PUUYA STORIES

Jim Varghese, Deputy Chair

Highly respected public servant, Jim Varghese, was a leading advocate for the creation of the Puuya Foundation.

During his time in the Queensland public service Jim held roles as the Executive Director of Primary Industries, the CEO of the South East Queensland Transit Authority, the Deputy Director General of Natural Resources, and the Director General of Main Roads, Education, Employment and Training and Primary Industries and Fisheries. In 2009 he was admitted as a Member of the Order of Australia.

Jim’s engagement with the Lockhart River community began in earnest in 2002, when he was appointed by then Premier Peter Beattie to be the ‘Government Champion’ for the Lockhart River Indigenous Community. Jim prefers the term ‘Community Champion’, believing it better reflects the authentic engagement with the community, and the intent of the highly successful initiative, which was to advocate for and be a champion of the long term strategic vision for the community.

Jim still recalls his first trip to Lockhart River, when one of his senior staff members, and future founder and CEO of the Puuya Foundation, Denise Hagan, accompanied him.

“It was very clear that there was a significant level of mistrust towards the government, and towards us as its representatives,” Jim said.

“And it’s easy to understand why. The people of Lockhart River have a history where seven clans were brought to a single location and then forced to be there as part of the mission founded in 1924. They were forced to live under very strict conditions, more like indentured laborers than free people, and they were used and treated without respect for their culture and language.”

Jim, Denise and Jim’s team worked hard to build trust and to make it clear what they were trying to achieve under the ‘Government Champion’ program.

“It was important from the beginning to engage in a meaningful way with the community, including the elders, to let them know we were not there to impose anything upon them. But just as importantly, we were not there to receive a wishlist of items for short-term outcomes. We were there to work together to come up with strategic long term solutions to the challenges the community were facing.”

Jim felt there was a breakthrough moment in the path to building mutual trust when he was asked to travel to Lockhart River to assist in mediating a dispute between clan groups.

“When you consider the past experiences the people of Lockhart River have had with government representatives it was an honour to be invited to participate and mediate as a non-Indigenous individual from outside the community.”

Within moments of the mediation session commencing Jim came to a new appreciation of the extent to which unresolved historic issues continued to impact upon the community, including the relationships between the clan groups.

“There is no place in Australia where you could bring together seven different nationalities, cultures or clans, compel them to live in a remote location with insufficient housing and the resulting overcrowding and expect that a harmoniously multinational community would emerge without support or resources. But this is what we’ve done.”

Jim’s efforts during the day were focused on ensuring representatives of all clans were heard, before providing each group an opportunity to independently write down their proposed solutions.

“During the course of discussions, there was a strong feeling in the room that everyone disagreed, and that a solution could not be found, but when I read out each of the clan representative’s suggestions for the resolution, they were all the same.

“It was a watershed moment. They came up with a realistic, strategic, sustainable solution themselves as a community. We could help them implement it, but they identified their issue, critically assessed it and developed a strategic solution themselves.

“There has not been a dispute of that significance between the clans in the community since that day. That’s something I’m proud of personally. More importantly, the model used that day, one of empowering the community to determine and shape its own future held the seeds of what would later become the Puuya Approach.”

A few years later when Denise approached her then boss Jim to say she felt that something else was needed in the community, something that was more nimble and flexible than government could ever hope to be, Jim was immediately supportive, and put his hand up to become a Board member for the nonprofit that would become known as the Puuya Foundation.

Since that time Jim has continued to use his extensive knowledge, skills and experience in both the public and private sectors to guide the Puuya Foundation to become a strategic, mission-driven organisation known for its authentic engagement with the community, and its integrity in pursuing its mission.