Helen Bender: “did it really have to take losing my dad?”

The late George Bender and his daughter Helen.
The late George Bender and his daughter Helen.

FLASHBACK to late October 2015 when Helen Bender bust onto Australian television screens in a fit of raw pique, live on ABC’s Q&A program, barely 48-hours after her farming father was buried.

But in a typical sliding doors moment, Helen’s life may have taken a completely different turn over the past 15-months, if that Q&A broadcast wasn’t coincidentally scheduled to be held in Toowoomba, soon after that heart-breaking funeral.

On a good day, with few interruptions or pit stops, the drive from Chinchilla to Toowoomba along the Warrego Highway, through mostly farmland surroundings, takes roughly two hours.

And to continue heading eastwards along that country road onto the Queensland capital city of Brisbane involves travelling another 125 kilometres in just over an hour, depending on traffic density.

But instead of heading straight back to her then home in Brisbane from the family farm at Chinchilla, and bypassing Toowoomba, like she had so many times before and ever since then, Helen decided to deviate from her normal pathway that day.

And in doing so, she opened a new door to her life that cast her on a unique and at many times isolated, emotional rollercoaster.

What happened next

Helen stepped out and onto the centre-stage spotlight of the always controversial and topical Q&A program that Monday night in Toowoomba in a bold move that also catapulted the name George Bender forward to become a national poster boy for the anti-CSG campaign.

During her brief but penetrating appearance, Helen took aim at Shadow Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon and Regional Development Minister Fiona Nash with a pointed verbal interrogation about her dire concerns with Coal Seam Gas (CSG) mining and an agonising political failure to defend landholders’ rights which had haunted her family.

“On Saturday we buried my father after struggling for 10 years against the CSG industry and Linc Energy,” she said.

“So when will farmers be given the right to say no to the CSG companies from coming onto their land - when?”

Helen was searching for relatively straight-forward, quick-fix answers to deeply complex ethical and political questions, but immediate solutions weren’t easily forthcoming and remedies still remain agonisingly distant.

Her father George Bender was a 68 year old inter-generational cotton and grain farmer from Chinchilla in the Darling Downs region of southern Queensland who had fought a long-running personal campaign against CSG mining, to protect landholder rights.

In October 2015, he sadly took his own life in a suicide tragedy that rocked and divided feelings within the local community while igniting national and international headlines.

Helen Bender on ABC's Q&A program, in October 2015.

Helen Bender on ABC's Q&A program, in October 2015.

Looking back, Helen said the widespread attention and responsibility that came with carrying on her father’s legacy, of speaking out against CSG mining and standing up to protect farmers and the environment, wasn’t something that she deliberately coveted.

Rather, it came about due to a series of unique circumstances largely out of her control with the central factor being that ill-fated, almost impossible to ignore and convenient timing of the Toowoomba Q&A broadcast.

If that week’s program was set to be filmed live from Kalgoorlie or Broken Hill, she may likely not have bothered venturing out so far beyond her comfort zone to grab the media spotlight and vent her thoughts at two of the nation’s leading rural, federal politicians.

Helen said it all came about in that tense week after her father passed away, while her immediate family was planning his funeral.

She said she picked up on social media that her father George had a large number of supporters who backed his long-standing cause of wanting to give farmers and other landholders rights to say ‘no’ to “invasive” mining.

Helen said after feeling a “huge influx” of questions may be asked on Q&A about her father’s death - on the family solicitor’s advice - they contacted the ABC to say it would be inappropriate for any questioning to come via anyone but a family member, or their representative.

Q&A’s producers told her there was an opportunity for someone from the Bender family to ask the panel a question and the rest, as they say in the classics, is history.

“I was heading back to Brisbane to move on after burying dad and I stopped into Toowoomba and asked the question,” she said.

“It wasn’t a conscious, intentional thing - it just happened - but then maybe it was (intentional).

“Maybe there was a reason why Q&A was in Toowoomba at that time and it was planned beyond some form of our human capacity.

“But that’s how it actually happened - it was all very circumstantial.”

The response

In response to being placed on the spot by Ms Bender’s stern interrogation, Mr Fitzgibbon tried his best to explain the complexities associated with balancing land use policy challenges, between farming and mining.

He also rightly pointed out it was essentially a state governance domain and historically, the national economic benefits of mining could not be easily ignored by governments - not just from CSG but also coal and iron ore.

While also expressing condolences to the Bender family, like Mr Fitzgibbon and other panellists on that night in October 2015, Senator Nash said farmers “should be able to say no and state governments should change whatever needs to be changed so they can say no”.

That caused Mr Fitzgibbon to interject vehemently to point out that statement did not reflect her party’s position but Senator Nash pressed ahead saying, “that is my view”.

“I was asked for my view on this and that is my view,” she said.

“If anybody puts themselves in the positon of being a farmer on a piece of land, to not have the right to say no, in my view is wrong.

“We don’t have a definitive view on this because it is a state issue.”

In the end, Helen was left to summarise the politically heated and emotionally intermingled conversation linked to her father’s suicide that had just unfolded before the nation’s inquisitive eyes and ears.

Late Hopeland farmer George Bender. Photo: Supplied

Late Hopeland farmer George Bender. Photo: Supplied

“One of the last things my father said was: ‘No-one is listening – why am I wasting my time?’ she said.

“I don’t think you are listening. You’re just here for show – you’re not listening.”

As is typical with such issues in the world of immediate technologies, Ms Bender’s heart-felt question was replayed repeatedly, along with amplified anger and reactions across a broad spectrum of society, on social media and in subsequent media reporting.

The Bender family’s statement about the tragedy became the highest rating online article for Fairfax Agricultural Media in 2015.

“In the end, George Bender died from a broken heart, at witnessing first hand the tragedy unfolding around him,” it read.

“He fought to protect the air, land and water from the inevitable permanent damage that this industry is causing and has caused overseas.

“His struggles were not just for himself and his family, but for the whole country that depends on the agricultural and environmental resources unique to the Western Downs area.

“He was prepared to fight for what he truly believed in and call others to account.

“The tragedy is, in fighting for his country, his struggles are now his legacy, but it is the determination of those who have known and loved George Bender that his sacrifice not be forgotten.”

Now 15-months down the track, Helen admits she’s still struggling to put into words how she really feels about her father’s tragic passing and the anguish underneath it.

“To be honest, it’s not something you just get over,” she said.

“The hardest part is knowing that George Bender’s death, 100 per cent, could have been avoided."

“That is probably the hardest thing.”

Helen said she stands firmly against any legislation that forces farmers and others into compulsory negotiations to sell their land, to either banks or mining companies, believing it to be a “complete violation of human rights”.

“If you don’t negotiate and you can’t reach an agreement you are forced into land court,” she said adding that was the threat made against her father.

“That should never have been allowed to happen to any human being, especially in Australia, and the government supports it.

“It’s government legislation and the government needs to fix it.”

The future

Helen hasn’t worked much since her father’s passing using her engineering skills, after taking a redundancy a short while later, when her company’s office was relocated - but is due to start a new job based in Brisbane, early this year.

She’s spent the majority of her time since October 2015 living on the family farm at Chinchilla.

In between tending to the crops or the pigs, and doing other odd jobs around the property, she’s sought to maintain the momentum gained by her Q&A appearance, to carry on her father’s fight against CSG mining.

That agenda has seen her appear as a guest speaker at different events or tours throughout the nation, conducting a wide range of media interviews and projects to push her views and create greater public awareness, while pursuing other connected activities, including meeting with and cajoling politicians to take stronger action to ensure CSG mining is made to be socially responsible.

No political brand or force has been spared during those energetic pursuits including Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Queensland Labor Premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk.

Helen said it took a lot of effort - and no doubt some of her persistent cheeky charm - to attract Ms Palaszczuk out to her home region in Queensland for a fact-finding tour of the gas fields one day - but in the end, that exercise has seemed futile.

“(Annastacia Palaszczuk) came out for private meetings but she got back on the plane and shut the door on the people she spoke to,” she said.

“Essentially what I have learnt, which is the same thing that everyone else who has been dealing with the Queensland government (has learnt), and the same thing that my father dealt with, is that you ask a question that the government don’t want to answer and what they do is they don’t answer.

“They shut the door on you, they remain silent and you get no answer.

“Nine out of 10 questions that have gone to the Queensland government have remained unanswered.”

In reflecting on that time around her father’s suicide, Helen said she went through “hell” but only stopped to grieve properly over the past three months, having been caught-up in a pattern of emotional denial, connected with her anti-CSG pursuits.

“It’s actually harder now than it was back when it happened because when it happened I guess…you don’t really want to believe it’s happening,” she said.

“But you have to tell yourself every day, shit, it did happen.”

Helen said one of the central reasons why she wasn’t grieving properly was because she always knew there was an upcoming event to attend and talk about CSG issues linked to her dad’s passing.

“When you’re grieving you feel it and you express your emotions but I always had somewhere else to go,” she said.

“I was suppressing everything - I guess it was a feeling of being numb.

“I got to the end of August and it felt like I was torturing myself so I made the decision to take a little time to be more on the sidelines now and to basically deal with checking myself and go through that process of acceptance because I don’t think I’d accepted it.”

Asked what it was that she hadn’t accepted Helen said: “That your dad’s dead - that he’s no longer here”.

Helen said she felt exhausted and burnt out around the time she decided to take a break but was now focussed on getting her life back on track and excited and hopeful about her future.

“Would I have done it differently?” she said.

“No - but I was obviously focussing on dad’s legacy and therefore had just neglected everything that was Helen Bender.

“I just felt like Helen Bender was no longer moving forward, it was no longer me.

“Yes it was my choice, but it came out of something that wasn’t my choice.”

Helen remains dissatisfied with a number of aspects around the government’s response to her pleas, and those of the Australian community, for action and help in tackling CSG mining issues.

“Federally it’s gone backwards and at state level I just think they pussy foot around,” she said.

Despite the frustrations, she said he dad’s death hasn’t been in vain “because it’s not over; we’ve only just started”.

She said Victoria had introduced a ban on unconventional gas mining following a public inquiry and a local government agency in NSW - that she declined to name - had done the same, with her father’s death having exacted some influence over that decision making.

“You could probably say, this has extended past the Australian shores,” she said while pointing out the high level of social media reaction and an award-winning song, dedicated to her dad’s passing and his anti-CSG crusade.

“That tells you it was a powerful story,” she said.

“It’s one of those conflicting situations, in being recognised as an enormous tragedy but so conflicting because the response has been awesome.

“But did it really have to take losing my dad?”

Need help?

Call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit beyondblue.org.au