A north Queensland dive boat operator who claims he first came up with the idea to bring Oprah Winfrey to Australia has threatened to sue Tourism Australia.
Reef Encounter managing director John Heuvel said he had spent $200,000 developing and pitching his idea between 2004 and 2009 and would sue the tourism body as he had “got shafted”.
The Cairns-based tourism identity claims the then-managing director of Tourism Australia, Scott Morrison, assured him in 2005 he would not be shut out of any deal to bring Winfrey to Australia.
But when Winfrey finally did bring her crew and audience to Australia during a highly publicised tour last month, they did not spend time in Cairns or use his dive services, Mr Heuvel said.
Although he is yet to prepare or file a statement of claim, Mr Heuvel said he planned to sue Tourism Australia for “millions” on the grounds of breach of contract.
Not only did I get cut out of the deal, but Tourism Australia is saying that it thought up the idea, which is ludicrous.
Mr Heuvel said Mr Morrison, now the federal opposition's immigration spokesman, was enthusiastic when told about the Winfrey visit idea in 2005 and gave him a written guarantee of involvement.
“Scott Morrison promised me that I would never get cut out of the deal. Not only did I get cut out of the deal, but Tourism Australia is saying that it thought up the idea, which is ludicrous,” Mr Heuvel told this website.
“I came up with the idea in 2004.”
Mr Heuvel said he first conceived the concept in 2004 when he attended a motivational seminar and decided to set himself an ambitious goal to achieve.
“As a goal I wanted to set something really high and it was a choice of riding the space shuttle, but that was a bit selfish; and [then] I thought Oprah Winfrey just gave away 450 cars [and] it was the biggest story on the globe.
“I thought, what a great idea it would be to have Oprah Winfrey come out and do a show at the Great Barrier Reef.”
Mr Heuvel said he approached Winfrey's production company, Harpo Productions, and airlines Qantas and Virgin as part of his lobbying to bring the star and her audience to the Great Barrier Reef.
“I met with Scott Morrison in May 2005 in Perth and he loved the idea and he said: 'Wow, this is fantastic'. Scott said: 'I want to see your product'.”
Mr Heuvel said he went diving with Mr Morrison and other Tourism Australia representatives during a visit to Cairns in July 2005, and they discussed the proposed Winfrey visit.
He said he had engaged a public relations company to thrash out his idea, made an itinerary and gave the formal proposal to Tourism Australia, but said Winfrey's team was lukewarm on the idea.
Mr Heuvel said the proposal stalled, partly as a result of the devastating Hurricane Katrina in late 2005, but in 2009 he tried again by sending proposal documents to 129 members of Winfrey's staff.
Winfrey, the highly influential megastar whose show is broadcast in 150 countries, announced in September 2010 she would be coming to Australia to see the country's sights and tape two shows outside the Sydney Opera House.
Tourism Australia contributed $3.5 million to bring about the December visit and state governments also chipped in cash, while Qantas flew the audience and crew members to Australia.
Winfrey used the trip to heap praise on Australia as a “magical, wondrous, wondrous place” in a stunning endorsement that could influence her vast network of viewers.
Her private jet landed in Cairns for a refuelling stop before travelling to Hamilton Island. A handful of audience members saw the Great Barrier Reef and Daintree Rainforest during the Down Under tour.
Mr Heuvel, who bought the Cairns-based Reef Encounter business in 1989, said he was disappointed with the small number of people who were brought to the Reef.
He estimated he had spent $200,000 on his attempts to lure Winfrey to north Queensland, including $50,000 from his personal savings account, staff time, producing and printing proposal documents, and three trips to the United States.
“It [the legal action] is not about the money. It's about Tourism Australia. Tourism Australia is my partner and they f---ed me,” he said.
“They big-noted themselves saying we've brought Oprah out, and they just flat-out lied; this was my idea and my concept.”
In a statement, Tourism Australia said it was involved in two unsuccessful pitches to Harpo Productions in 2005, both of which involved bringing Winfrey and members of her audience to Australia.
It said the first pitch was initiated by Tourism Australia and involved a partnership with a book publisher, while the second was initiated by Mr Heuvel with Tourism Australia giving in-principle support.
“Over the ensuing years many Australian states and territories, businesses and individuals have pitched Harpo with an invitation to bring the audience to Australia,” Tourism Australia said in its statement.
“Many other countries around the world, and destinations in America, have also tried to lure the Oprah Winfrey Show to visit. This idea is not exclusive to Mr Vanden Heuvel or to Tourism Australia.”
Tourism Australia said it went back to Harpo early last year with a new proposal based around a live show taping at the Sydney Opera House and travel around the country, an idea that was successful.
The tourism authority said today it had not been formally approached regarding legal action and would not issue any further comment.
Mr Morrison declined to comment on the claims, saying they were a matter for Tourism Australia.