December 1, 2004.


"This project was, and still is, the first major test of Territory self government.
"This is its real icon, this place here."
Goff Letts is sitting in the plush lobby of the five star Sails in the Desert, the flagship hotel of the Ayers Rock Resort.
Outside the huge windows are towering gum trees.
They were planted as seedlings when Dr Letts was heading up a small team, formed by the fledgeling Territory government which didn't take no for an answer, setting out to create one of the world's great tourist playgrounds in one of the world's harshest and most remote regions.
Tourist numbers at The Rock were around 50,000 a year, staying in four motels at the base of the world famous monolith.
These pubs were a collection of dongas and ramshackle corrugated iron buildings, full of outback charm but a long shot from the present resort serving 460,000 visitors a year and likely to be turning over $110m in 2004-05.
Yet Dr Letts' test isn't over yet: the jury is still out on whether the resort is a blessing or a blight for Alice Springs, whose role as the region's tourism hub has been usurped by the behemoth in the desert.
Last week the resort celebrated its opening 20 years ago.
The Territory's first Chief Minister, Paul Everingham, wasn't there for the party, but Ian Tuxworth was.
He was the Minister responsible for parks, including Ayers Rock, which Dr Letts managed as the head of the Conservation Commission.
Life was still easy. Aboriginal land rights were in their infancy, native title hadn't been recognised.
The region was awakening from the long slumber of administration by the Commonwealth.
It had given the NT self government on July 1, 1978.
The Country Liberal Party, founded in Alice Springs, formed the first government and local lawyer Everingham was soon on a mission to accomplish something that during the detested "Canberra control" had been in the too hard basket.
Recalled Dr Letts: "You had the various reports the old Reserves Board commissioned.
"It went back nearly 20 years, which recommended that this [resort be built], and in the last report the location wasn't very different from where this place is now.
"But the Commonwealth government simply wasn't interested. The reports sat on shelves. Nothing happened.
"Some of the old motels at Ayers Rock weren't all that enthusiastic about the idea, anyway.
"But within two years of self government the decisions were being made to go ahead with this."
Mr Tuxworth remembered his first suggestion to Cabinet was to build two 20 storey towers at the end of the old runway at the base of the Rock.
Think again, he was told by his colleagues in no uncertain terms.
"First and foremost, the new resort was a conservation project," said Dr Letts.
"Secondly it was a tourist project.
"From a conservation point of view there was enormous damage being done close in around the Rock.
"That had been known for 25 years."
Ironically, little has changed at the old motel site.
It was taken over by the Aboriginal community, Mutitjulu, especially after The Rock national park was "handed back" to them by Prime Minister Bob Hawke.
Dr Letts said he had a consultancy assignment at The Rock six years ago.
He spent "a lot of time" at the Mutitjulu community.
He avoided a direct answer when asked whether there is now less environmental degradation at that site: "There is a lot of improvement compared with what it would have been looking like 20 years down the track" if Yulara had not been built, he said.
Dr Letts maintained that from an environmental standpoint, the switch of location, some 27 kilometers away from The Rock, was "ten out of ten".
And so, without a doubt, was the construction of the initial resort, a five star hotel at one end, a "coach" standard one on the other, and in the "spine" in between the two, accommodation for the staff.
Dr Letts "pinched" Geoff Loveday, a former Commonwealth public servant, from the NT Electricity Commission to set up the Yulara Project Group, together with Graeme Ride, the "engineering brains" and a Conservation Commission staffer.
Apart from sand, everything had to be carted from hundreds, if not thousands of kilometers away.
Temperatures ranged from below freezing to approaching 50 degrees.
Isolation was extreme.
Yet the project was built on time (30 months) and on budget, about $180m in Mr Loveday's recollection, $230m in Mr Tuxworth's.
A "deal with the unions" ensured there was only minimal disruption through industrial action.
Yulara's almost triumphal construction phase was marred only by a bitter, multi million dollar dispute with principal contractor White Industries.
The reasons for building the resort, as an adjunct to the tourism industry of Alice Springs, were clear to Mr Loveday.
"We were very conscious of that and we built Yulara with those objectives in mind," he said.
"Initially we made sure everything was done so [tourism] was cycled, as much as possible, through Alice Springs.
"We set it up so Alice Springs didn't suffer.
"For example, the initial air strip wasn't big enough to take a wide bodied jet."
But then things quickly went pear shaped as a succession of bureaucrats and hapless government appointees embarked on a string of management and ownership schemes that just didn't work.
There were a succession of huge, government-backed bank loans.
Instrumentalities of the NT Government were propping up Yulara by buying its utilities.
In 1991 the debt was expected to be more than $171m.
Mr Tuxworth said on the weekend public servants are good at making sure money is properly accounted for but are not necessarily able to come up with ways to spend it to the best advantage.
"There was always going to be the issue of people who had the resort in the control of their department and didn't want to let it go," he said.
"But at some stage the government had to make the decision we're not going to put up with this any more, and we're going to sell.
"I dealt with this [as early as] 1986.
"I commissioned a report which said this animal owes you $364m."
The resort became a political liability and a recurring election issue.
A mechanism kicked in whereby to salvage the dud the NT Government had created, it needed to sacrifice the interests of Alice Springs.
The prime example is the Yulara airport.
Paul Everingham had announced (and you need to read this very slowly): "There will never be any direct flights to Ayers Rock."
Indeed, the runway's capacity in 1979 was only for aircraft the size of Fokker Fellowship F28s flying between Yulara and Alice.
But as things went bad the government bent to demands for bigger planes – and direct flights: in March 1991 the first Boeing 737 planes were landing at Yulara.
Said Mr Tuxworth: "The financial pressure was considerable.
"The government reached out and opted for the easy or the cheap option of increasing the aircraft size that could come directly to the Rock from the capital cities.
"Alice Springs ceased to be the hub.
"I think they were doing that to alleviate the financial pressure, and that was never going to [work].
"The financial pressure here had to be eased in two ways: by increasing the traffic and by refinancing the total project.
"When we did the [Mereenie] pipeline we financed it at about 11 per cent. The flat earth society thought it was a terrible thing.
"Within two years it was refinanced at about six or seven per cent," said Mr Tuxworth.
"The bankers said, we have an operating creature here.
"We're happy to put our money into it because it's doing what everybody said it would be doing."
For a long time there was no private money interested in buying into the resort serving Australia's best known natural tourist attraction.
The government owned Yulara, for better or for worse.
Mr Loveday did a deal with Sheraton (for the five star hotel) and Four Seasons (coach class) to manage the two initial accommodation houses.
Later there was a flood of complaints to Sheraton, including letters from Mr Tuxworth, who was then Chief Minister, about the company's failure to perform.
In 1997 the financial burden triggered the sale for just $220m to General Property Trust of Ayers Rock Resort Management Pty Ltd, renamed Voyages Hotels and Resorts in 2000. The resorts' various elements had been amalgamated in the early 1990s. Sheraton and Four Seasons had been sacked, and 40 per cent of the resort sold to the Advent Group in 1991.
Mr Tuxworth estimated last weekend that the NT Government divested itself of the resort, including the 104 square kilometers of freehold land adjoining the national park, for one third of the resort's replacement value.
Yet it is clear that under competent management this erstwhile public asset could have turned a tidy dollar, as well as being a key element, under the control of the public, for the development of the Territory tourism industry.
Said Grant Hunt, Voyages CEO: "They didn't realize in those days that integration was so important.
"They put different hotel operators in with their different cultures and organizational styles.
"There was no cooperation, no staff sharing, no marketing and distribution synergies.
"The government, God bless their souls for putting this resort here in the first place, but they are the government.
"They are not commercial, they are not private sector, and we are.
"We have a much sharper edge and focus."
Mr Hunt said he started as the CEO in December 1995: "While the government was the major shareholder we ran it like a private corporation.
"It was in those days that we started to get some traction, some commercial enterprise into the place.
"I was here only 18 months and the government said we want to sell it.
"We sold it to General Property Trust and we were very fortunate as a management team that they wanted to keep us all on."
In the panic to make the Ayers Rock Resort tick, and finally, to get rid of it, many of the development's early principles were jettisoned.
Some were technical, some were social.
For example, environmental technology at the resort was touted as cutting edge.
The hundreds of glycol filled solar collectors on the rooftop of the Sails Hotel were the "largest array" in the southern hemisphere, a ground breaking system that could turn heat into cooling via huge ice water tanks in the basement of the visitors' centre.
But today only "a couple" of the panels work, as water heaters.
The "spine" between the first two hotels housed the staff, and the intention was that in the evenings the workers and the visitors would mingle as one big happy family.
The spine has now been turned into visitor accommodation.
Staff live on the eastern outskirts of the resort, shielded from view by sand hills.
Perhaps the saddest departure from the lofty early intentions was the failure of the Aboriginal living area at the resort, designed over months of consultations with the local Aboriginal community.
That part of Yulara lay idle for years and is now used for coach camping.
Not a single Aboriginal from Mutitjulu, whose unemployment rate is massive, has a job in the resort, despite its overt desire to employ locals.
If the Rock resort was to be a building block of a Territory wide tourism development strategy, then the government's Tourist Commission gave no indication it was coping with the task.
Senior tourism figures in Alice Springs say the town has lost the "battle for Ayers Rock".
Again, it seems it's left to private enterprise to create a network Territory-wide – and beyond.
The Ayers Rock Resort is the core from which Voyages is spreading far and wide, buying 13 resorts elsewhere – King's Canyon, Alice Springs, the six former P&O Islands including Heron and Dunk, a "ranch" in Queensland, two lodges in Tasmania.
Meanwhile the behemoth 450 kilometres south-west The Alice now has five hotels ranging from two and a half to five stars; a four star string of apartments; campgrounds, nine restaurants and bars, and owns every single shop in the place – from the supermarket to the beauty salon.
The 1100 residents live in 740 dwellings ranging from dormitories to three bedroom homes.
The overwhelming majority of the staff come from interstate, many from overseas.
The 460,000 visitors to the adjacent national park – that's an average of nearly 1300 a day – come mainly from Europe (41.5 per cent), Australia (27.2 per cent) and Asia (14.9 per cent).
"We're a big part of the Territory economy and a big part of the tourism industry," said Mr Hunt.
"It's just been an evolution rather than a revolution.
"We employ 800 staff directly, another 300 indirectly through concessionaires.
"The [NT Government gets] all the direct stuff, employment, taxes, prosperity."
How many Territorians does the resort employ?
"Not very many.
"If we could we would employ locals, but the fact of the matter is, with 800 staff required on a regular basis, those people aren't available.
"There's a bit of a myth about people coming and racking off.
"Our length of stay, since I've been here, has increased from 4.4 months to nearly 14 months.
"For supervisory and higher levels that's more than two and a half years.
"We're not only creating economic activity, we're creating a stable employment environment.
"[The region] thrives on that new blood, the generation of ideas and economic activity that comes from outside.
"We have a buy local policy," said Mr Hunt.
"For example, when we did our $82m expansion and refurbishment program in 2000 and 2001, 95 per cent of the contractors were from the NT, and 90 to 95 per cent of the money spent on materials was spent in the Territory.
"Whenever we can get it here we'll get it here.
Mr Hunt isn't fazed by the prospect of competition from Aurora Hotels (Alice News, Oct 20).
"Competition is great," he said.
"We thrive in the private sector.
"But they still have a lot of hurdles to jump.
"There is this thing called the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act which we have to jump through every time we do something, every time we breathe.
"To build another resort or more rooms or more capacity that's going to feed into the park, is going to be a major environmental concern.
"The [Federal Government] will be very vigilant to address what Aurora – or whoever it is – has to jump through.
"But competition doesn't faze us at all. We welcome it."
Mr Hunt said the Ayers Rock Resort is "probably the most visionary tourism development anywhere in the world.
"When you think what they had in those days, these ramshackle buildings at the base of the Rock, the government had the foresight to say, if we leave this here, it is going to destroy this beautiful natural environment.
"It was a very tough decision.
"To carve this resort out of virgin land, and put something there that will cater, in 20 years' time, for 400,000 guests, is just phenomenal vision.
"The first few years were rocky and I'm sure the government got lambasted all over the place for it.
"But right now it's a huge economic driver, a huge employer, and a huge generation of tourism activity in the NT.
"The Rock is the icon but our absolute aspiration as a company is for every one of our visitors to go on to King's Canyon, Alice Springs and further up in the Territory. If we could be successful in that, just think how powerful Central Australia could be in tourism terms."

The face of the future, Mutitjulu resident, St Philip's student and part time worker in the Cultural Centre cafeteria, Khalia Mallie, 16.
BUT Not many of her peers are as focused. None work at the resort.
Community leader Graeme Calma says the resort is "very willing to work with Anangu now, and with the community.
"We'll have to try and keep that flowing and see if we can build on that, but it's a matter of getting these young people motivated.
"One of the biggest things we see that could help is mentoring and training, on the job, support, encourage and motivate them more.
"Most of the time they won't complete long term training. We need more short-term, meaningful employment.
"Some of the time it's little things that put people off, turning up on time.
"We're trying to work with the resort, show them the cultural aspects.
A lot of jobs wouldn't require a lot of skills."


Aldermen gave the Bowerbird Tip Shop a huge pat on the back and council officers a sound rap over the knuckles before a packed public gallery at Monday's town council meeting.
Officers were harshly criticised for not having properly informed the aldermen of the issues concerning the future of the weighbridge contract, the tip shop and salvaging rights at the landfill, all of which are currently carried out by Bowerbird Enterprises Pty Ltd.
Said Alderman Marguerite Baptiste-Rooke: "I used to trust the officers. I don't really trust them now and that's not right."
Officers had specifically invited Bowerbird to provide a detailed written statement about their operation and then had never passed it on to aldermen.
When asked why, Mayor Fran Kilgariff could offer no explanation but said CEO Rex Mooney would be looking into it.
Ms Kilgariff rejected calls from Bowerbird for an inquiry into the officers' handling of the situation.
The council's own Waste Management Advisory Committee had not been consulted on the issues. This was supposedly because of conflict of interest for two members of the committee.
Chairman Rod Cramer said that in the six years he's been on the committee conflict of interest has never been used as a reason not even to discuss an issue.
A ratepayer suggested that serious questions had been raised concerning the council's decision-making process.
Ms Kilgariff appeared to agree when she replied: "That's why we should defer the decision."
Alderman Murray Stewart, however, said deferral would be "a negation of leadership".
He said the process to date had been "one helluva botch up".
He said council should make it clear that they would not accept a tender for the weighbridge contract if it threatens the security of the tip shop.
And Bowerbird's 10 employees, who work in arduous conditions, should be given security over Christmas; it would be "an act of bastardry" if they weren't, said Ald Stewart.
Ald Baptiste-Rooke also wanted the issue to be dealt with as soon as possible. Aldermen now had a lot of information, not thanks to the officers whom she accused of having "deprived" aldermen of information.
Ald Jane Mure said despite concerns raised by the officers about a conflict of interest, she would still like to receive a deputation from Bowerbird Enterprises as well as give the Waste Management Advisory Committee an opportunity for feedback to the aldermen.
Ald Samih Habib was all for extending Bowerbird's contracts on the spot.
Ald Des Rogers, participating in the meeting by phone, said he agreed with Ald Stewart – "I never though I'd actually say this" – that council should give Bowerbird some guarantees. He said council had a duty of care to Bowerbird because they provide "a fantastic community service".
Ald Melanie Van Haaren, also participating by phone, finally moved that an extraordinary meeting be called next week to discuss and resolve the issues.
"This is not in dispute of the anticipated outcome," she said, " because I'm aware of the opinions of the aldermen.
"This is to ensure correct process."
This motion was carried five to three.
The issues are reasonably complex and there are differences within council itself about how to handle them, let alone between council and Bowerbird Enterprises and its supporters.
According to council's director of technical services, Eric Peterson, the present situation is this:
• The weighbridge contract, currently operated by Bowerbird, expires December 31, and "is a costly service".
• The lease for the tip shop, also operated by Bowerbird, has expired.
• There are "significant risks for personal injury associated with the current manner of scavenging". (Bowerbird has what it prefers to call salvaging rights on the tip face.)
• Resource recovery has been identified as an important waste management strategy.
• Now is an opportune time for an orderly review of current procedures.
• Changes to existing arrangements depend on assessment of tenders and expressions of interest.
• Existing arrangements are proposed to be extended to March 31, 2005.
Sounds reasonable but Bowerbird sees in this scenario the death knell of the tip shop, a key part of its commitment to the recovery and recycling of materials that would otherwise end up in the landfill.
Bowerbird is an independent company that operates without subsidy from council – other than a peppercorn lease – with the equivalent of six full-time positions.
It was created by members of the Arid Lands Environment Centre to tender for the weighbridge contract at the landfill, with the tip shop as a supplementary activity. It won the tender and has operated both since 2001.
It was the only business to lodge an expression of interest to establish the tip shop.
Its commercial strategy was to use the profits of the weighbridge contract to cross-subsidise the shop.
Company director Glenn Marshall says the tip shop is not a stand-alone enterprise. On its present earnings, with exclusive salvaging rights, it could support one and a half positions but it takes the equivalent of six to keep it open, salvage material from the landfill, and administer.
Mr Marshall says the company is happy to compete in a commercial environment but to ensure the future of the tip shop, for the community good, the Town Council should link the weighbridge and tip shop contracts – so that anyone wanting to operate the weighbridge should also demonstrate resource recovery and recycling capability.
"Given that the weighbridge, tip shop and salvage rights have operated as a commercially successful combination for four years, why should council split them up so that the tip shop is not viable," asks Mr Marshall.
"There is no reason why council shouldn't re-tender all of them as a package, and if another tenderer undercuts Bowerbird's new tender price, then so be it," he said.
"At least the town gets to keep a tip shop."
This sounds even more reasonable but when the Alice News put it to Mr Peterson his response was rather intransigent.
He says cross-subsidisation by Bowerbird is a commercial decision, and "not relevant to council".
"If a cross-subsidy is to occur then it should be by an open and public policy position that can be justified to be in the public interest. This has not happened.
"The operation of the weighbridge is to collect fees and weigh refuse received; resource recovery in this context is irrelevant."
He also says: "Closure of the tip shop will not affect council's commitment to recycling".
But Ms Kilgariff and Mr Mooney are more encouraging.
Ms Kilgariff says she is "absolutely committed to Bowerbird surviving" and on Monday night aldermen passed unanimously a motion affirming their on-going support of the tip shop.
Mr Mooney says it would be "a disaster" for the tip shop to close.
Mr Mooney also raised the option of a direct subsidy to Bowerbird to run the tip shop.
Mr Marshall says Mr Mooney should ask ratepayers what they prefer: a commercial enterprise delivering a service or ratepayers subsidising that same service.


Of the people who petitioned the Central Land Council to revoke Willowra community's adviser John Bennett's permit, how many are locals?
That question is the latest twist to the long running conflict on the community.
Mr Bennett says the vast majority of the signatories live in Ti Tree.
He says only 10 are from Willowra, and none of them are traditional owners.
Mr Bennett says Clark Martin is a traditional owner for Pawu, on the Aboriginal owned cattle station Mt Barkley Station, some 45 km away.
But CLC candidate for Stuart, Anna Machado, who released the petition to the Alice Springs News last week, says 66 of the signatories live at Willowra, 54 at Ti Tree and 60 at Yuendumu, currently the administrative centre for Willowra, north-west of Alice Springs.
Ms Machado said this week the petition had been organised by Mr Martin and Freddie Williams.
"Mr Martin was the one who went to Ti-Tree and Yuendumu to get the signatures from his families.
The petition was a result of the CLC's ignoring repeated requests for Mr Bennett’s permit to be revoked," Ms Machado said.


It's a story that bridges two hemispheres, three centuries, the Top End and The Centre and has its closing chapters in Alice Springs.
Darwin-based film-maker Mike Sweet intends to tell it and for Alice his timing is impeccable.
For it's the story of the life and work of Beni Carr Glynn Burnett, the architect who designed the corner extension of the Rieff buildings, threatened now with demolition by Yeperenye Pty Ltd on the go-ahead of Heritage Minister Marion Scrymgour.
That building, whatever its merit, is not the basis for Burnett's fame. He is now respected as the Northern Territory's most significant architect for having been able to adapt, with elegance, insight and economy, his sound traditional training to the exigencies of the Australian frontier. But until 1994 his remains lay in an unmarked grave in the Memorial Cemetery in Alice and his name had been all but forgotten.
Sweet's working title for the film, Searching for Beni, says something of the mystery surrounding Burnett, which research by the ex-BBC documentary producer has started to unravel.
We know that Burnett was born in 1889 in Mongolia to Scottish missionary parents. He was educated in Edinburgh and Peking, and began working as an architectural apprentice in China for a leading British firm in 1904.
In 1914 he married Florence Draper-Bentley, the daughter of an Australian mariner employed on the Yangtze River. By 1917 they had two sons, both born in Shanghai.
Burnett's career flourished and by the early 1920s, his European neo-classical designs had created the physical identities of the most powerful businesses in the fast developing urban centres of Shanghai and Peking.
One of Burnett's sons, John, survives to this day. Sweet quotes John as saying "the old man always said he did his grandest work in China".
A Brit himself, Sweet is drawn to this element of the story:
"Burnett's life can be divided into two distinct parts. The first part he spent on the edge of the British Empire, creating buildings reflecting the elite colonial culture from which he came. But the sun was setting on those buildings, and that colonial system.
"Then as the British Empire began to fracture in Asia, and the world moved inexorably towards war, Burnett arrived in Australia, where the second chapter of his life would be written.
"That he made his way to Australia's last frontier, first the Top End and then the Centre, where he lived until he died, is not some fluke.
"Perhaps it was at first a nostalgia for a British colonial ethic which was certainly present in the Australia he found.
"But he also found something very special here in the Territory which made him stay, enabling him to create his most personal and unique work – pioneering examples of extreme climate architecture."
Just before the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931, Burnett separated from his wife who returned to Britain with their children. He left China for Malaya, where he spent two years working in Ipoh and Singapore.
Sweet says it is clear he was influenced by the traditional architecture of the Malay Peninsular, which went on to inform his work in the Top End.
Burnett arrived in Sydney in 1933 or 1934, when the building industry was
still reeling from the Depression. He worked briefly with the firm Crick and Furse, but soon joined the Commonwealth public service to take up the post of Principal Architect for the Northern Territory.
One of his first tasks was to design housing for senior public servants in Darwin, which survive today as National Trust properties in the Myilly Point heritage precinct.
Other major works in Darwin were at the RAAF base and the Larrakeyah barracks.
In 1942 Burnett was evacuated to Alice Springs.
The full extent of his legacy here is still unfolding. The best-known and loved examples are the houses in Hartley and Bath Streets, acclaimed for their response to the Centre's extremes of climate, a complete departure from the tropical style Burnett had developed in Darwin and unlike anything else in Australia at the time.
Less well known and quite distinct stylistically are his commercial buildings, of which there are only three examples, Heenan House (which today houses Mbantua Gallery and the Alice Springs News), the Riverside Hotel (now the Todd Tavern) and the Rieff building (now Sultan's Kebabs).
Heritage architect Domenico Pecorari describes all three as modernist buildings, as are Burnett's military buildings in Darwin.
"Modernism didn't reach Australia until after the war, so for it to be here in the early ‘fifties was quite remarkable," he says.
Heenan House was built originally as a single storey building with provision for extensions in the future. Its most daring and strikingly modernist feature, says Pecorari, is its thin concrete canopy, wrapped around the south-eastern corner – "It looks like it's floating."
The original design for the Riverside Hotel, which Burnett did in 1951, shares the masculinity of Heenan House.
"Then they put a skirt on it!" exclaims Pecorari, referring to its lace trimmed verandahs, added in 1974.
"You have to imagine it without the verandahs, just sheer walls, minimalist concrete canopies sheltering the windows and possibly the doorways, a very blokey building."
Alongside these two the Rieff building might seem rather bland.
"But that's part of the story," says Pecorari.
"Burnett was very practical. He was able to design for the budget available. It's a frugal building but elegant and would have been even more so with its original tiles, the pressed tin under the canopy picked out in three or four different colours, and all the signage on the windows."
Burnett's versatility was his brilliance.
"He had a deep grasp of the principles of design and could apply them to the task at hand. He didn't just change details, he came at the task afresh, and designed appropriately for the conditions and available resources," says Pecorari.
It was not until the late 1980s that Burnett's buildings in Northern Australia were first recognized as vital elements in the evolution of an Australian architecture, and first achieved protection by being heritage listed.
But what about the man? At present little is known, though Sweet says some still remember "a short, rotund, grey haired man, with frosty blue eyes twinkling from behind horn-rimmed glasses" who had few close friends, spoke little and generally kept to himself'.
Despite his reserve he was actively involved in the Alice community in such institutions as the Scots Association and the RAOB. Burnett also served as a magistrate, Justice of the Peace, and honorary coroner.
Pioneering Alice businessman and sportsman Reg Harris remembers him walking around in shorts with "a little colourful thing hanging out the top of his socks". Those were tartan tabs, says Sweet, a reference to his Scottish ancestry.
Mr Harris also remembers "old Beni" on hot nights sleeping on the screened verandah of the Stuart Arms hotel "in full view of anyone in Todd Street" – not that there were all that many people in Todd Street in those days.
A photo shows Burnett enjoying a beer at the Stuart Arms but Mr Harris says he was not a big drinker – "It's just that there was nothing else to do of a night-time."
What about women – did he have a girlfriend?
"I never heard of a girlfriend … and not a boyfriend either."
On the current debate over the Rieff building, Sweet is unequivocal.
"Burnett's work is important and should be cherished and protected. I think there are sound commercial as well as cultural reasons to protect all of Burnett's remaining work – this kind of architectural history fascinates interstate and international visitors to the Territory, and that kind of cultural tourism is only going to grow.
"So few of Burnett's commercial buildings remain and to lose these examples would be a tragedy. I think the government should take its time on this one, consult more widely and have a rethink."
Sweet's research for his film (which has received initial funding from the Australian Film Commission) will take him to Scotland to see John Burnett, now 90 years old, who last met his father in Alice in 1951. Sweet is also undertaking research and planning to film in China, Malaysia, Singapore as well as Darwin and Alice Springs.
He would love to hear from anyone who may have knowledge of Burnett in the Centre.
You can contact him on 0400 261157 or at PO Box 191, Parap, NT 0804.


For the first time there's a woman minister at John Flynn Memorial Church.
Reverend Bev Ham, or "Rev Bev" as she calls herself, is doing a three month locum in Alice so that the faithful have a minister during the Christmas period.
They're lucky. With the steady decline in ordinations around Australia, many congregations, especially in the country, must do without ministers for as long as 12 months.
Increasingly, retired ministers like Bev are being called upon to step into the breach.
At 65, she's is only too pleased to do a stint now and then.
"It's fantastic, you never lose your calling to be a priest," she says.
There have been women ministers in the Uniting Church since its birth in 1977 as the offspring of the Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregational churches.
As such it is a uniquely Australian church and Bev presents an inimitably Australian take on the ministry.
It's not just her well-worn Akubra, her t-shirt and shorts; it's her salt of the earth directness, humour, lack of pretension.
Since retirement – after 40 years in the ministry in Queensland and Papua New Guinea – she's been working casually as a tour guide on luxury coaches, a job she feels well-equipped for.
"They're just a different type of flock," she jokes.
"They're locked up with you, they can't go anywhere."
And then she gets a bit more serious: "Ministry is not about preaching in word, but in deed. It's all about the way we live."
And for Bev, a good part of that seems to be spreading good cheer and practical support.
John Flynn provided a model she is proud to follow, bringing real help to isolated people.
She is also confident he would have approved of women in the ministry.
"A lot of his work was about supporting women, the sisters who started the bush hospitals, the women who were having their children here."
Because she is in Alice only for a short while, she is taking her lead from the congregation, happy to support their Angel Tree, which sees them buying Christmas presents for the families of prisoners, and their annual Christmas visit to Old Timers.
When I spoke to her, she had just come from recording a "Christian thought" for Imparja's three-minute segment, On Track.
"I found it very challenging to prepare something to say to people who don't come to church on Sunday.
"At church you can assume that people have Biblical knowledge and a commitment to God, but it would be foolish to assume those things for a television audience."
So Bev's thought was about the "rellies run". It's a term she hadn't heard before coming to Alice. She sees in it a fundamental Christian purpose, well suited to the season for a "nation of travellers".
Like many a Christian leader, Bev sees big challenges ahead for the church. In Alice as elsewhere, the congregation is ageing and dwindling.
"We have to move away from our traditional style of doing things, and do them in a way that is attractive to people and that they understand."
I asked why she thinks the experience in Australia is so different from that in America, where Christian churches remain such a potent force.
Bev puts it down to Australian individualism.
"We think we can do things on our own, please ourselves and that we're pretty good at coping with life.
"There's a big difference between that approach and being involved with Christianity where you are part of a group and your life is about what God wants."

Think Pink this silly season. COLUMN by VIKTORIA CORMACK.

My youngest daughter is into everything pink.
It doesn't really matter what the object is as long as it is pink, any shade of pink. I have never been much of a pink person myself.
Although my older daughter went through a similar pink phase it did not change my slight aversion to the colour then.
But it is rubbing off on me now and I'm starting to appreciate this colour so often associated with little girls and white haired sweet old ladies.
Pink is a pretty colour that makes you think of strawberry ice-cream, cotton candy, roses and evening skies.
If all it takes is pink things to make my little girl happy, why not paint her world pink? The enthusiasm she exhibits is contagious.
Her beliefs in magic-wands and fairies are naēve yet hopeful and inspiring. I don't have to embrace the same things to feel more positive about life in her company.
It is easy to let oneself get gloomy and depressed. To be drawn into the feeling that everything is bad. Especially when it is so hot that your brain seems to be melting and you can barely keep on task, let alone think constructive thoughts.
It is worth trying an icy cold homemade pink strawberry milk shake and take a moment to look for inspiration. There is such a lot that is positive and so much opportunity. People who make a difference through their passion for things like our Alice Springs heritage.
It may not be something everyone gets fired up about but enthusiasm rubs off and will lead to others doing positive thing in their lives for themselves and for others. Teachers who not only teach facts and technique but who with their enthusiasm for their subject inspire their students to learn and get excited about it.
Embracing interests and passions enthusiastically and sharing these with others makes for a more interesting and positive world.
I've been folding a lot of pink paper napkins for my daughter's birthday party. A paper napkin lying flat on the table is just a paper napkin, but fold it into the shape of a water lily or lotus flower and it changes the atmosphere of the room.
The Alice has a high ratio of artists and writers for a town of its size. Many of them are inspired by the harsh environment, the bleached colours and social problems and turn them into something special that they share in different ways.
To me the natural environment here is not always appealing. It isn't my kind of pretty at 40 degrees Celsius. But it's like package cake, dry ingredients and a bit of water and voila! Enthusiasm is like water and will make all the difference in our lives. All we have to do is share it around, put the sprinklers on and let the desert bloom!
Turn the everyday into something magical. Dress up as a princess or a fairy. Transform the flat and mundane into something inspirational. Make everyday a little bit pink. Just add water.

Stalking a chickpea rissole. COLUMN by STEVE FISHER.

I was brought up to believe that men are providers.
The basic idea is that you provide for the needs of your dependents through skilful hunting exploits that pit you against mammals and reptiles.
In the process, you establish yourself as the head of the household, you develop skills involving weapons, your hunting prowess is admired by others and you avoid having to do the washing-up.
Let's face it, evolution is a bad thing.
Humans have evolved into more advanced beings, but most of us can no longer fulfil the basic functions of getting out there and hunting.
In any case, emerging into a bleary suburban weekend, what does a hunter do if there's nothing to hunt?
I mean, nothing to hunt in your street.
Nothing until you go out bush, which may not be far away if you live in Alice Springs but it's hot outside and you might miss the top ten on Rage.
In this situation, your basic male primeval instincts are denied.
So what are you supposed to do?
It's worse if you're a vegetarian.
The only way to satisfy the ingrained hunting instinct is to hunt for cut-price chickpea rissoles in the refrigerated display at Coles.
In this case, hunting does not mean crawling along the aisles with a dangerous weapon.
It means reading the nutrient labels and calculating the most rissole per dollar.
The prize is 50 cents off a combination of spices and legumes that make your stomach feel like a tumble drier for three days.
If hunting opportunities are denied, then the hunting instinct has to find expression in other ways more suited to the suburban lifestyle.
For example, if you have Internet access at home and you want to upgrade it, the palaver needed to change service provider can satisfy even the most frustrated mock-hunter.
I recently went through the full range of stalking and circling my prey, in this case, a better broadband deal.
I poured over league tables of Internet service providers.
I studied multiple payment plans.
Then I pounced on the juiciest one before it could escape.
All this activity made me feel a whole lot better.
In fact, I felt sated and collapsed for hours in front of a website about soccer.
My hunting prowess wasn't exactly enhanced in the eyes of other members of the family, but at least I avoided the washing-up.
This one example explains a great deal of male behaviour.
Our single-minded focus on one subject is tedious and predictable.
I used to think I was good at doing more than one thing at a time.
Then my children pointed out that I heard not a single sentence that they uttered while I was looking at them and nodding but actually listening to the news on the radio in the background.
So now they tell me something, watch me nod, wait a few seconds and ask what it was that they just told me.
I get about half of them right, which isn't bad.
In the future I'll try to complete one task before moving on to the next, a point that brings us right back to the hunt for the rissole.
I have noticed that my attention span improves in supermarkets. I wonder if other people experience this phenomenon.
I find that I can read whole tables of product ingredients and listen to "Bounce baby, out the door" on the Bi-Lo public address system whilst having a meaningful conversation about deflationary pressures with my spouse.
But pass through the sliding doors and I struggle to complete even one of these tasks, let alone contemplate a serious hunting trip.
So the moral is this; he who worries too much about the meaning of masculinity should spend more time shopping for groceries.


Federal took control of their game and also the premiership leadership after completing on Sunday a successful two day outing against RSL Works.
Having made 259 in their innings on day one, the Feds boys went about their task knowing that they had Graham Schmidt back in the pavilion for a duck as a result of one over being delivered before stumps the week before.
This week the Undoolya Road clan took no enemies in their attack against RSL by dismissing them for 116.
The shining light was Marcus Becker with the ball who took seven for 43 off 19.2 overs, with Curtis Marriott compiling two for four off ten overs and Jarrad Wapper returning 1/24. With the bat Tom Scollay made 29 and Matt Sulzburger,28.
Feds then took advantage of the first innings win and, being 143 in front, opted to bat the day out. They put on a further 91 without loss by stumps, with Marcus Becker on 39 and Tom Clements on 34.
On Saturday West encountered a spirited Rovers line up who defied the fact that they needed 305 to match their opponents. While they only made 135 in their reply Rovers showed real guile. By stumps they had saved the game from outright defeat and although surrendering points to West had preserved a huge amount of honour.


Rebadging of the round ball game from ‘soccer' to ‘football' has been embraced by the local soccer association.
Legend of the game, recently deceased Johnny Warren, has been honoured with a state funeral in NSW, a first for a sports person in that state.
But closer to Warren's heart would have been the decision at national level to rename their game ‘football' rather than the Americanised ‘soccer'.
The rebadging will bring Australia into line with almost every country in the world.
Maybe at a parochial level Aussie Rules true believers will find it difficult that there is an international game called ‘football', but the benefit of ‘soccer' disappearing from the sporting agenda is not before time.
The seven-a-side game continues to thrive here with each grade receiving support.
In the last round of November, S&R Vikings came up against their grand final opposition of the 11-a-side game, Federal.
Simon Danby made a welcome return to the Federal line up and despite scoring, couldn't match Cameron Finlay who scored two and swung the advantage to Vikings, who won 3-2 with Martin Yeoman scoring the other single for Vikings and Jamie White for Feds.
The Neata Glass Scorpions enjoyed a 3-0 win over Cunning Ones, dominating from the start.
James Gorman and Paul Milne each scored a goal but the performance from Conan Robertson took the cake with a Brazilian style bicycle kick through the goal.
In B-grade Neata Glass Scorpions drew with Buckleys one-all.
As with the A-grade this was a re-match of the winter grand final.
Brandon Dienes scored for Buckleys and new keeper James Sorensen did everything right in trying to keep the game in Buckleys' favour.
However a superb one-two from Urs Marzhol to David Hoey saw Hoey level the score.
A still under-strength Federal side had a well-deserved win over Thorny Devils, 2-1.
In defence Dirk van Dendriesen and Patrick Smith combined well and goals came from Nat McGill and Lucas Jordan while Rob Gray scored for the Devils.
ASSA and Stormbirds played out a two-all draw.
Skipper Jon Walsh set the pace for Stormbirds and Simon Leadbetter netted their second.
For ASSA the scoring honours went to Decian Furber-Gillick and Fabio Dos Santos.
Unfortunately the Scorpions recorded a win on forfeit in their game as the Alice Springs Girls fielded an ineligible player.
In C-grade the Stormbirds looked the goods.
Tom Dutton set the pace with two goals in their win over Dragons 2-0.
It is three years since the Stormbirds collected any silverware and with the Spanish influence showing in Dutton's game, this may be their season.
Newcomers the Old Farts lived up to their name when they went down 7-0 to CLC.
CLC are a well-drilled combination and in the goal-scoring feast, honours were shared. Peter Donohue shot four, and singles went to Erica Sauzer, Graeme Smith, Leon Terrill and an own goal just rubbed salt in the wound.
In the other C-grade encounter, RSL and Alice Power fought out a scoreless draw, indicative of the standard of summer football.
The Junior Division saw an eight-goal game played between Memo-Verdi and Tigers. It went Verdi's way 5-3, but almost everyone was in on the action.
For Verdi, Victor Fisher, Peter Hammond and Tim Riley netted a goal each, while Matt Lelliott celebrated with two goals.
For the Tigers, Gibson Turner slotted two and Rowan McNamara scored one.
In the game between the Brat Pack and Yirara, the unsung hero was Brat Pack's Hugh Brocklebank who controlled defence and halted many Yirara attacks.
Brocklebank has obviously inherited a gene pool that could land him in the big time, but his were not the only pieces of brilliance.
Lachlan Farquarson and Rhys Constable both scored goals, there was an own goal and Demetrious Riley scored for Yirara.

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