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Ben Buckley has been one of Australia's longest serving, est loved and controversial rural councillors.
Story: Sue Smethurst PHOTOS: Jessica Shapiro
Arthritis doesn’t slow Ben Buckley’s knobbly fingers. They rhythmically twist and plait thin cotton strings that have been salvaged from used teabags and secured to his kitchen table by a beer bottle holding a eucalyptus sprig. The beer label reads ‘Old Fart’. He says it’s his favourite brew, but it’s clearly been a long time since Ben enjoyed the dusty stubby’s contents.
The old laminex table is piled high with newspapers yellowing around the edges, folders stuffed with papers, a handful of bills and a well-thumbed copy of the constitution. But it’s the plastic ice cream container overflowing with teabag strings that has his attention today, and the magnifying glass with which he sees them.
Around these parts Ben is legendary for making “unbreakable” ropes out of teabag strings. He’s been crafting them for years after inheriting shopping bags full of the cut-off strings from “an old blind lady” who knitted scarves with them. When she retired to the big smoke, Ben couldn’t let the strings go to waste and now, wherever he goes, people hand him the stashes they’ve saved. His annual teabag rope tug of war is a highlight of the Omeo and District Agricultural show. “Five big footballers against five big shearers and they couldn’t break it,” he says.
One of Australia’s oldest and longest-serving rural politicians, Ben has been elected, sacked and re-elected from Victorian local government more times than he can remember. He’s been stood down, suspended, found guilty of misconduct, labelled a ‘maverick’, ‘pain in the neck’, ‘crusty old fart’ and even a ‘senile old prick’ by one former colleague. “I’ve developed a few enemies in my time,” he says with a grin.
And yet, for years he’s been the East Gippsland Shire’s most popular councillor by a country mile, admired for his straight-talking “no bullshit” stance and tireless fight to make council more transparent. At the age of 83, he was even elected deputy mayor.
Now, after four decades in local government, Ben has retired and, while some are delighted to see the back of him, many are lamenting the loss of a true bush larrikin.
“There’ll never be another like him,” says Bob Yeates, owner of East Gippsland Newspapers. “Ben is a true man of the people with a great heart, a salt-of-the-earth, knockabout bloke and he is a living legend of the high country. He’s ruffled a few feathers along the way because he says the things that others are too afraid to say. He’s never been one for the niceties of political correctness and that’s why we love him.”
For the past 60 years Ben has lived in Benambra, a postcard-pretty, high country town surrounded by vast grass plains that have fattened livestock for more than a century. He’s been married twice and has six children and 10 grandchildren. His is the only house in town with an aircraft hangar in the backyard and an airstrip mowed into the paddock next door. The sign on his front fence reads ‘Lakeside Lodge’. It’s a bit of a lark, because drought sucked the last drop out of nearby Lake Omeo years ago.
“He officially changed his address to ‘Somewhere Else’, which makes me laugh every time I deliver his letters,” says Tracey McGarvey, the town’s postie and owner of the Benambra General Store. She drops off teabag strings from the store with Ben’s mail. “Ben’s a legend around here. He’s very well loved and we’re all a bit sad he’s retired from council.”
Ben says he never had a burning desire to run for what was then Omeo Council, in 1980, but a matter of principle spurred him on. “It was an old boys’ club – a poor man’s House of Lords,” Ben says. “The same people were elected all the time and there was a sense of entitlement. We needed change.”
Above: Ben in his house, with all the walls signed by visitors.
He very quickly developed a reputation as someone unafraid to say what he thought and the more he spoke out, the more popular he became. In 1984 at the urging of locals, he ran for Federal Parliament. He quite enjoyed the experience and had his name on the ballot paper in every federal election from then until 2004, when his daughter Sonia had a crack. “It was a bit of a hobby, to keep life interesting,” he chortles.
Long before he took on the political establishment, Ben made a name for himself as one of Australia’s most controversial pilots. He got his pilot’s licence at 21, and turned a hobby into a thriving crop-dusting business in the foothills of the high country. In February 1967, Ben and his mate Bob Lansbury had just completed a series of runs spreading fertiliser when they spotted a plume of smoke coming up from a nearby ridge. They took off in the Piper Pawnee to get a closer look and found a bushfire on the move, which had been ignited by a lightning strike.
“We’d done some tests with PHOS-CHeK [fire retardant], which were successful,” Ben says. “So we dumped it on the flanks of the fire. It burned right up to it then slowed down so the ground crews could come in.” The National Aerial Firefighting Centre officially recognised Bob and Ben’s efforts that day as the first aerial bombing exercise in Victoria and their work laid one of the foundations for modern aerial firefighting.
At its peak, Ben’s Alpine Aviation business had five planes, and his expertise was called on for crop dusting, fire bombing, search and rescue, and many times an unofficial air ambulance. “There are quite a few people walking around here who owe their life to Ben,” Tracey says. She recalled the time he flew a toddler to Melbourne after his foot was torn off in a farming accident. Thick fog covered the mountains and air traffic control wouldn’t give Ben clearance to fly, but he did it anyway, landing safely at Essendon airport, where the boy was rushed to hospital and his foot saved.
Whether swooping the rival footy team at training or plucking lost hikers from the snow, his legend grows in every re-telling. Ben’s hijinks, such as hair-raising dives under the famous McKillop’s Bridge (he squeezed a Cessna between the pylons and the Snowy River), regularly raised the ire of aviation officials, who’ve taken his licence away 12 times. In one incident, the locals were furious when he was grounded after completing the much loved (but illegal) lolly drop for the kids during the Hinnomunjie races. One thousand people signed a petition to get Ben’s licence back.
In 1999 he became the first pilot to successfully fly an ultralight plane across the Tasman Sea from Australia to New Zealand.
“I’ve had a bit of fun, but the aviation people don’t appreciate me discussing these things,” he says with a wink. His commercial licence has gone but he doesn’t need it to fly the ultralight, which is in the hangar ready to go whenever it takes his fancy, and he still takes the Piper out for a run every few weeks to keep the engine ticking over.
Omeo historian Jeff Cooper says he’d still fly anywhere with Ben. “He could fly these mountains with his eyes closed,” Jeff says. “I don’t think we’ll ever see anyone like him again. Occasionally I feel sad that my grandchildren won’t know characters like this. We’re so sanitised these days and politically correct – too frightened of what people will say about us on Facebook. Ben couldn’t give a toss.”
Excerpt from a letter Ben wrote to former SA Premier, Mike Rann.
Ben used to fly his Pioneer 300 the 100km or so to Bairnsdale for council meetings, saving him two hour’s drive each way. When an ankle injury meant he could no longer push the rudder pedal, his mate Megsy (who had “a good leg”) came along to do it for him. Common sense (and his daughters) prevailed and council provided a car, which got him into more mischief. One evening on his way home he stopped at the Bairnsdale RSL to do a quick speech to the local Rotary club. When he returned to his car, the police were waiting for him.
“I forgot I had a gun in the car,” he says, explaining how he’d left a replica machine gun sitting in full view on the back seat. “It was harmless. There was no ammo so it wouldn’t shoot, but I guess it looked pretty real. I’d taken it to show the historical club that afternoon because it was an old Lewis used during World War I.”
In 2014 Ben was banned from East Gippsland Shire Council for six weeks for refusing to sign a mandatory code of conduct brought in by the Victorian Government. When he eventually gave in and signed the code, he attached a handwritten note saying he didn’t agree and had signed under duress.
“The whole point was to silence us,” he says. “The code inhibited me from telling ratepayers what was actually going on in council, and that’s not right. That’s my job! We are the people’s servants.”
In 2017 he was suspended again, but in 2018 he was vindicated when East Gippsland Shire was criticised for being the most secretive in Victoria.
“My time in the sin-bin is among my greatest achievements,” Ben says. “I’m proud that I had the courage to speak up; many others wouldn’t.”
“People like Ben are so important to the fabric of our community,” Bob Yeates says. “Ben always had a groundswell of support from people who weren’t game to say the things he did.”
Ben insists that everyone who vists his fibro shack must sign the wall. His former wife used to get annoyed when Ben wrote reminders or marked the kid’s heights on the walls, so when she left, it was open slather. Today, you can barely see the yellowing paint for the inscriptions, alongside newspaper cuttings, letters to the editor, an old cheque uncashed from a bet with a mate and dozens of messages from backpackers who’ve enjoyed Ben’s hospitality during their travels.
During last summer’s fires, a plastic ice cream lid was nailed to his fence with ‘Benambra Refugee Centre’ scribbled in texta for anyone fleeing their farms who needed a bed and a hot cup of tea.
When not making his teabag ropes, Ben crafts miniature planes out of beer cans, and his tin fleet dangle from bits of teabag string.
Now that he has retired, Ben’s seat on council is being taken by his daughter Sonia. “She’ll keep them on their toes,” he says.
When asked how he thinks the community will remember him, he doesn’t flinch, saying, “They’ll probably say, ‘He was a silly old bastard. But at least he kept us amused.’”
Clockwise from top: Ben Buckley – rural politician and professional stirrer; Ben flies his Piper Fatman, circa 1985; Councillor Sonia Buckley with her dad Ben
This story is from Outback Magazine: Apr/May 2021 Issue #136