

In response to different markets, the novel was renamed in various countries, such as The Untold (US), Sous La Terre (France), Onder de Grond (Germany) and one of my favourites: Un Mal Dia Para Nacer (Spain) which translates to A Bad Day to Die. In touring some of these countries, I discovered a common thread – readers loved a heroine who would not be defeated by authorities who saw her as only as a commodity. 

Jessie possessed considerable skill as a horsewoman but it was her strength of spirit that saved her. Peppered around the area were Jessie once roamed are mining companies who are now being very slippery about their obligations to the community, especially when it comes to cleaning up their mess. Sitting beside them are state agencies and government seemingly complicit.

Although it is state governments’ job to enforce the conditions of consent that allow mining companies to continue their activity they are failing to do so. The local council in Muswellbrook has again had to step up and take on BHP for their inadequate rehabilitation efforts at their Mount Arthur mine site in the Hunter Valley.

I grew up in the Hunter Valley in a community that co-existed with mining operations under the belief that the area would one day be rehabilitated. But this is proving to be the greatest fiction of all.

As stated in the NSW Auditor-General's Report to Parliament in May last year, Mining Rehabilitation Security Deposits: “There are few examples of large mines in NSW which have been successfully rehabilitated close to modern environmental standards.”

Rehabilitation is expensive and the price of it is consistently underestimated. There are currently 400 mine sites in NSW alone. With the downturn in the market, we are likely to see more major companies cutting and running, such as Rio Tinto Coal Australia who sold the Blair Athol mine in Queensland to unknown minor company Orion Mining for $1. Rio Tinto have effectively dodged their responsibility to clean up their dirty big mess.

Let’s imagine a memorial for the Lady Bushranger: a statue of her on horseback at full pelt. She’s in the middle of a dump that used to be a mine site. Nobody visits it. The water is toxic and the land around it is unstable. Unless we start demanding transparency and accountability from government and mining companies, that is the legacy we’ll all have a hand in creating.