On October 11, 2016, the Nambour Bowls Club hosted its annual Ladies’ Fiesta Day. It was a Tuesday, unseasonably hot and sticky, but by 9am, more than 100 women had arrived, and were enjoying a morning tea of home-made cakes and slices. Most lawn bowls clubs on the Sunshine Coast, in Queensland’s south-east, hold a Ladies’ Fiesta Day, but none do it quite like Nambour. With just 130 members, the club isn’t big by any means, but it is known for having some of the best greens in the area, a small but perfectly adequate bar, and state-of-the-art, recently renovated toilet facilities. Then there’s the hospitality. Players visiting the Nambour Bowls Club can expect a full lunch, with quartered ham and cheese sandwiches or salad rolls, some nibbles, and tea and biscuits, all of it on the house. Not every club puts on a spread like this. Some ask that visitors BYO lunch, or even charge for food. But that isn’t the Nambour way. The Nambour ladies go the extra mile.
Today was no different. Not long after the players took to the greens, three club volunteers – June Robson, Judy Silwood and Robyn Perren – busied themselves in the upstairs kitchen, chopping tomatoes, opening up and draining tins of beetroot, cutting up quiches and dressing coleslaw. The women were friends, but June and Robyn were particularly close, which was funny, given how different they were. June was gentle and well liked. Robyn, who was ladies’ assistant secretary at the time, was more assertive, even a little domineering. Some of the women found her egotistical. “Nothing was ever good enough for Robyn,” one woman tells me. “She was always criticising people’s work, and putting other people down.” But they all agreed she was a fantastic volunteer, always willing to muck in, working behind the bar, scrambling 12 dozen eggs at the club’s monthly Sunday breakfasts, and driving to bakeries at the crack of dawn to buy fresh bread rolls. “I am just one of those people who get in and do things when I see what needs to be done,” she told one woman.
Not long after they began preparing the Fiesta Day lunch, however, it became apparent that all was not well. The lettuce was running out, as was the beetroot and coleslaw. Robyn promptly dispatched Judy to the shops to buy more supplies, but that was only a stopgap. When one of the lady visitors became irate at not having enough salad, Robyn was forced to perform a little culinary sleight of hand, serving up some leftover coleslaw from another diner’s unfinished plate. When the umpire and the measurer, both men, came in to ask for some lunch, she had to do the unthinkable and send them to the local McDonald’s.
Robyn was angry. It wasn’t her fault the lunch was unravelling. June was the catering provedore, after all: it was her job to make sure there was enough food. Still, it reflected poorly on the club as a whole. Not that Robyn said anything. There was still too much to do, clearing and scraping plates, and packing the dishwasher, which, as luck would have it, appeared to be playing up. There were still bits of food on some of the washed-up cutlery. Robyn commented on this, which is when June told her not to worry about it, which is when Robyn snapped. “DO NOT CRITICISE ME!” she shrieked.
Accounts differ on what happened next: some say Robyn picked up the cutlery tray and slammed it on the benchtop; others say she slammed it back into the machine. One woman claimed Robyn actually threw the cutlery tray on the floor. “There were knives and forks all over the place.”
What everyone does agree on is that this was the point of no return for Robyn Perren and the Nambour Bowls Club. In a little more than a year’s time, she would be barred from the club, prevented from even setting foot on the premises. Robyn was indignant – no, incandescent – as was her husband, Nev, a 20-year veteran of the club and a past men’s president. Robyn appealed to the Sunshine Coast District Ladies Bowls Association, the Sunshine Coast District Men’s Bowls Association, then Bowls Queensland, then Bowls Australia, but no one would help. She then went to her lawyer, who told her the only remaining option was to go to court; the Supreme Court of Queensland, no less. So that’s exactly what she did.
Robyn and Nev live in a single-storey, brick veneer home in a former pineapple farming district called Woombye, on the edge of Nambour. When I arrive for dinner, the house is spotlessly neat, the main decoration being several sets of wall-mounted Spode and Franklin Mint porcelain plates, Lladro figurines, and, Robyn’s favourite, an Armani statuette of a black man holding a young child. At 67, Robyn is sprightly and voluble, as bustling a presence as Nev is reserved. Red wine in hand, they usher me out to the back patio, which looks south, over rambling paddocks and deep green hills. “There have been Perrens in this area since the 1870s,” Robyn says. They were a “pioneer family”, instrumental in establishing the local sugar mill, which, until it closed in 2003, was the lifeblood of the town. Nev’s parents, George and Jean, were pretty much bowls royalty, having helped set up the nearby Pacific Paradise Bowls Club, and the Sunshine Coast District Bowls Association. “That’s part of the reason we were so angry,” Robyn says. “The Perren name is well known in the community, and the club showed no respect for that.”
Robyn grew up in Brisbane but, looking for a change of scene, moved to Nambour in 1976, where she met Nev. In 2013, she retired after 28 years in middle management at Queensland Health, and decided to join Nambour Bowls Club. She saw bowls as a social activity, first and foremost, a way of keeping fit and of meeting new friends. When club members found out about her management experience, however, they pressed her to run for Ladies’ Club assistant secretary. “I told them, laughing, that they had to be joking,” she later wrote in court documents. Nonetheless, she graciously accepted their nomination and was promptly voted in.
It wasn’t long before she started noticing odd things about the way the club was run. Board minutes were handwritten, there was no proper record-keeping, and the finances were a shambles. There were bar takings, green fees, jackpots, raffles, catering costs: money was coming in and going out, here, there and everywhere. So Robyn sprung into action. She ensured minutes were typed and saved to the club’s computer. She made sure office holders used the club’s official email, rather than their personal accounts. Though strictly speaking it wasn’t her area, she also put together a spreadsheet to help manage the club’s money. Robyn was a doer, not a ditherer. You had to be. Lawn bowls clubs don’t just run themselves. Take the cistern in the men’s toilets. It had been dribbling away for heavens knows how long, and nobody had done a thing about it. When Robyn found out, she raised it at a board meeting, and, voila, it was fixed within a week. “People were so complimentary about what I was doing,” she tells me. “So many compliments, from everyone!”
Everyone but Ralph Wells, that is. Ralph was the club chairman. He was 70-odd, a retired butcher, and, according to Nev at least, used to getting his own way. Ralph and Robyn crossed swords almost from the start. One time, for example, Ralph refused to give Robyn a key to the office, a cupboard-like space where the club’s sole computer lived. Robyn tells me this was because Ralph is a “control freak who has to have everything his way”. (In his affidavit, Ralph said he didn’t give Robyn a key to the office because all the keys were being used.) Another time, Ralph had organised for a club function to get pizzas for $10 each; when Robyn found out, she negotiated the price down to $6 a pizza.
“That put Ralph’s nose right out of joint!” Robyn says.
But Ralph’s wasn’t the only nose out of joint. Robyn was a woman who knew her own mind and wasn’t inclined to change it. She was confident, some might say brash, what with her cerise lipstick and diamond rings (all six of them), her tawny hair carefully layered and invariably blow-dried. She could be bold, even provocative: she once took to the greens in a leopard-print golf shirt. And she wasn’t exactly a lady’s lady. “She hardly ever played with us,” one woman tells me. Another puts it more starkly: “Robyn thought she was God’s gift to men.”
It may surprise you to learn that Australia is a global lawn bowls powerhouse. With more than 633,000 regular players, we account for about 43 per cent of the world bowling population. Australia is also the world’s No. 1 nation in both men’s and women’s competition. Yet such triumphs are as nothing to the singular fondness that most Australians feel for their suburban “bowlo”. Enduring and unpretentious, the bowlo has become an Australian institution, a reliable social leveller and small-town staple that has about it a certain inevitability: somewhere, at some stage, each of us will end up in a country bowlo, drinking house white by the glass and eating a seafood basket.
As member numbers dwindle, however, the game has been forced to modernise. Much like Test cricketers, players were until relatively recently expected to wear full-length whites. Women’s skirts might even, on occasion, be measured for length. Management has also had to adapt, with clubs that were once segregated by sex, financially and administratively, slowly amalgamating. Nambour, for example, now has one bank account, and a board made up of both men and women. “Some of the men don’t cope with that very well,” Nev tells me. “They don’t like having to answer to a woman.”
In any case, in 2015, Ralph Wells was replaced as chairman by Brian Flux. (Robyn remained assistant secretary.) A former men’s president, Brian had, according to Robyn, coveted the top job for some time. In the lead-up to the vote, Brian had been “in his element”, Robyn says, canvassing support among members and running the numbers. As one of the few people in the club who could work the computer, he had closely monitored incoming emails, often reporting back to Robyn about the club’s comings and goings.
Once installed, however, Brian proved every bit as dictatorial as Ralph. Whenever there was a sub-committee, Brian had to be on it. If there was an expense to vet, he had to vet it. He was secretive, and incapable of delegating. According to Robyn, he became hysterical at one board meeting, screaming at Allen Owen, the bar provedore, “SHUT UP, SHUT UP, I DON’T WANT TO HEAR FROM YOU!” (Brian tells me this is “bullshit”, but declines to comment further.) Perhaps more concerning, in Robyn’s view, was his lack of initiative, of get-up-and-go, of charisma. Nambour’s main source of revenue is from bowling games and bar takings. But to get bowlers into your club, you have to be visible at other clubs. This shouldn’t have been too hard: there are no less than 21 bowling clubs within an hour’s drive of Nambour. Yet apparently, Brian found it increasingly difficult to rustle up the numbers.
Robyn, meanwhile, continued to go above and beyond. When Nev, as men’s president, decided to put together a surprise gift of a photo album for club stalwart Lyle Gibson, Robyn snuck around for weeks, surreptitiously snapping shots of Lyle as he pottered about the club. When the club needed a sponsor for its 2016 Scorpio Day event, Robyn convinced Nature’s Edge retirement village at Buderim to throw in $1200. Quite the coup. But if Brian was grateful, you wouldn’t have known it. On the day, he seated the Nature’s Edge people right where the raffle tickets would be sold, so Robyn moved them to a quieter spot across the room. When Brian found out, he was cranky – really cranky – but to Robyn, that was the price you had to pay for getting things done.
Nambour is a quiet place. Peak hour lasts three minutes, and one of the biggest shops in town sells wheelchairs and mobility scooters. Set at the foot of the Blackall Range, it was founded in 1862 by William Petrie, a logger and gold prospector who was drawn to the area by the abundant cedar trees, which he felled and floated down the Maroochy River, having branded them with a P. (He also branded his Aboriginal workers with a P, in case they forgot who was boss.) Later, sugar became the main industry. Nev tells me that when the mill on the hill was in full flight, the sickly-sweet reek of cooking sugar was enough to make you swoon. The 16-metre-high Big Pineapple, built in 1971, helped put the area on the map. There were also some lovely old churches, but most of them burnt down in 1987, when a crazed Vietnam vet went on an arson spree. These days, the prettiest parts of town are the back roads, which still have plenty of rambling weatherboard homes with vegie patches, chooks and pawpaw trees.
It’s also a small place, with a population of just 10,000. As a result, everyone knows everyone, especially when it comes to bowls. Sometimes this isn’t such a great thing, as I discover one morning when I meet with a 67-year-old man named Geoff Brown. Geoff is a conveyancing lawyer in Nambour, and a friend of the Perrens. He has a moustache, a strap of snowy white beard like a garden gnome, and the air of a man who is no longer surprised by anything. I had wanted to talk to him about Robyn’s situation, but the moment I sit down in his office he launches into his own bowling drama, which revolves around a 2014 Champion of Champions game where he was playing for Nambour Heights Bowls Club against Nambour Bowls Club, during which, he claims, the Nambour Bowls Club team cheated. (The club denies this.) The details of the Nambour Bowls Club’s alleged malfeasance are long and extremely boring, but the bottom line is that Geoff became obsessed with what he saw as a deep injustice and pursued it for four years, almost destroying his marriage and having a nervous breakdown in the process, at the end of which he went to Beckhaus Legal, a local Nambour law firm, where a solicitor named Matt patiently heard him out before suggesting that Geoff “go see a psychiatrist”. Geoff now tells me that “this was actually quite good advice”, which he subsequently heeded.
They might be full of pensioners and tea cosy-knitting marmalade-makers, but the way Geoff tells it, the average bowls club is a pit of vipers. Bullying. Backbiting. White-anting. Fallings-out are uncommonly common. There are personality clashes, etiquette breaches, temper tantrums. If they’re not picked in the club’s top team, some men – and it’s always the men – will simply up and leave for the club around the corner. Then there are the ladies. “There’s always a lot of bitchiness,” Geoff says. “You see that at [Nambour Bowls Club]. These old girls who have been running the show have been doing it so long. They see the younger women coming through and they’re worried they might win.” Geoff leans in close. “You’ll notice there are no younger women members at the club. They’re always made to feel uncomfortable and they leave.” (The club denies this.)
In his day, Geoff was a pretty good bowler: in 2011, he won an Australian title in the Queensland over-60s team. “But I’m giving the game away now,” he says exhaustedly. “I’m just at the stage where, you know, like, f… it. F… it all.” He now seems to have thrown his lot behind Robyn, who he regards as something of a lawn bowls freedom fighter, David to the club’s Goliath. “I admire her for taking them on,” he says. “She’s got more balls than me.”
On November 10, 2016, Brian and Robyn met in the club’s office. He wanted to discuss the events of Scorpio Day, when Robyn had moved the sponsor’s representatives to another table. He said he considered this a sign of Robyn’s “controlling behaviour”. How was he expected to run a club if he was constantly being undermined? And he wasn’t the only one upset. A number of ladies had complained about Robyn’s “aggressive and always right” attitude. He mentioned Robyn’s outburst at the Ladies’ Fiesta Day, when she had abused June Robson about the dishwashing machine. As a result, June and her husband Dave had resigned their positions at the club. (The Robsons did not want to comment.) This was a problem, since the club was run entirely by volunteers. Brian suggested that if Robyn just apologised, then maybe the Robsons would reconsider. Robyn refused. Things got heated. According to Robyn’s affidavit, Brian directed “a lot of nasty, humiliating, critical statements” at her.
From this point on, things rapidly deteriorated. The next day, Nev and Brian met at the club to discuss Brian’s behaviour towards Robyn. In a statement about the meeting later submitted to the Supreme Court, Brian claims Nev became “very agitated”. He called Brian “arrogant”, took his club key off his key ring and threw it on the table. He then pulled out his corporate credit card, which he used in his then role as bar provedore, and threw it at Brian, before storming out of the office. Fearing for his safety, Brian jumped up and locked the door, which was when Nev came back and kicked it. Brian claims Nev then stood at the window, making obscene gestures.
When, two days later, Nev officially resigned as bar provedore, the news spread like wildfire. Nev says he was playing at the nearby Woombye Bowls Club the day after his resignation, and “across the greens it was common knowledge.”
Christmas allowed for a brief truce. But by February 2017, they were back at it, this time over membership fees. Apparently the Perrens had neglected to pay up on time, meaning they had become non-members. Ralph told Robyn and Nev to re-nominate. But when they did, only Nev was accepted. It seems the lady members had spoken: Robyn was no long welcome.
I’m sitting on the Perrens’ patio, overlooking the pool, toward the hills beyond. Nev is showing me his bowls, a $595 pair of granite-heavy tangelo-coloured orbs which he lovingly polishes with a baby-soft chamois. Robyn is seated beside him, looking uncharacteristically emotional. What really got to her was that most of the women who voted against her had been friends. She and Nev had known some of them for decades, had had them over for drinks, for dinners.
They had house-sat for them, gone camping with them. When the Robsons moved to Nambour, in 2014, the Perrens took them under their wing. Robyn and June went down to Brisbane to see the ballet; she and Nev had even had June and Dave over on Christmas Day.
“The whole thing was so humiliating,” she says. She would run into the women in the street, and have to look away. Once, she bumped into Ralph, in the vegetable aisle at Woolies, which was awkward to say the least.
Robyn appealed the decision, claiming that she hadn’t known when the fees were due. In April, the club gave her a chance to make her case in a meeting open to all members. Ralph would be chair; another board member, Graeme Corps, would speak on behalf of the club. Eighty people showed up. Emotions ran high.
There was claim and counterclaim. Graeme told the meeting that “a person’s membership can be rejected if the committee believes they are not of good character”.
Robyn had her allies: long-time member Max Middleton spoke up, and said she deserved a second chance. At one stage, Mavis Balkin, the 90-year-old club patron and life member, rose (slowly) to her feet, and accused the ladies’ president, Lyn Hall, of having “put a gun to the head” of the women members, telling them that if they didn’t vote Robyn out, the board would resign en masse. (Lyn denies this.)
At the meeting’s conclusion, Robyn left the room, and a secret ballot was held. The results were unequivocal: 22 for Robyn, 58 against. She was out of the club, this time for good.
Both sides agree that the whole affair is absurd, highly destructive and titanically petty. Yet it has developed a momentum all its own. After an altercation at the club last Christmas, where Ralph allegedly grabbed Robyn by the shoulders, pushed her backwards and threatened to “jump all over” her right foot, which she had recently fractured, Robyn reported him to the police for assault. (The police interviewed Ralph but have since dropped the matter.)
Shortly after, the club banned Robyn from the premises altogether. Both sides have spent thousands on lawyers. “It’s just so sad,” ladies’ president Lyn Hall tells me. “Everyone got hurt. Everyone was affected.” Lyn says Ralph is a nervous wreck: when the police showed up his doorstep, his wife nearly had a heart attack.
But Robyn wasn’t giving up. It was her club as much as anyone’s, and besides, she still had friends there. In an effort to get reinstated, she complained to every bowls association she could think of, local, state and national, hoping they would make the club see reason. “They all have member protection policies, but none of them were prepared to act,” she says. She has been particularly disappointed with Bowls Queensland, and its CEO, Brett Wilkie.
“We know Brett,” Robyn explains. “Nev’s sister, Jan, and her husband, Merv, used to play indoor bowls with him. They went to Brett’s first wedding, for heaven’s sake. Brett’s a good bowler, but he should stick to that, and get out of administration.” After a while, the Nambour Bowls Club’s lawyer ceased communication. So Robyn went nuclear, and took the club to court.
In April this year, the matter of Robyn Denise Perren v Nambour Bowls Club Inc came before Judge Susan Brown, in the Supreme Court of Queensland. Robyn’s lawyer claimed that the club had denied her natural justice in rejecting her membership. The case was a traumatic experience, not because of the proceedings per se, but because of the media attention. The newspapers reported that Robyn had at one stage called June “a bitch”, and refused to eat her food. (False, says Robyn.) They also claimed the dispute had begun with the plate of coleslaw that Robyn had recycled at the Ladies’ Fiesta Day. (False again: it had begun with the dishwasher.)
The media bombarded her with calls; A Current Affair wanted an exclusive. Going into town became too stressful, so Robyn and Nev did their shopping instead at Sippy Downs, near Buderim. For a while, they even stopped bowling.
In the end, it all came down to Robyn’s unpaid membership fees. Her lawyer argued that the decision to terminate her membership on the basis of non-payment was contrary to the club’s own constitution, and that she hadn’t been properly notified of the need to pay the fees. The club, for its part, claimed that Robyn, as assistant secretary, would have known perfectly well when the fees were due. This seems like a pretty good point. Yet Judge Brown ruled in Robyn’s favour, finding that the club’s decision to terminate her membership was invalid. Costs were awarded: the club had to pay the Perrens’ legal fees of $36,721, which it did earlier this month. (It’s thought the club’s own costs are in the same vicinity.)
For Robyn, victory has been sweet indeed. The Supreme Court judgement was clear and concise; just 12 pages. Robyn keeps a copy of it in her files. “I read it quite a lot,” she tells me. “I get more out of it every time.”
On my last day in town, I visit the club to watch Robyn and Nev play. It’s only the second time they have been here since the court case. Needless to say, their presence is controversial. Plenty of raised eyebrows and tut-tutting. I’m standing at the bar buying a ginger beer when a woman approaches me and asks what I’m doing. I mention the court case. “Robyn is a piece of work,” the woman says. “Why would you want to come back to a club where everyone hates you?”
The minute she leaves, a man sidles up next to me. “Don’t listen to her,” he whispers. “Robyn was vindicated by the court. That’s the only thing you need to know.”
I head out onto the greens to watch. It’s warm and still. There’s the cawing of magpies, the soft donk of bowl on bowl, the sedative murmur of geriatrics chatting. It’s so languid, so peaceful. I didn’t understand bowls before. I never really got it. Now I look across the greens, at all those happy faces, and think: What a lovely way to spend the day.
Tim Elliott is a features and investigations journalist for The Sydney Morning Herald.