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Joint Select Committee on Northern Australia
20/05/2014
Development of northern Australia

RUSCA, Mr Robert, Managing Director, Rusca Brothers Group

YATES, Mr Derek, Operations Manager, Rusca Brothers Group

[14:20]

CHAIR: These hearings are a formal proceeding of the parliament. The giving of false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as a contempt of the parliament. The evidence is being recorded and attracts parliamentary privilege. Would you like to make a brief opening statement? We will then open up to the committee for questions.

Mr Rusca : Firstly, I would like to thank the committee for the opportunity to speak today. I would also like to acknowledge the Larrakia people, the traditional owners of the land on which we speak. As a brief history of the Rusca group, my father, Sid Rusca, comes from the Borroloola community and was apart of the Stolen Generation. He was taken away to Croker Island as a two-year-old. He spent 16 years on Croker and landed back in Darwin as an 18-year-old boy with a pair of shorts and a t-shirt on. He thought, 'Where now?' Basically, from there he met up with a few people who had already returned from Croker Island as part of the Stolen Generation and the general consensus was 'work to survive'. He had travelled quite extensively as a young kid to the Gulf and up to the top of the islands. Once he landed back in Darwin he worked fairly hard and one of the opportunities he took was on a station. He worked very hard and there was a very strong work ethic built in to him as a young man. From there he got an opportunity in mining construction. He thought that was a fantastic opportunity because the money was great, it was continuous and he was able to spread that wealth amongst the family more than when he was in the stock camp.

From there, his hard-driven work ethic and his persistence in trying to open doors and find opportunity on the other side meant he worked really hard. He showed that over the next 40 or 50 years in this industry he was able to carve a dynamic outlook not just for Aboriginal people but for people in general. If you really wanted to work then there was a place for you. He worked tirelessly over that time and showed the members of our family that working was the key. One of things he talked about was: working is the key but there must be opportunity. The critical path for opportunity is long-term sustainability, not short-term stuff because the reality is you pick up people and give them hope but it is only short lived. One of his key statements was, 'You set people up for success, not for failure.' He believes training is critical. He believes that you must train but you must also be able to provide a job before you train somebody. There has to be an outcome at the end before you start.

When I spoke to him about coming here today to speak, he said, 'If we are going to develop the north, the reality is we have to have long-term sustainable outcomes and longevity for Indigenous people to work in these environments where these tier 1s are signing for long periods of time working the land whether it be resource, construction, civil and mining. He said that when these deals are being done, there has to be a way for Indigenous contractors or Indigenous people in general from the land to participate and to do that there has to be a vehicle.

Through 40 or 50 years of working in this sector, Rusca Brothers mining is a company that operates under the Rusca Brothers Group. It trades and operates in the resource sector all through parts of the Northern Territory and outside the Northern Territory. We have another company called Rusca Brothers Services, which runs civil and construction. We went into construction because we thought, 'Not everybody wants to do civil and mining, so what else can we give our people an opportunity in?' We needed to diversify, we needed to go into construction because construction was booming.

We now have a very sound and reputable business in the construction arm because there are lots of people that want to participate whether it be boys, girls or carpenters. People do not just want to drive trucks and machines. It is a sound business and goes along very well. One of the things we found in trying to feed and service our current obligations with putting people in seats in machines on the building sites was there was a lack of Aboriginal opportunity on those sites we were working on. When we went to the sites and participated, it was like somebody had switched a light on. It was like it could not happen but the reality was it was very easy to make happen; it was about opportunity.

The Rusca brothers were seeing a huge amount of people coming through our doors and asking for opportunity. So what my brother and I did was set up a company called HR Links. HR Links was set up to offer opportunity and jobs to people. It works very hard to connect a lot of conduits together so we have that network of people to push our people into these areas. Obviously they need to be trained. I will touch on that in a moment. HR Links has a critical team that does over and above the average HR job with mentoring, working after-hours and fixing all the problems that might arise. The problems might be small on-site, but the reality is that people want to leave because they turn into mountains. We have all of those things. We believe we have a very good mechanism that caters for a HR team that is dynamite to the multitude of different sectors.

HR Links employs about 300 people. The Rusca Brothers Group will push between 200 and 500. By the end of the year we will have a 500 people with our current contracts coming online. Out of that number, we employ no less than 50 per cent Indigenous and, on some of our projects, we have 100 per cent of Indigenous workers. We just finished a road for the Western Desert. It was 170 kilometres through some of the roughest terrain in the Roper Bar area down to the port. During that time, we were on site from 18 months to two years and we had probably 250 people working for us. Out of those we had 50 per cent Indigenous. Out of those people we had a large number of people who had never worked before from Borroloola community and from the Roper Bar region.

From that opportunity and that nurturing and development and from the HR Links team working tirelessly behind-the-scenes, we were able to go and offer an opportunity where the Indigenous people from Borroloola were able to 100 per cent look after, load and operate the load-up facility at that the shipping port. Now we have 16 people that work around the clock doing 12-hour shifts, 24 hours a day.

Mr SNOWDON: We will be visiting it tomorrow.

Mr Rusca : We manage it along with Western Desert Resources. They are participating and loving it but the reality is we need to make sure that the agreements in these areas are opportunities for these people to participate long after we leave. It is about the footprint we leave behind. If we can offer, when these agreements are done, a weighting that is really strong so they cannot be pushed and they cannot be bent, the outcomes will be there long after we leave.

We have clients with Thiess, Santos, Leightons, Glencore. These types of groups basically do not want to have the training done on their sites. There is a safety concern. Obviously it is a large cost to house them on site. We said: 'We've done it all in house ourselves. We train them on our own sites, our local jobs. We have a bit of a stepping stone, where they work in our civil branch. It might be low productivity, where they are actually learning the ropes, and they get to be able to move into these other pastures and take up a job with one of the larger tier 1 companies that we currently have some long-term contracts with.'

Some of the key challenges for us, which I have touched on already, are that we are looking for long-term sustainable employment outcomes for our people. That is dealing with the tier 1 contractors that are currently negotiating the agreements with the traditional owners from the land. We thought to ourselves, 'What do we need to do offsite to get more people through the door and give more opportunity to our people?' We said, 'We need to have a training centre that is modelled around our ethics that we currently use and have been using for 30 or 40 years.' That is giving people this opportunity. They stay with us. Some of our people have been with us for 15 or 20 years. We are happy if they fly the coop and go to bigger and better things. The reality is: we have just got to get them ready to fly. That is the main thing.

We see so many training centres operating, but the funding goes into these centres and the outcomes do not come out the other side. The reality is that these people are not getting trained properly, so they cannot get a job at the end of the day. What we are saying is that, when you are putting the funding into these places, they should be strictly monitored by a person inside the government who is accountable for the outcomes once the funding hits these centres. We have set up a training centre that we believe will go, and it is called the Sid Rusca training academy. You will see the pamphlet in the book. There is also some stuff on YouTube and in various links. We have a business plan. We have bought the facility. We spent a lot of money purchasing the facility. We have bought simulators to train our people. One of the things that we want to do is to travel around to all the Top End communities and do the live mine training stuff in the simulation process, so that everybody in the Indigenous community gets an opportunity to see what is just around the corner or up the road from them—because the majority of the mining that happens on these lands is on their country. They do not have to travel too far, and they can take that wealth creation back to the grassroots, and the community is thriving.

That is a very broad overview of what we do. We do a lot more other stuff, but it would take forever to address you about it.

CHAIR: Your training facility is here in Darwin, is it?

Mr Rusca : That is correct.

CHAIR: So you bring people from the remote communities to Darwin?

Mr Rusca : We have done in the past. It has been only a small operation, but we have brought them into our sites predominantly, wherever we are working. Now it is time to have a hub. We bought a facility quite some years ago and we have upgraded it with sewerage and electrical and all that sort of stuff—spent all of our money on doing that. We have teamed up with Thiess, one of our joint venture partners in the Western Desert, for the simulator. They have provided a simulator to the Sid Rusca training academy. But GHD are doing all the design for the facility. We hope to put 500 people through there. We think that the Rusca Brothers Group would take around 250 a year for our own stuff, and for the other stuff we would just be the conduit to make sure that we can put it out to the rest of the civil contractors and the mining groups.

CHAIR: From what I see here, the work that you are doing is incredible. It really is. It is an outstanding achievement and full marks to you.

Mr SNOWDON: Full marks to his old man, mate—old Sidney.

Mrs GRIGGS: Like father, like son.

CHAIR: It is. You talk about training and—

Mr SNOWDON: In fact, that looks like him, by the way.

Mr Rusca : Yes. There is a good video for that one.

CHAIR: Say somebody comes from Cape York, a remote area. An old mate of mine has got 15 training certificates over the last 17 years and has never had a day's paid work. That is quite common. But I tell you: his trainer drives round in a brand-new motor car that he replaces very regularly, and he has one of the best shopfronts in the community. So it is practical.

I would be interested, though, about where you say that you need about 250 for your own work and then others go into other operations. What is the turnover there, to get the 250 workers that you require? You are sourcing them primarily from remote communities—what is the attrition rate to get those 250?

Mr Rusca : It is actually very good, because we do not really let them go. We chase up. I will send someone and they chase them until they get them back, pretty much! Our strike rate is probably up around 90 or 95 per cent to keep our people. The reality is that if somebody is going to leave, we put in a huge amount of effort to keep them. It might be that they go on a little short-term break, but the reality is that we are still touching base with them and we want them back to the centre and then back out to the jobs.

Mr Yates : On the Sid Rusca Training Academy, it is also supported by the Minerals Council of the Northern Territory. The idea of the Minerals Council involvement is to go to the rest of the mines that are currently in the territory and the up-and-coming mines and ask for an offtake agreement. So we are actually getting the Aboriginal people from the communities around those mines through the training academy and then with fair dinkum jobs at the end of the training academy.

It asks everybody involved in the mining industry to take an offtake out of the academy. The other one that we are looking at at the moment, and which is heavily involved in the discussions with setting up the academy, is the Sentenced to a Job program, where we get the short-term ones. A lot of those people are from Aboriginal communities. They have been in short-term jail, and rather than going back into the community and doing that circle and coming back to the jail, it is an opportunity while they are doing that jail time to learn and to have something to come out of jail to, and not go back to jail—go out to work.

CHAIR: So you work with people who are in the prison system, or in corrective services?

Mr Yates : We currently have a few employees who have come out of the prison system, but we are currently working with Northern Territory corrections in trying to facilitate the people coming out of jail, or who are currently in jail but who are at low risk—giving them training in the civil and mining industries so that—

CHAIR: Getting a driver's licence and things like that?

Mr Yates : Yes, so there is an option—

CHAIR: So they do not go back—

Mr Yates : to move on.

CHAIR: They do not get repeated driving—

Mr Rusca : They get paid and they are able to pay their fines so when they do come out they do not have to be behind the eight ball and struggle again to get money quickly. They have money with the skill base.

The reality is that we wanted to sign up an MOU with the Minerals Council because the agreements say that they must take a certain amount per year, and the reality is that they might as well take them job-ready out of our centre, with the mentoring.

Mr SNOWDON: Where is the centre?

Mr Rusca : It is based at Noonamah.

Mr SNOWDON: At the property?

Mr Rusca : Yes. It is ready to go now. We have half the camp purchased. We are just buying stages as we go—as we can fund it!

Mr Yates : There is an issue these days with putting very green people straight into a mine site. There are safety issues, and everybody is getting more and more safety conscious to the point at times that it is getting ridiculous, but it is the way it is moving. It is really hard to try and throw green people straight into the mines, so currently, I think, out of the Ngukurr community we have 12 trainees. We have been training them off-site. Six are now on site, driving trucks for that mine. They have been through that system and we are still training another six at the moment who will probably go in in a couple of weeks time, once they have the knowledge of the mine site, the safety aspects and living in the camp.

It is very difficult to do, because we are bringing them in. We are flying them from Ngukurr to Darwin and doing medicals and training then flying them home. The idea of having the base centre in Noonamah is that we fly them in, the accommodation is there, they spend the week there and they are in a simulated mine site camp as it is. It works very well for us.

CHAIR: And once you have them trained, you have a high level of retention—you chase them up, and that is great. Once you send them out onto a working mine site, what is the ongoing retention rate for them? You continue to support them while they are out there, I assume?

Mr Rusca : Yes, sure.

CHAIR: And what numbers do you find are still in the job, say, two years later?

Mr Rusca : High numbers—above 85 per cent at least. That would be a minimum, 85 per cent.

CHAIR: That is outstanding.

Mrs GRIGGS: You have talked about the agreement with the Minerals Council and the Sentenced to a Job program. Are there other things that you are involved in that are contributing to the success that you are having? I see from the documents that obviously you are working with Ambrose Business Solutions as well.

Mr Rusca : We never really marketed ourselves very well. It has only been over the last 12 months since we have had a new employee come to the business, Stuart Totham, that we have marketed ourselves a lot more. That has raised our marketing and our public awareness. We used to just be in the bush, work fairly hard and nobody really knew about us.

CHAIR: I just made a comment to the secretary that this is one of our best kept secrets.

Mrs GRIGGS: What do you think are the other things that have contributed to your success?

Mr Rusca : I think it is the drive. There is an untapped group of people who are wanting to work but the reality is they have to be nurtured.

Mr SNOWDON: The fundamental truth is that Robbie's father and mother, whom I have known for many years, have worked tirelessly to overcome a great many handicaps to keep operating by persevering when they had nothing. What they have done is show by their own example that if you are prepared to tough it out and you are prepared to do the work and you are prepared to collaborate with people, you will get an outcome. That is why you are here. It is because of the work of your mum and dad.

Mr Rusca : That is correct.

Mr Yates : You will all see it tomorrow.

Mr SNOWDON: I will see Jack tomorrow?

Mr Yates : Yes, he is coming with us.

Mr Rusca : He'll jump off a grader to come and meet you.

Senator PERIS: I have known you for years as well. You are very modest when you say there are all these other contributing factors. The fact is you are a home-grown success story, with a multimillion dollar company that has come through due to persistence and dedication. I think you fly the flag of hope/opportunity. You know the community so well and all you had to do was provide someone with an opportunity. It would be good if you could talk about the areas where you provide life skills to these communities. I have heard some of your stories before. It is about the money. What you do in the workspace carries on into other areas of these people's lives as well. Maybe you could talk about what you do in that space.

Mr Rusca : It certainly does. Management of the money is critical. It is very important for them to have a couple of bank accounts. Our HR team has a finance section that is dedicated specifically to looking after their needs and just working through—

Mr SNOWDON: [inaudible]

Mr Rusca : They certainly have both of them. They make sure that at the end of the day there is money for the direct debits and there are banking opportunities when they are financing cars. We make sure that they can get a deposit. Some of them have a terrible track record with finance. The reality is we pay large deposits for cars and houses and stuff like that. We do a lot of stuff for them because the reality is they need the help, but they always pay it back. The reality is they are in a job, they work very hard and they are happy to pay it back, but they just need a break. We have gone to the extent where we have put a fair bit of money aside, and it hurt us for quite some time, but we kept putting money aside so that we could invest in land so that we were able to do our own developments and offer the people working for us, the Aboriginal people, a house and land package. How did we fund that? We had to go to the private sector to a philanthropist, who is our joint-venture partner in a couple of projects, so that it could happen. They work for us, the money is deducted out of their wages, but the reality is they get to own a home. It is coming up. I think the first subdivision is at Humpty Doo now. We are doing that and there is another one straight across the road that will go to city planning. The reality is that out of the 100 blocks that we are currently doing, there will be 10 set aside for first homes for Aboriginal people. Across the road, we will have another hundred lots and we are hoping to have 20 set aside out of that one for our people.

Mr Yates : Going back to your earlier question about how we keep and retain our people. We look after our employees. Without our employees we have nothing. But there are still plenty out there unemployed at the moment who are very employable. In the territory, we are not getting the education that there is in the mining and the civil industry to say this is an industry where there is plenty of work available. As the Territory grows, we all know that there is a lot of prospecting happening out there. We are currently working with Santos out in the Borroloola basin. Their footprint is 6,000 square kilometres for work searching for resources. We know we can get these people out of the communities into work; it is having that work and having the development of the Northern Territory continue to happen. There is definitely the opportunity to get the employees out of the Territory.

When we were sitting here earlier this morning, I think, Warren, you might have mentioned something about 1.3 per cent unemployment. I thought—

Mr SNOWDON: That is here in town.

Mr Yates : In town, okay. I was going to say I don't know about that!

Mr SNOWDON: It is not out in the bush.

Mr Yates : It would be great if it was NT wide. It would be a great outcome because I think then your communities and all that would be just on the improve all the time.

Senator SIEWERT: How many women do you have in your workforce?

Mr Rusca : That is a good question. We have been working really hard in that area, and it is certainly increasing. Stuey might be the statistics man, but just on one of our projects at Leightons alone I think we are at 23 per cent. Overall I am pretty sure that we would be at probably 15 per cent—20 per cent maybe.

Senator SIEWERT: One of the things that worries me is that a lot of the programs—and I am not having a go by any stretch of the imagination—that we hear about are very focused on men. I am not saying that that is not important, but I am concerned about how we help women into work as well.

Mr Yates : I cannot be precise on it, but, of the 130-odd we have got out at Western Desert, I am pretty sure we have over 30 women, and a lot of them are Aboriginal ladies as well, so we are having a pretty good strike rate there at the moment with that. They make great operators.

Senator SIEWERT: There are lot of truck drivers in the mining industry who are women.

Mr SNOWDON: They are very soft.

Mr Yates : They are very patient.

Mrs GRIGGS: What is the demographic? You have given it for females, but what are your age brackets like?

Mr Rusca : It is a wide range, probably from 18 to 65.

Mr Yates : Probably older.

Mr Rusca : Yes.

Mr Yates : Sid is in his 70s, and he is still out there driving a grader around. But that is Sid. He wants to. But we do actually have truck drivers on the INPEX site for Leightons who are past what I thought was retirement age—but that has moved, apparently. Yes, I think we have people over the age of 65 working for us at the moment as well.

Senator SIEWERT: Can I ask some more about your weighting. It is a double-bang question. There is the weighting idea, and are other organisations coming to talk to you about training and how you are getting it right and others are not?

Mr Rusca : They are now. They are starting now. Since we have been marketed, there are people coming to us now to ask us: what are you doing? How are you doing it?

Mr SNOWDON: That is Stuey's fault!

Mr Rusca : Yes, Stuey has opened up the doors, but I think they are good doors.

Senator SIEWERT: I hope you are charging them for your IP!

Mr Rusca : One of the other questions that I think Nova was asking before was: what are some of the things that we do that are little bit different? I think that we become very, very good friends with our people. We travel to our sites very, very regularly. We are on site if there are any issues. We are there to sort it for them. They know that we do things over and above.

One of the things that stand out to me over the last 12 months is that there was someone inside our business who came and said, 'Robbie, we're spending this much money on solicitors.' I said, 'Oh, yes? What is it for?' I thought it was to do with some contracts and whatever negotiations, but the reality was that it was helping current employees who we have on our books and who have been with us for some time. It was for their children coming through adolescence, I guess, in trouble with the law. The reality is that we fund solicitors, lawyers, to keep them out of the prison system. We self-fund them, whether it be small jobs working around our workshops, involved in our small type projects, until they are old enough to take part in a real job on a real site. But the reality is that it is an honest day's work for an honest day's pay. They do get paid. They are some of the things where we go over and above, because the reality is that, if they fall into that cycle, they are going to be lost. So we work fairly heavily in those areas behind the scenes.

Mrs GRIGGS: I said to Warren Snowdon that it is a real shame that the media are not here hearing your story—they have left for the day—because there needs to be more talk about the success of what you guys are doing. I think that we should be holding you up and saying, 'This is an example of things that are working.' You are using government programs that are clearly working and using the private sector as well. So hats off to you guys.

Mr Yates : Can I just touch base on your weighting—

Senator SIEWERT: Yes. It is the sort of thing we need to be thinking about recommendations on.

Mr Yates : I do not want to dwell on anything too much, but I will use INPEX as an example. Basically, for us to get someone into INPEX, we have got to prove that they have got five continuous years experience doing the specific job we are sending them in for. When we work in the civil mining industry, it fluctuates; we may do a road job and when that road job finishes we might not have anything for three or four months. So it is very difficult, especially with our Aboriginal population, to go there and show a continuous five years of service in doing a certain job. In my eyes, that is a mistake on their side of the fence.

As to the weightings: there are a lot of people coming up to work at INPEX, as you can see around Darwin—there are things happening everywhere. I think there was not enough weighting put on that job about Aboriginal employment; that is my personal belief. I think weightings need to be put on any government funded contract or any mining job. I see in the budget that the Territory government and the federal government have put some money in for exploration and so on. If that money is going towards that, then there should be weightings about using community-based people, people in those areas, for those works, and policing it. There was something done in Alice Springs a couple of years ago, Warren—and I think that was the last time I saw you down there—where they put it on the road tenders, but they did not police it.

Senator SIEWERT: Yes. That has happened time and time again.

Mr Yates : So people can say, 'We're going to do this,' but if it is not policed then what is the point of it?

Mr Rusca : We have got plenty of Alice Springs people who fly to Darwin and go to our projects—

Mr Yates : from Katherine and Alice Springs. We are going down to Katherine at the end of the month for the mining conference.

Mr Rusca : Yes, we have got 40 out of Katherine, and, like Derek said, I think we have 15: we have two out of Ngukurr and there has been nothing out of there for over 20 years. It is a real buzz. The community is loving it.

Mr SNOWDON: Who are you working with in Katherine?

Mr Rusca : Out of Katherine? No, we have done our own stuff—sent our own people there, run our own ads, and then had someone down there. But we were just saying: because we are getting such a great response out of there, I think we will have to open up some small offices. And then Derek is speaking at the forum on the 28th, so there will be some opportunity there.

CHAIR: We will have further discussions tomorrow, I understand, when we are down there. But thank you very much. I was just saying to Warren that I can see an opportunity here, when we start talking about recommendations, to have a look at the model that you guys have. We will have a closer look at that. There may well be some lessons there that can be learnt.

Senator PERIS: With the Rusca Brothers, you have obviously seen how well established they are, but they are always innovative and looking for ways to go forward. I remember that, not long ago, you were talking about having your own medical assessment done—it was a one-stop shop. Can you, in the two or three minutes left, just talk about that?

Mr Rusca : Like Derek spoke about, there is a process to get onto a job like INPEX. It should be full of Indigenous people, but we are running at probably 35 or 40 per cent there. That is not good enough. I said to Derek, 'I want 80 per cent there,' and he said to me, 'Robbie, the difficulty in getting that is because you could not show the five years of continuous history.' Aboriginal people basically are just left behind from the start. The reality is that we have left them till the end, to be able to develop their resume, and sort of bend the rules a bit to get them in, and we have done that fairly hard. One of the big processes was with the medicals—they were not getting through the medicals because they might have had a touch of sugar diabetes or something like that, which is very common in the Indigenous community. I was over it in the end. So I said to Derek, 'Find some doctors. I'm opening up a shop down here, a medical centre, for Indigenous health, and we are going to run it ourselves and we will be able to do our own medicals. We will get a person who specialises in Indigenous health. And we will get them the jobs.' The reality is: the healthiest thing for a person is to have a job.

CHAIR: Thank you for that. We will carry that further tomorrow. Thank you very much indeed. It has been very enlightening. I am sure there is something that we can add to this. It is very positive. It is the best we have seen.

Mr Rusca : We appreciate it. Thanks.