Tourism founders blast a government-owned company that they say destroyed their iconic business.
Tourism founders blast a government-owned company that they say destroyed their iconic business.

‘Watching your child die’: Founder ire as tourism icon dies

TJAPUKAI'S founders have taken aim at the government-owned company that "destroyed" a business they built from nothing over years of alleged mismanagement.

Don and Judy Freeman created the dance troupe in a basement theatre alongside artist David Hudson and Traditional Owners in Kuranda in 1987.

It ended up shifting to a multi-million-dollar facility in Smithfield in 1996 and becoming a nationally and internationally renowned drawcard for the Far North.

News of its demise came as no shock to the couple - but it still packed a punch.

Don and Judy Freeman founded Tjapukai in Kuranda in 1987.
Don and Judy Freeman founded Tjapukai in Kuranda in 1987.

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"It's heartbreaking for us. It's like watching one of your children die," Mrs Freeman said.

The Freemans sold their interest to Indigenous Business Australia (IBA) in 1999.

"Ever since they took over, it has just been a steady slide downhill," Mrs Freeman said.

"They slowly but surely tore the heart out of it and brought it to its knees."

The Tjapukai dancers perform at the Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park in Cairns 2003. PICTURE: Graham Crouch
The Tjapukai dancers perform at the Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park in Cairns 2003. PICTURE: Graham Crouch

The couple believed IBA should have stuck to what was a winning formula of authentic and personal performances.

They did not know the direction the organisation would take their former business when they signed on the dotted line.

"The shows were great and well thought out," Mrs Freeman said.

"Our aim was always to take people in the front door and somehow touch their soul, to change their opinions and make them leave with a different perspective of things.

The Tjapukai dancers perform to a full house during the open day at the closing ceremony for Naidoc Week. PICTURE: ANNA ROGERS
The Tjapukai dancers perform to a full house during the open day at the closing ceremony for Naidoc Week. PICTURE: ANNA ROGERS

"When Indigenous Business Australia took it over, they changed everything.

"They decided some building would be far more important than the heart and soul of what we were doing, and in the end they destroyed it.

"It was a long time coming, and it goes to show that maybe governments should not be running businesses."

Don and Judy Freeman in 1992 with Queensland tourism awards.
Don and Judy Freeman in 1992 with Queensland tourism awards.

IBA bought out the Indigenous co-owners of the facility when the transfer went through but Mr Freeman made certain that the land itself would remain in the Djabugay and Yirrganydji people's ownership.

"They will continue to own (10ha) of central Smithfield land at the juncture of two main highways," he said.

Originally published as 'Watching your child die': Founders slam Tjapukai's decline


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