Quilpie Shire Council Mayor Stuart Mackenzie OAM with his wife Robyn Mackenzie OAM
By Nichola Davies / LGAQ Digital Journalist
When asked for a career highlight, Quilpie Shire Council Mayor Stuart Mackenzie said being a mayor has been his greatest privilege and honour. And Cr Mackenzie knows his history – he founded an acclaimed dinosaur museum, after all…
Quilpie Mayor Stuart Mackenzie wears many hats.
As well as a decades-long career in local government, he’s a fourth-generation grazier on Plevna Downs in the western area of the Quilpie Shire, founder of the not-for-profit company Outback Gondwana Foundation – which manages the Eromanga Natural History Museum – father, grandfather and husband.
He encountered his future wife Robyn a couple of times before they became an item – Robyn growing up on a property near Morven, which is in the neighbouring shire and some 300 kilometres east of Quilpie. (Distance is relative in the Outback, but it’s worth noting that Plevna Downs is 90 kilometres west of Eromanga… which is a further 100-plus kilometres west of Quilpie!)
“My sister actually got a teaching job at Morven and ended up marrying the bloke next door to where Robyn grew up, so that’s how we met,” Cr Mackenzie said.
“But it wasn’t until I did an engineering degree in Brisbane after school at QUT that our paths crossed, as they tend to do.
“She was working in a bank down there and so we got together, then got married and moved out here [to Plevna Downs].
“She left her banking career behind, and I never practiced engineering, as there was an opportunity that came up on the family property.”
While working on Plevna Downs in 1997 – helping it get its organic accreditation, which was ahead of its time – he decided to run for council.
“[I ran for local government] mainly because I live in the western part of the shire and we didn’t have any representation out here,” Cr Mackenzie said.
“The previous person had retired, so people approached me to put my hand up.
“We didn’t have divisions like they used to have previously, so it was really just the whole shire voted for eight councillors at the time.
“I didn’t actually expect to get on because I was sort of out of town… anyway, I did, and the rest is history – I’m still there.”
In 2004, the Mackenzies’ lives took another route when, after a day out mustering, their son Sandy discovered a ‘rock’ on the property that turned out to be the remains of the largest dinosaur discovered in Australia – a titanosaur later nicknamed Cooper.
Cr Mackenzie said he never imagined his life would be involved with dinosaurs to the extent it is today… though he says he had always hoped it might.
“I was the one who sort of had that dream of discovering some dinosaur bones because I knew we were on the type of country that you could find them,” Cr Mackenzie said.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think that would actually happen.
“It’s still one of the more exciting moments of my life actually, when we had the first bone that was confirmed as a dinosaur.”
As fate would have it, it ended up being Robyn who dedicated herself to the field after that.
“She’s been the driver of the whole project since then – I probably wouldn’t have done any more than find the bone, deliver it to the museum or whatever, and that would be fine.
“To take it to the next level has really been her thing.”
The discovery in 2004 was opportune timing for Robyn and the family. Cr Mackenzie was by now deputy mayor and still working on the property. His father was still helping out on Plevna Downs, but in his seventies at the time, and the kids were at an age where they were heading to boarding school, having previously been taught at home by Mum.
“She had a bit of time for a change and threw herself into it,” Cr Mackenzie said.
In 2008, Cr Mackenzie established Outback Gondwana Foundation after unsuccessfully standing for mayor – which he now says “in hindsight may have been a good thing” – as the couple were able to put a lot of effort into getting the foundation going.
Robyn is today one of the country’s leading figures in palaeontology – the study of ancient life, including dinosaurs – recognised recently by being awarded an Order of Australia (OAM) medal for services to the field, as well as the community of Eromanga.
It just so happened that Cr Mackenzie got his on the same day, for services to local government and to the community of the Quilpie Shire.
“It was really weird actually,” Cr Mackenzie said.
“I got home, I think I had a meeting and we [Robyn and I] were having a drink and she said, ‘oh, I got an email today’,” Cr Mackenzie said.
“She showed me, and it was her email saying she received an OAM. I was over the moon for her, that was really, really exciting.
“I knew she was being nominated so it wasn’t a total shock to me. So, we had an extra drink and that was great and went to bed.
“Before I went to sleep, I checked my emails because I hadn’t checked them that day – and I had one as well!
“She was already asleep, so I didn’t tell her until the next morning. We ended up having sort of two separate celebrations. We had no idea mine was coming.
“But I was so excited for her because in her field it’s very hard to get one. It’s a huge achievement.”
Looking back on it now, Cr Mackenzie said he doesn’t quite know how they fitted it all in. Despite an exciting venture into the world of dinosaurs, he says Council’s been his life focus and after serving as a councillor from 1997-2004, deputy mayor from 2004 to 2008, and mayor since 2012, he’s seen and learned a thing or two.
“I’ve seen some big changes in the region over the years, positives and negatives, I’ve been around long enough,” he said.
“I grew up in a time when we have rural power, so we didn’t have 240V power across the shire … and we used to get on the phone where you actually turned the handle to ring down a wire line to the exchange and you tell the person at the exchange what number you want them to ring for you.
“So, power came in around the same time as landlines, but now we have NBN satellites, SkyMuster and StarLink.
“The change in communications alone over my time is extraordinary and you can achieve so much more because of that.”
Cr Mackenzie said there are exciting times on the horizon for the shire, with a recent “mini boom” in the rural sector, tourism pumping along with great new attractions and “some serious private investment in tourism in accommodation, homestays and that sort of thing”.
There’s also a builder moving to town – surely to the envy of many councils out west – and the build of six townhouses is due to kick off early next year.
As for his own future, Cr Mackenzie hasn’t decided one way or another about next year’s council elections, but in pondering his career legacy as a grazier, dinosaur museum founder and mayor, he says local government has been his greatest pride.
“It has been a huge privilege to be a mayor,” he said.
“It has been very enjoyable and also challenging at times, but I’ve been fortunate.
“I’m only there because I’ve been supported by the community over a long period of time. I’m very thankful of that support.
“I feel pretty comfortable that we’re in a better place when I leave than where we were when we started, so I can say I’ve contributed to the advancement of the shire.”
After a long (and hopefully continuing) career in local government, Cr Mackenzie offered this advice to incoming and reinstated councillors.
“You probably only know if you’re actually on council – and especially being mayor – just how important the council and CEO relationships are,” he said.
“Everything feeds off that. I’ve always said that’s probably the primary role of a mayor: make sure your council and your CEO and your senior staff work together as a team, because it’s one of the most common problems in councils – that not happening.”
Cr Mackenzie suggests prospective councillors make time to sit in on some council meetings before they nominate.
“We have a councillor now that’s just about to finish his second term and he sat in on six or seven meetings before he stood for council and I give him a lot of credit for that,” he said.
“He just sat there and saw what was going on and got a real feel for it.
“Obviously there’s the formal training you go through once elected, but nothing would help you better than to do that because some would actually do that and decide that it’s not for them and wouldn’t even stand.
“They go, ‘oh god, I didn’t realise it was this sort of stuff!’, with the regulations and all that.
“It’s not hard to do as long as you can get the time off work or whatever, see what the job [of councillor] involves.”
If the local government sector should lose one of its greats, Cr Mackenzie said he will still be involved with the museum and Plevna Downs. He also has a lot of family out his way, with seven grandchildren – including two sets of twins.
“I’m very proud of my two children, they’ve both done very well and they’ve both got their own families now,” Cr Mackenzie said.
“They’re both on properties and I get a huge amount of satisfaction out of that.”
Whatever the outcome, it sounds like he’ll be busy – and you’ll know where to find him to say g’day.