By Michael Smith and John Lourens
Most people would agree that embezzling money from the living is a despicable and low act. And many people would argue that embezzling money from the dead is an even worse deed. Yet, both of these things are alleged to have occurred at Boulder – large amounts of money are said to have been stolen from the living and the dead. Money that to this day is totally unaccounted for.
A disappearance yet to be fully investigated. A possible crime where suspects are yet to be identified or ruled out of contention. And, as if to add insult to injury, a possible crime that many believe involved the purchase of holiday units in a seaside resort.
To state the obvious, there is not a lot of publicly available information on the Boulder mystery. But what limited information exists on the public record is certainly sufficient to enable the broad parameters of a possible crime to be discerned. At the very least, this public information enables pertinent questions to be framed and asked. It is perhaps inevitable that much speculation surrounds the Boulder mystery. However, speculation cannot automatically be dismissed – especially if it is both reasoned and reasonable in the light of circumstantial evidence.
The Australian Workers’ Union (AWU) fraud of 1992 to 1995 spread its tentacles far and wide. One of these tentacles is said to have reached the Western Australian town of Boulder. Another tentacle allegedly reached the Western Australian seaside resort of Kalbarri. Although much is yet to be revealed about the precise detail of the Boulder mystery, the alleged crime contains two basic ingredients – the same basic ingredients common to so many other aspects of the AWU fraud.
The two ingredients referred to are Bruce Wilson and Julia Gillard.
The purpose of this paper is to present a concise summary of what is publicly known about the Boulder mystery, together with what can usefully be described as “informed speculation”. The paper also includes an appendix that seeks to emphasise the human element of the Boulder mystery.
Information presented here has been gathered from a variety of public sources – newspaper articles, various websites, blog comments and recorded interviews with persons who have direct knowledge of the events that transpired in Boulder.
Boulder, Western Australia
The small town of Boulder lies 595 kilometres northeast of Perth, the capital of Western Australia. Up until 1989, Boulder was part of its own municipality, but in 1989 it merged with Kalgoorlie to form the new City of Kalgoorlie–Boulder. Boulder is now an official suburb of Kalgoorlie.
Lying within the Eastern Goldfields region of Western Australia, Boulder has a small population – 5,187 people according to the 2006 Australian Census. Boulder is known as “the home of the Super Pit”. And for very good reason!
The Super Pit
Prior to 1989, all gold mining operations in the Kalgoorlie region were conducted underground. It was difficult and dangerous work for the miners involved. Working conditions were harsh and the risk of death and disease was forever present.
One particularly insidious disease among underground miners was silicosis – a respiratory disease caused by inhaling silica dust. The risk of silicosis, or “Potter’s rot” as it is sometimes called, increases markedly where pneumatic drilling and explosives are used in enclosed underground environments.
By the late 1980s, high grade ore that underground mines were especially good at exploiting was becoming depleted and hard to find. Individual mines became unprofitable and were no longer viable. So much so, that in 1989 Kalgoorlie Consolidated Gold Mines Pty Ltd took over many of the underground mining leases in the area.
The plan was to close the individual underground mines and consolidate them into a single open cut mine capable of extracting gold from the vast quantity of low grade ore that underground mining could not exploit easily or profitably. Thus was established Australia’s largest open cut gold mine – the Fimiston Open Pit, more popularly referred to as “the Super Pit”.
The Super Pit, visible from space, is 3.6 kilometres long, 1.6 kilometres wide and approximately 500 metres deep. There are currently 550 people working directly on site at the Super Pit. The mine operates 24 hours per day, 7 days per week and currently produces around 850,000 ounces of gold each year.
The mine is expected to be operational until the year 2021.
The money allegedly stolen in the Boulder mystery came from underground miners who had been retrenched when their mines were taken over by Kalgoorlie Consolidated Gold Mines and closed. Literally, an entire workforce was thrown out of work to make way for the Super Pit. Financial imperatives dictated that the underground mining skills of old were no longer required in the new technological era of open cut gold mining.
The Boulder Mystery
In mid-1992, hundreds of miners working in the Fimiston underground gold mines were retrenched as part of the ever expanding Super Pit. As can be imagined, this caused huge uncertainty and social upheaval not only among the families concerned, but also among the many local retail and service businesses that depended on miners for their own livelihoods.
The underground miners had known retrenchment was inevitable, and when that day finally arrived, naturally their minds turned to matters of financial survival. One of the issues that greatly concerned them was the Goldfields Fatal Accident and Death Fund, more popularly referred to as the “Fatality Fund”.
The Fatality Fund was a special purpose fund established to provide financial assistance to the widows and children of miners who were killed at work, or who died from work-related diseases such as silicosis. Everyone, workers and managers alike, contributed to the Fatality Fund on a weekly basis. When a miner was killed at work, or passed away from illness, a cash sum of $6,000 would be delivered to the bereaved family to assist with the inevitable financial burden that follows the death of a loved one and bread winner.
At the time of the mass retrenchments, the Fatality Fund contained a large amount of money – anywhere from several hundred thousand to a million dollars depending on which reports are accepted.
The retrenched miners, all members of the AWU, wanted to know what would happen to the money contained in the Fatality Fund. Would the money be distributed to members?
Would it be donated to charity? Or what?
Many miners were concerned that the money would fall under the control of the State Secretary of the Western Australian branch of the AWU, Bruce Wilson.
The AWU offices in Boulder were about to be sold as a result of the retrenchments, and members had read newspaper reports that Wilson was “having a party with all the money” (quote from recorded interview).
It is perhaps little wonder that the retrenched miners were concerned about the future disposition of their Fatality Fund money.
The miners discussed their Fatality Fund concerns among themselves at the Boulder Hotel. As a result of these discussions, they then called for a formal meeting to be held at the Boulder Town Hall – a meeting that would be addressed the AWU State Branch Secretary, Bruce Wilson.
The well-attended 8:00 PM Town Hall meeting was held in about June or July 1992. At this meeting, Bruce Wilson introduced a special visitor from Melbourne who would address those present – Ms Julia Gillard, a solicitor with the Melbourne law firm, Slater & Gordon. The main item under discussion was what to do with the Fatality Fund money.
Ms Gillard recommended that management of the Fund be transferred to the AWU State headquarters in Perth. She reassured the retrenched miners that their money would be safe. Up until then, the Fund had been managed from the AWU offices in Boulder.
The Fund money was subsequently transferred to Perth. What happened to the money after the transfer has been an enduring mystery over the past 20 years, and subject to considerable speculation.
Some miners believe the money was deposited into an unauthorised, and hitherto undiscovered, bank account operated by Wilson. Other miners suspect money from the Fatality Fund was used to purchase (possibly in February 1995) two holiday units for $145,000 at the Western Australian seaside resort of Kalbarri, north of Geraldton.
It was even rumoured that the purchase was facilitated by a car dealer close to, and friendly with, Bruce Wilson. Even Fair Work Commissioner Ian Cambridge, who was national joint secretary of the AWU at the time, believed “more than $100,000” could have been spent on two Kalbarri units in the name of the Union.
Indeed, he was sufficiently convinced of this that he reported the matter to the National Crime Authority, and also to the Victoria Police Major Fraud Squad.
A police investigation was subsequently commenced but no charges were ever laid. To be fair, it has also been claimed in some quarters that the Fatality Fund money was never missing, and that it had properly found its way into official AWU funds – but this is not a common or widespread view.
Regardless of who is correct, two reasonable conclusions can be drawn about the allegedly missing Fatality Fund money.
First, and in light of the earlier Victoria Police investigation, to this day there are still unchallenged and unresolved assertions about the disposition of the miners’ Fatality Fund money.
Second, to this day, there has never been a public comment, or any form of public accounting, by the AWU on whether or not the Fatality Fund money was properly returned to the Union.
The result of this is that the retrenched miners are still very much in the dark as to where their money went, what it was spent on, or who benefitted from the alleged purchase (and subsequent sale) of the Kalbarri holiday units.
When considering the events surrounding the Boulder mystery, it seems clear that the retrenched miners at Boulder accepted Julia Gillard’s assurances that the money in their Fatality Fund would be safe.
Further, it is reasonable to suppose that had the miners not felt reassured, they would not have consented to having management of the Fund transferred to Bruce Wilson’s control. And why wouldn’t the miners feel reassured by Ms. Gillard’s words? She was after all a solicitor in a law firm, an important industrial lawyer from Melbourne, an independent person whose word could be trusted.
But several questions can be asked about Ms Gillard’s conduct at the time. Was she giving more than simply legal advice?
Was she inappropriately involving herself in the operational matters of her supposed client, the AWU? Was she qualified to give financial advice to the retrenched miners?
Could she, as a Victorian legal practitioner, give any sort of legal advice in Western Australia?
In the Boulder mystery we see a familiar pattern.
Once again, we have an alleged crime that police or other relevant authorities have shown little, or no, interest in investigating seriously.
Once again, we see a union, the AWU, apparently unconcerned about money allegedly stolen by, or from, its own members.
Once again, we find the same basic ingredients encountered so many times before in the AWU fraud – Bruce Wilson and Julia Gillard.
Once again, we see hardworking, everyday Australian workers and families betrayed, hurt, and then left to their own devices as they healed in silence.
Once again, we see our State and Federal politicians happy to remain quiet, turn a useful blind eye and let sleeping dogs lie.
And, in all likelihood, we will once again see a Prime Minister who refuses to answer questions about, or explain, her role in the Boulder mystery.
Australia, and Australians, deserve better than this!
Prepared by Michael Smith, FAIM and John Lourens, FCPA
Melbourne, Victoria – 28 November 2012