Town burnt once by the fires, and again by the tax rules


JINDIVICK feels like the forgotten town. Locals affected by Black Saturday say they have been told they do not qualify for most aid grants, even though dairy farmers are struggling and the general store is going under.
“You hear so many sad stories,” a tearful Marilyn Mason, co-owner of the store, said yesterday. “Potential suicides. It’s just a squashed little town. But because nobody died here and nobody was injured, nobody wants to know. I’m sure there are other little communities suffering just the same because their damage isn’t newsworthy.
“You see guys coming in here crying – big men that would throw a cow around and not flinch. But they are at the end of their tether.”
Ms Mason and fellow store owners Michael and Cindy Read have called a public meeting for this morning to discuss what they see as a crisis. Ms Mason said: “What we want to see is some of that $350million (given to the Bushfire Appeal Fund) – which people in our community also contributed to – we want to see that divvied up immediately. Farmers need cash in their pockets so they can buy grain.
“All the money that’s been donated by people – nobody we have spoken to around here has seen any of that money.”
According to a spokeswoman for the fund, which is administered by the Red Cross, some farmers cannot be given money because their properties and homes are owned by a business or a trust.
Tax laws forbid the Red Cross donating to commercial enterprises on pain of losing its charity status, she said.
About 18 houses were lost in the area around Jindivick, about 10kilometres north of Warragul.
Federal MP Bill Shorten, parliamentary secretary for Victorian Bushfire Reconstruction, said yesterday that he would visit Jindivick.
“I don’t dismiss these concerns,” he said. If some people had fallen through the cracks of the bushfire relief system “we just have to track them down and work it all through”.
He said it was appropriate the tens of millions of dollars already paid out went to “first-tier victims” but it was also important the tax system did not disadvantage others in need.
He said he planned to meet the Red Cross and bushfire appeal chief John Landy to discuss issues including tax rules.
Mr Read said the Jindivick store’s turnover had halved since Black Saturday because farmers were not spending. Many did not qualify for receive aid as they do not earn 51per cent of their income from the farm, he said.
But local dairy farmer Jill, who did not want her surname used, said many were pushed to take on jobs outside the farms when the price of milk halved abruptly late last year.
Since the fire, income had dropped again for several reasons: the flow of milk fell in cows not milked during the crisis; many cows developed mastitis, which required expensive medication and produced poorer-quality milk that attracted a lower price; and feeding pastures had been burnt.
“Then you still have to find money to re-sow and replace fencing. We’re up for $18,000 for grass seed alone, without paying someone to put the grass seed into the ground. Everyone’s struggling to keep going.
“We have received a small amount through the Gippsland relief fund but nothing through the Red Cross.”
Ms Mason said she and her business partners at the store were among those who had fallen through the cracks because their property had not burned. “We had a case manager come to talk to us and she said: ‘You just don’t fit in anywhere. You’re going to go broke.’ And we said, ‘Thanks very much!’
“And she said, ‘We can offer you counselling!”‘
Mr Shorten said the Government was sensitive to the problems of small business following the fires and had a $10 million plan for the tourism industry.
He said 900 payments had already been made to small businesses.

First published in The Age.

Julie and Jamie Ramage had the perfect life. Then Julie left Jamie … and he killed her.

Six years on Karen Kissane, who wrote a book about the trial, reflects on the case that shocked our city.

Julie and Jamie Ramage were married and lived in Balwyn. He was handsome and she was pretty. Materially, they were worth $2.6 million. Her two children remember that one of her favourite songs was “Summertime”, in which “your daddy’s rich and your momma’s good looking”.
Jamie drove a pistachio-coloured Jaguar, Julie had a horse she rode at weekends, and the children went to expensive private schools. Their dinner parties were sprinkled with doctors and lawyers and businessmen. They seemed to have reached middle-class Melbourne’s nirvana. But something about the Ramages’ life together had gone wrong. In 2003, after 23 years of marriage, Julie left Jamie.
Six weeks later, she came back to the family home for a brief visit. It ended with Jamie punching Julie to the ground. When she was laid out on the family room floor, he knelt down and strangled the life out of her. Realising what he had done, he did not call an ambulance or even the police. He slung his wife’s body in the boot of that lovely, sleek Jaguar and drove for 90 minutes across town before burying her in a shallow bush grave.
When his son got home from school that afternoon, Jamie Ramage acted as if nothing had happened. It was only later that he phoned a lawyer friend and turned himself in to police.
I heard of it first from an editor at The Age who wanted me to cover the story as a reporter, as a tale of love gone wrong. What I learned sitting on the wooden benches of the Supreme Court during the subsequent murder trial was that there was much more to the story. Researching with lawyers, friends and family after the verdict, I learned that there was much more to it again.
This story was a babushka doll of truths buried inside each other. It takes us into so many secret places, behind the facade of a perfect life hiding abuse, affairs and lies. It also has at its heart a double injustice: the killing of the heroine and the failure of the legal system to name what had been done to her.
When I first spoke to publishers about turning these events into a book, I was startled to find out it would be classified as true crime. To me, it was a story about the dark side of relationships among “people like us”.
If I had been then what I later became – an experienced court reporter who understood legal rules, and in particular the law of provocation as it then was – I might never have written the book. But I was an ordinary person thrown into the legal arena for the first time. In my naivety, I thought trials were about seeking truth and justice. I did not understand they are about arguing using only the facts that the laws of evidence permit to be aired, a process that sometimes leads to truth and justice, and sometimes not.
My unease began during the pre-trial process. Jurors are meant to judge the facts, but it was here I learned that judges and lawyers decide which facts they will be allowed to know. Nearly all the evidence of Jamie’s controlling and occasionally violent treatment of Julie was excluded because it was too old, or because it was hearsay: that is, Julie had said it to someone else, and it could not go to the jury because Julie was no longer alive to testify to it herself.
The law also said that Jamie’s account of that final row between them (in which he alleged he snapped after she had told him she loved someone else and that sex with Jamie repulsed her) had to be accepted as true unless it could be disproved beyond reasonable doubt. How could his account be disproved? Jamie Ramage could not be cross-examined because he chose not to testify in court, and the only other witness to the encounter was dead.
It all crystallised for me when the defence lawyer argued that Julie might have been “scratchy” during that last deadly argument because she had her period and was therefore more likely to have provoked Jamie, who pleaded not guilty to murdering his wife. His lawyer argued that Julie had provoked him and caused him to lose his temper, so he should be convicted only of the lesser charge of manslaughter. The jury agreed. I realised this was much more than a story of love gone wrong; this was also about how the law dealt with men and women and relationships.
Writing the book, I tried to explore how love can turn to this. I wanted to look at how the law dealt with family killings; how four therapists had failed to sense the danger in Jamie in the weeks before the killing; and how violent relationships work. Why does she stay for so long, and why does he do it?
Jamie Ramage’s lawyer argued that Julie had provoked her husband in two ways. The first was having led him to believe, during the six weeks of separation, that it was possible she might return. She knew he was taking the separation hard and wanted to let him down gently, something the lawyer construed as “weeks of lies”. The second form of provocation was her alleged brutal frankness with him in that final row.
If a woman trying to leave a controlling man lets him down gently, she is lying to him. If she tells him blunt truths, she is provoking him in another way. How, then, can she keep herself safe, given that separation is statistically the time she is most likely to be seriously injured or killed by her partner?
This was no Underbelly, with psychopathic career crims operating in a subculture of moral vacuum. Jamie Ramage was a respectable businessman who wanted to belong to establishment Melbourne. He was not alone and unsupported in his troubles; many of those in his leafy-suburbs circle (two of them doctors) listened to him sympathetically for hours as he talked about his marital woes. One of the mysteries was how a killing could have sprung from such ground.
If the first casualty of war is truth, the first casualty of homicide is privacy. I began my investigation with the police brief into Julie’s killing, which contained the sometimes intimately detailed statements of all the witnesses.
Few of the people I asked for interviews refused me. I spoke to friends, lawyers and therapists, and to her traumatised twin sister, Jane. For many of those who knew Julie well, and even for one friend who was closer to Jamie, there was an almost biblical need to bear witness about what had happened; out of loyalty, or out of a sense that the truth needed to be told.
Months later, I was talking to one of them about whether the book might hurt anyone connected with it. She looked at me and said, “Just keep reminding yourself that what happened here was wrong.”
The result was a portrait of a deeply troubled marriage in which there were many secrets. Every layer peeled back revealed yet another underneath and it turned out that Julie, too, was not as she had seemed.
The title of the book, Silent Death, was plucked by an editor from a line in the opening chapter. I wrote that no one in the Ramages’ street had heard a sound when Julie was killed, even though a neighbour’s windows were open: “Strangulation is like drowning: a silent death.”
The title resonated in other ways, too. It could be read as referring to the way Julie’s voice was silenced in court. It could also refer to the living death that is the abusive marriage in which a woman shields her partner with her silence. Julie herself had years earlier explained bruises on her face by telling friends she had walked into a cupboard door; in fact, Jamie had head-butted her in the face.
It was only much later that I realised that the phrase “silent death” resonated with me too, in a different way. When I was in primary school, my father was ill for several months. We were told he was getting better. It was a dreadful shock to be woken one morning and told he had gone to heaven. To me, it felt like his death had been shrouded in silence.
Perhaps that experience left me sensitised to the magnetism of a story like this one, drawn to uncover the truth about a family that had so many secrets around the death of a parent and a justice system that let too many of those secrets stay hidden.
Jamie Ramage did not appeal against his sentence (minimum eight years, and maximum 11 years). By coincidence, late last year I came into contact with an ex-prisoner who had done time with him at Loddon, a medium-security jail near Castlemaine.
He told me that Ramage had arrived with a batch of other wife-killers who came from the maximum-security Barwon Prison at the same time. “The first day he was there, I heard him say twice to people that he thought he had been hard done by in his sentencing, and it was too long a sentence for what he had done.”
Ramage did not endear himself to this man, who did not want his name used for publication. But the man acknowledged that Ramage had done a lot of good work helping the recreation officers at Loddon: “He’s been very good for helping get the art program up and running in a way that’s going to benefit the prisoners rather than simply the jail. James got money from a private foundation for this program and he did all the paperwork for that; submissions and writing reports. He does an awful lot of work for the jail where it interfaces with the outside world. There’s a food-fair day once a year, and ethnic communities set up food stalls on the recreation oval. James has put a lot of time into trying to improve it.”
But he remembered Ramage most as a sad figure: “A broken man; a whipped man.”
People often ask what effect the case has had. The problem had always been the law itself rather than any of the individuals applying it. Lawyers and judges are professionally obliged to work with the rules as they are.
Fortunately, the law of provocation was abolished in Victoria soon after this case. Proposed changes had been in the pipeline for some time, but the furore over the case might have helped energise the political will to push them through.
The case has made me realise that the law is not something that should be allowed to be “out there”, in a little bubble, remote from the rest of us. It’s meant to be an embodiment of what you and I think is fair. It’s important we scrutinise how it plays out because sometimes the fine principles that underlie it can fail to provide a just outcome.
Those interviews with the therapists have changed the way I parent my teenage children. I think there is a message here about teaching our sons and daughters how to negotiate an equal footing in relationships rather than to submit or to dominate.
We also need to convince our young people that they can bear being alone and can survive those times in adult life when there is no relationship to prop them up. This was something both Jamie and Julie Ramage deeply feared.
In the end, that fear of being alone destroyed both their lives.
Silent Death: The Killing of Julie Ramage has just been updated and re-released.
Suburban nightmares
The body-in-the-boot In February 2005, Maria Korp was strangled in her Mickleham garage by her husband’s lover, Tania Herman, who had lain in wait for her. After bundling 50-year-old Korp into the boot of her own car, Herman drove around the city before abandoning the vehicle near the Shrine of Remembrance. Found barely alive four days later, Korp remained in a coma for six months until her life support was switched off. Her husband, Joe Korp, was charged with conspiracy to murder but committed suicide on the day of his wife’s funeral. Tania Herman, who claimed Joe Korp had masterminded the plot to kill his wife, is serving a 12-year sentence for attempted murder.
The parent killer In a case that gripped Melbourne, Matthew Wales drugged and bludgeoned his mother, Margaret Wales-King, and stepfather, Paul King, to death in April 2002. Family members searched frantically for the Armadale grandparents before their bodies were found in a shallow grave in the Yarra Ranges National Park. Matthew Wales, then 34, the youngest of Margaret Wales’ five children, had a clear motive for murdering the millionaire socialites: money. He is now serving 30 years in jail after confessing to killing the pair with a lump of wood and wrapping their bodies in a child’s paddling pool. The case spawned a telemovie and book, which labelled the killings “The Society Murders”.
The driveway murder In November 1997, mother-of-three Jane Thurgood-Dove was gunned down in the driveway of her Niddrie home. A hooded gunman chased the 35-year-old around her car, repeatedly shooting her as her children, then aged 10, 5 and 3, watched from the car. Detectives, who ruled out her husband, Mark, as a suspect, at first suspected a serving police officer who was infatuated with Jane. They later concluded the gunman was a Rebels bikie gang member who had accepted a contract to kill a woman but shot the wrong person. The suspect died of natural causes and despite a $1-million reward, the case remains unsolved.First published in the Melbourne Magazine.

Winners ‘should repay fire grants’

BUSHFIRE victims who win damages in court should have to pay back to the relief fund any grants they had received, the barrister leading a class action said yesterday.
“Anyone who gets full compensation in relation to their claim … should repay the money,” said Tim Tobin, SC.
He said that in 1980s court cases where power suppliers were successfully sued over bushfires, donated money had been returned. This was fairer and allowed more to go to people who had suffered but did not have grounds to sue, he said.
Mr Tobin estimated the damages bill for the Kinglake area could run to between $600 and $800 million, not including personal injury claims. He said Kinglake was one of six fires on Black Saturday believed to have started as a result of fallen power lines or other electrical problems.
Mr Tobin was speaking at a forum of the Australian and New Zealand Institute of Insurance and Finance.
He said there were questions about merged fires at Kinglake but witnesses had seen part of the fire begin at Kilmore East.
“We have people who saw the start of the fire. We can pinpoint it. One of the witnesses is cleaning leaves and his wife yells out, ‘The power’s gone off!’ and at the same moment he sees the fire start.”
Mr Tobin said it was uncertain if a wire fell and hit the ground before it broke, or whether it broke and then hit the ground, but it was believed to be a broken line because the power stopped the moment the fire began.
He said a fire at Pomborneit, near Colac, began with clashing power lines – “a totally avoidable error”. A fire in a Yarra Valley vineyard started with a transformer, and fires in the areas of Horsham and Coleraine started with fallen wires, he claimed.
Mr Tobin said other fires began as a result of lightning strikes caused by changes in the weather triggered by the fires.
An affidavit filed with the Supreme Court confirmed Leo Keane as lead plaintiff in a class action suing transmission company SP Ausnet over fires that allegedly started from faulty power lines.
The severity of fires in recent decades was linked partly to changed land practices by farmers, Mr Tobin said. Previously, large paddocks left fallow acted as natural fire breaks, but this was no longer the custom.
A second speaker told the forum that 30 per cent of bushfire victims making insurance claims have found they were under-insured.
Graham Cox, claims manager for LMI group, said the first four CFA volunteers assessed by special teams sent on to fire-grounds were found to have no insurance.
Under-insurance would make it even more difficult for home owners who would be forced to rebuild using metal frames rather than timber frames, increasing the cost of replacing their buildings, he warned.
Mr Cox said anecdotal evidence gathered by assessors suggested individuals had died after staying to defend their homes because they knew they had no insurance and could not replace them.
Other assessors had reported that some deaths were thought to involve people who had recently moved from the city and did not understand bushfires.
– Repayments would be a matter of fairness, says lawyer.
– He said fallen power lines caused six February 7 fires.
– Thirty per cent of claimants were under-insured.
First published in The Age.

Bushfire commission to examine mass evacuations

MASS evacuations of people in bushfire-prone areas might have to be considered on future days of extreme danger to try to avoid another Black Saturday, the royal commission on the disaster has been told.
On its opening in Melbourne yesterday, the commission heard that people who stayed to defend their homes on February 7 were “entirely unaware” of the severity of what they faced.
“Fireballs seemingly of atomic force came before the fire,” said Jack Rush, QC, counsel assisting the commission, in opening remarks. “Such fires create their own weather and are beyond the most sophisticated attempts to control them.”
Australia’s “stay or go” policy, allowing people to make their own decisions on days of extreme danger, was unique and would be a key focus of the commission, Mr Rush signalled.
He compared the experience of Victoria with that of the United States, where evacuation is seen as the safest approach at times of high danger.
In the 2007 California fires, which destroyed 3069 houses, nearly 1 million residents were evacuated from 350,000 homes, and only 10 people died, he said. In Victoria on February 7, more than 2000 homes were destroyed and 173 people died.
The commission of inquiry into what Mr Rush called the nation’s “greatest peacetime disaster” would examine whether an evacuation policy would be suitable in some places on extreme days, he said.
“Some particular areas of this state, as a consequence of habitat and topography … are indefensible from a fire-fighting point of view,” he said.
Mr Rush said evidence would be presented demonstrating that on February 7 many people remained in their homes unaware of approaching fires until it was too late. He said the official “leaving early” advice from authorities suggested that residents make a decision on whether to stay or leave by 10am on an extreme fire danger day.
But by 10am and even midday on February 7, there was little fire activity in Victoria.
“There was no reported fire in Kilmore East, Horsham, Kinglake, Marysville, Strathewen, Callignee, Bendigo or Coleraine,” he said.
“Why would a resident of any of the fire-affected regions implement the ‘Go’ part of the policy if they were not aware of any fire threat?”
Mr Rush also said that while Victorians knew in advance that February 7 was a day of extreme risk, they did not understand there was a chance of “a fire that could not be fought”.
He said a rating of 12 to 25 on the McArthur Forest Fire Danger Index was considered high and a rating over 50 extreme. “The index on 7 February reached previously unrecorded levels ranging from 120 to 180.”
The blazes probably reached an intensity of 100,000 kilowatts per square metre. “The maximum intensity for control of forest fires is about 4000 kilowatts per metre,” Mr Rush said.
He said the commission would hear evidence that communications failed to cope on February 7, with warnings falling behind the advancing fires and the way they developed after a wind change.
He said the commission would scrutinise the websites of fire-fighting organisations and assess “the ability to track fires at all”. Warnings needed to be accurate and timely, he said. “Underpinning such warnings is the ability for agencies to rapidly analyse on-the-ground intelligence, to monitor risks as they emerge and develop, predict future impacts and point to the best course of action.”
Another issue raised by Mr Rush yesterday was the decommissioning over time of emergency refuges set up after the 1983 Ash Wednesday fires.
“Questions as to uniform standards, the legal liability of local councils who maintained them and the risk people may drive to refuges in dangerous circumstances have been raised as reasons for decommissioning,” he said.
Mr Rush said a new national building standard, adopted soon after February 7, failed to cover important questions for fire-prone areas. The commission would look at issues including building maintenance, exit before and after fires, bunkers, water and power.
He said some houses built to the highest standards had burned to the ground, so the inquiry had commissioned analysis on a street-by-street basis to help make findings about building codes.
Mr Rush also raised concerns surrounding fuel reduction, saying it was constrained by complex rules. “Many municipalities in high-risk bushfire areas have a land management overlay, an environmental significance overlay, a vegetation protection overlay, a wildfire management overlay,” he said. “On their face, the planning provisions appear complex and bureaucratic.”
Due to time constraints, the commission’s eight-week block of hearings beginning on May 11 will examine only warnings and the stay-or-go policy.
Commission chairman Bernard Teague said the inquiry could meet its deadlines only if it limited the issues it addressed and looked at the more critical issues first, with a focus on saving lives.
Mr Rush said remaining questions, including causes of the fires, would be addressed after the interim report was delivered in August. Discussion papers would be published on some topics.
The interim report might have suggestions about the stay-or-go policy but would not have a recommendation about whether the scheme should be replaced, Mr Rush said. The final report is due in July 2010.
The commission’s hearings will be streamed on the internet.
First published in The Age.

Families died ‘after CFA turned them back’

Bush communities call for designated evacuation points, Karen Kissane reports from Kinglake.
A KINGLAKE mother and her three children died on Black Saturday after reportedly being turned back at a CFA checkpoint as they tried to flee the bushfire.
Nine people including Tina Wilson, 36, and her children Krystal, 15, Nathan, 13 and Teagan, 6, died while sheltering in a neighbour’s home in Pine Ridge Road.
A second family, made up of a young couple and their child, are also believed to have died in this street after being turned back at a checkpoint.
Ms Wilson’s friend and neighbour Jacqueline Hainsworth said the deaths showed the need for bush communities to have a designated safe evacuation point in case of fire.
Ms Hainsworth said that about 4.30pm that day she was evacuating from Pine Ridge Road when she stopped in her car to talk to Ms Wilson, who was returning to the street. She said Ms Wilson said the CFA had blocked the road to Whittlesea and that she was told there was no way down the mountain.
The road would have been closed because a fire was coming up the hill from Whittlesea about that time. When the wind suddenly turned, the fire changed direction and consumed areas including Pine Ridge Road.
Locals estimate about 24people died there. The coroner has not released figures on deaths in individual streets.
Ms Hainsworth said another neighbour had told Ms Wilson to go to a local carrot farm that had a wide open space, but she refused. “Tina said, ‘No, they told us to go home’.”
Ms Wilson and her children sheltered in a neighbour’s home because his house was considered safer than hers, as it was double brick with a concrete slab on a cleared block.
But the man who owned the house was horrified that nine people mistakenly believed themselves to be safe there. The man, who is still traumatised and does not wish to be named, said: “I told them to get out and everyone said they were staying.”
He confirmed Ms Wilson said she had been turned back at a CFA checkpoint. He said he hosed his house down for as long as possible but left when the inside caught fire.
The others had “decided it was safe even though the house was on fire. None of them got out.”
He said a friend had seen another couple with a young child returning to the street after being turned back at a checkpoint. He believed they died, too.
He said the fire had travelled about 20 kilometres in three minutes and was so fierce that his metal shed exploded from the effect of radiant heat on fuel stored inside: “No one that stayed was going to get out,” he said.
“There was nowhere safe to send them if you were sending them back from the checkpoint. The fire was coming straight towards our street, which means it wasn’t a safe place to go.”
He said those at the checkpoint should not be blamed because it was standard bushfire policy for people to be advised to stay in a house until the fire front passed and then go out to extinguish embers. “But things were catching fire before the fire front had hit, from the heat,” he said. “Basically it was more a wildfire than a bushfire.”
He drove to Kinglake West where the local CFA told him to turn around and drive back to central Kinglake. He sheltered with several hundred others in the CFA station in the town centre as the fire front passed over.
Ms Hainsworth said that when she lived in Research in the 1970s, “everyone knew (that in case of fire) you would go to the school because it had all the ovals, which were kept fully mowed. But communities don’t do that any more.” The other neighbour agreed that an open space should be designated and publicised: “A farmer, one with a 40-acre or 100-acre farm, should allocate a paddock in the middle of it each summer and keep it cut; one that the community could use as a fire escape and one everyone knows about.
“People can survive a grass fire where they can’t survive a bushfire.”
Ms Hainsworth escaped because her husband rang a friend with a CFA scanner who told them the road from Kinglake to St Andrews was still clear at that stage. Her family took that route.
“I cried for weeks,” she said. “This is only just hitting home now. (What happened to the Wilsons) was so close to being us. We actually turned the car around to go home, but I said, ‘I don’t want to go back there.’ Before the fire, that road was fully treed on both sides.” CFA director of community safety Lisa Sturzenegger said that on Black Saturday, CFA members in several places advised people to turn around if driving on would have put them in immediate danger.
“Whether that occurred in this case I couldn’t say,” she said.
Ms Sturzenegger said it was crucial that people in bushfire-prone areas had plans that included where to shelter if escape was impossible.
She said guidelines for setting up and maintaining mass fire refuges or evacuation points had been established in 2005, but it was up to councils to establish them.
First published in The Age.