The Steele household recently marked a special anniversary.
Not the Steele Rudd of the Dad and Dave variety. This one is – understandably – nicknamed “Stainless” and has been called many other things in a long life in northern Australia.
Mate, “you!”, youngfella, Sir, Boss, Minister and Mr Speaker and probably a serious range of less enviable epithets along the way.
Roger Steele is a sprightly 81-year-old who probably enjoys his age despite having lived a full, sometimes hard life both at the frontline in the bush and among the boardrooms of the city.
He’s a remarkably able and articulate man who left school for the life of a ringer at the tender age of 13 – not his choice, but rather under the guidance of a local copper who saw a life on a cattle station as preferable to running the gauntlet of the law.
After years working on stations for Lord Vestey and many humbler owners, Roger Steele found himself face to face with the Queen’s representative at Government House on July 1st, 1978 being sworn as the Northern Territory’s first Minister responsible for Primary Industries (among other portfolio responsibilities).
From the cattleyard to the bullpen of politics.
He rarely looked back.
Along the way he became the parliamentary Speaker, the CEO of the Stockman’s Hall of Fame at Longreach and then a Ministerial Advisor to the NT Chief Minister.
A long way from being unpaid help as a young kid at Humbert River Station, having travelled all the way in an old fabric-clad Dragon 84 biplane and a boat across a crocodile infested river to get to his new abode.
“There were stockmen who looked pretty big to me – ‘cause I was a little bloke, I suppose – but they got around in chaps and boots. They were legends, those blokes. They built the industry from the ground up,” says Roger.
After 17 years in the industry at its front line – becoming one of those legends himself, perhaps – Roger went back to town.
His involvement in the NT’s first self-governing Cabinet took him around the world, but never removed focus on the industry from which he had his start. He’d worked on the Barkly, in the VRD and plenty of other places, too. As Minister, he dealt face to face with the men who built an industry that faced tough times and fought the odds.
“Cattle were far less profitable then – they were not worth nearly as much money as they are now. Our industry based on live export is now fantastic. It is still an industry with opportunity, but we need to continue to see growth – more reliance on growing what we need here rather than bringing it in from down south.”
Roger was involved first-hand on opening up the Douglas-Daly project in the Top End. Several operators failed before the region took off and is today a profitable base for live export and livestock production generally. He also supports further investment in a horticulture industry wherever it can be supported in the Territory, for both live export and local markets.
“Getting more done with what we have locally is a key to the future. We need to rebuild those export markets we had developed and re-establish local commitment to growing what we can.”
From an army kid who came to Darwin in 1948, Roger’s still got plenty to do and plenty to say about this place that raised him. “Sometimes you get some tough things happen in life, but you get over those and get on and do things that make a difference. That’s what makes it the place it is … there’s still plenty of opportunity to be had here.”
It’s a great view from a 13-year-old trainee ringer sitting on a fence rail, wondering what life will bring, isn’t it?
Image 1 - 1953 - Roger Steele with his horse and Betty Atkinson and David Garner in foreground. Photograph from a trip in the NT, Victoria River district - Photo courtesy of Library & Archives NT
Image 2 - 1978 - Roger Steele, MLA for Ludmilla, Minister for Industrial Development, Minister for Transport and Works - Photo courtesy of Library & Archives NT