Bess Price on the campaign trail, talking with Laramba resident Ronnie McNamara and Napperby pastoralist Janet Chisholm.
By KIERAN FINNANE
“We tried Karl Hampton and before him Peter Toyne. Nothing happened. We need someone who can help us.”
Is a swing on in the vast Northern Territory electorate of Stuart? It’s been held by Labor since 1983. Can well-regarded and outspoken senior Warlpiri woman Bess Nungarrayi Price wrest it from Labor for the Country Liberals? One voter doesn’t make up the 15% needed but Ronnie McNamara in Laramba is eloquent.
When Janet Chisholm from nearby Napperby Station introduces Mrs Price, he is initially diplomatic: “We won’t be voting for anybody,” he said, swinging out of the front seat of his car, where he was sitting facing his wife, Rita Nangala (below), enjoying the winter sunshine on the front verandah of their home. Then he decides to be more forthright: ”We vote for these governments and they don’t help people. We might vote for that Country party.”
“Bess is standing for the Country Liberals party,” stresses Mrs Chisholm.
Mr McNamara has a story to tell, about land acquired in his name but over which he feels he has lost all control.
The land is the former pastoral property of Central Mount Wedge, bought on behalf of traditional owners with money from the Aboriginal Benefits Trust Fund in 1995. It was then successfully claimed under the Land Rights Act, with the title handed over in 1999 as Aboriginal Freehold. This is a communal title and is “inalienable”, meaning it can’t be bought or sold. It is held as an Aboriginal Land Trust and the Central Land Council has a formal role in consulting with the traditional owners over all proposals for its use.
The trouble is, Mr McNamara tells Mrs Price, once it was handed over “I never saw anyone again”. He wanted to keep the land in pastoral production: “I know the cattle business, fencing, yard building, bore running.”
But he needed help and none was forthcoming: “Go and have a look, everything is falling down, nothing ever happened.”
Roy Chisholm joins the group. “Tjupurrula!” Rita Nangala cries, waving to him with a big smile.
“About seven or eight years ago” Mr Chisholm wanted to lease the land at Mount Wedge – the kind of arrangement now promoted by the Central Land Council as lifesaving “for pastoralists trying to cope with drought”. But on this occasion the move was blocked by them, says Mr Chisholm. The attitude was “Chisholm will never get near it” although there would have been “a benefit to the traditional owners, to me, and to the economy”.
“That’s what we’re looking at,” says Mr McNamara, “but I don’t see the land council coming across to talk to me or anything.”
The place is now “a wreck”, he says. With no functioning bores, “I can’t even go there for one day”.
It’s the kind of situation affecting people on the ground that Mrs Price wants to help with.
“I come from the bush myself,” she tells Mr McNamara, “I’ve grown up there, seen the waste, for the people and of the land itself.”
Earlier, sitting on the lawn outside the homestead at Napperby, waiting for the Chisholms to return from their morning’s work, she had spoken of her dreams for her family’s land near Yuendumu. Years ago, “in the DAA days”, they put in a pit toilet and a tank with a roof to collect rainwater. More recently, her sister, now deceased, used royalty money to pay for piped water from the borefield.
“I’d like to get people back on country, to make a living out of it,” Mrs Price mused.
She’s been encouraging her nephews to acquire the skills needed to set up an outstation and there’s a good supply of bush tucker available – bush raisins, dogwood seed – that could be the foundation of a small enterprise. This is but one of the ways in which her people could become more “self-reliant”, a key part of her political message. But this visit to Laramba, population 300+, is more about meeting, greeting and listening to people, reminding them about the forthcoming election, urging them to enroll.
‘Meeting and greeting’ is where the Chisholms (pictured with Mrs Price below) can help. The life members of the Country Liberal Party are engaged neighbours of the community, which is just a couple of kilometres from the homestead; they’ll be pleased to make the introductions.
If they expect anything from government for themselves, it’s some kind of sign that government cares. Mrs Chisholm says there was not a single government member at the cattlemen’s dinner, attended by some 400 on Show weekend, the first time she can remember that to be the case: ”They’ve just given up, they don’t care.”
Although Alice Springs is some 200 kms to the south-east, it is the regional hub and she also expresses a lot of concern over law and order in the town, especially the large numbers of young people on the streets at night: “I’m ashamed of Alice Springs,” she says, referring in particular to the recent alleged rape of two international tourists.
Otherwise the conversation, over cups of tea and roast beef sandwiches, is mostly about Laramba. She laments the state of the children’s education: “None of them can read”, she says, and apparently that’s not from want of attendance. (NAPLAN results on the MySchool website for Laramba are scanty, with mostly no reporting for Years 3 and 5, but a disastrous score for Year 3 reading in 2009. The attendance rate for 2011 is reported as 82%.)
“Everyone says education is the key – if it is, then give everyone a chance,” she says. Laramba children won’t be able to break through in the Territory system, she argues; their only hope is to be sent away to boarding school.
Again it’s a theme close to Mrs Price’s heart. She has a background in education and training and wants all children in the NT to receive the same high standard of education as other Australian children, one of five main points made in her election material. At the lunch table she argues against bilingual education: “I’ve spoken to parents all over the place. They all want mainstream education for their children.”
She points to herself as an example. She grew up speaking Warlpiri at home and had English-only schooling, at the end of which she found she could read in Warlpiri if she wanted to.
Another topic in the lunchtime conversation is employment. Once upon a time Napperby employed Aboriginal workers like Ronnie McNamara, seasonally. It worked well, says Mr Chisholm. After two months’ work people could go off to attend to their cultural business and then after six weeks away, they’d come back, ready to work again.
“Now we’re trying to say to people they have to get ‘real jobs’ and work regular hours, nine to five”, which is a tall order after generations of unemployment. He sees the mining model of two weeks on, two weeks off, as more culturally suitable.
The so-called super-shires also come up. “A disaster”, according to Mrs Chisholm. She suggests that elected members mostly don’t have an adequate grasp of the matters they’re dealing with, including budgets worth millions of dollars.
Shire reform is on the CLP agenda. In Mrs Price’s election material the aim is expressed as “to give back real, accountable, local control”. At lunch her campaign manager, Jenny Lillis, is blunt: “We’ll get rid of the super-shires and introduce smaller regional shires.” And head offices will be located within shire boundaries. Mrs Price qualifies: “It won’t happen straight away. We’ll take time to look at what works best.”
Mr Chisholm says that the advent of the shires has driven something of a wedge between the station and the community. He’s lived alongside Laramba all his life (it’s on land excised from the pastoral lease) and it’s been “a good relationship” until now. The difficulty doesn’t come from the Aboriginal residents of the community, he says, but from shire staff, who are suspicious of pastoralists.
When the Chisholms accompany Mrs Price to the community, there is no apparent tension as they approach various senior men to introduce her as the Country Liberals’ candidate.
The community is quieter than usual. It’s school holidays; some people have not returned from Alice Springs after the Show; others are at ‘sorry camp’ following the recent killing at Ti Tree.
Janet Chisholm introduces Bruce Brown to Bess Price .
Senior man Huckitta Lynch draws Mr Chisholm aside to talk with him quietly. Mrs Chisholm introduces Mrs Price to Bruce Brown who is sitting by a small fire with a countryman. He’s friendly but clearly has something on his mind to talk to Mrs Chisholm about. She explains later that he wants to sell his paintings through the roadhouse at Tilmouth Well, which the Chisholms own. She’ll sort it for him.
Further down the road Mrs Price meets her old uncle, Teddy Briscoe, and his wife, Seal Pangata. They too are enjoying the winter sun, sitting on the verandah, with a little fire burning on a sheet of iron beside them, and their dog wagging its tail dangerously close to the hot coals. They are visitors to Laramba, normally living at Desert Bore, an outstation Mr Briscoe set up between Laramba and Yuelamu. While Mrs Price chats with the old couple, Mrs Chisholm talks to the younger generation inside, encouraging them to get on the electoral roll.
“It’s all about being around, seeing people,” Mrs Chisholm tells Mrs Price as they walk away. She urges her to come back before the election, so that people can start to feel more familiar with her. That’s already arranged. After the school holidays Mrs Price and Jenny Lillis will bring morning tea out to the women’s CDEP activities program when it’s in full swing again. The program has a new, if small and still incomplete studio, where the women are sewing and painting and expanding their skills through the Certificate II in Visual Arts and Contemporary Craft offered by CDU.
At Laramba’s women’s CDEP activities studio. Eileen Gorey standing at left, Mrs Price speaking to program coordinator Kathy Derrin, campaign manager Jenny Lillis at right.
They sell their wares – skirts, pillowcases, cushion covers, paintings, pottery – from time to time at the Todd Mall Markets in Alice Springs. They also do projects in the community, such as restoration works and religious paintings for the small church in Laramba. Mrs Price chats to the program coordinator, an old friend, about future plans for the program.
A final port of call is to introduce Mrs Price to Amy Stafford (below) and her husband, important in the community not only because of their traditional ties, but also their active roles, as somewhat younger people, in the community’s functioning.
“Karl, he never comes to visit us, only at sports time,” says Mrs Stafford.
The expectation is clearly more than just being noticed: “We need representatives out here to help us develop our community.”
The conversation continues in Warlpiri. Time for the Chisholms to return to their work but they’ll be there again to help when Mrs Price returns.
Next stop on the campaign trail will be Tennant Creek for the Show this weekend, which will draw lots of people from the electorate. From there, she’ll head into the northern reaches, to Mataranka, Katherine for its Show, then out to Burunga and Beswick (return visits). Jenny Lillis will travel with her.
“It’s too far and too lonely to do by yourself,” says Ms Lillis. “You need company, someone to keep your spirits and morale up. I’m like a spare leg in some of the communities, the people are interested in talking to Bess, not me. She introduces herself as Nungarrayi and they spend 10 minutes working out who they’re related to before the discussion moves on to anything else. They seem very comfortable talking to Bess.”
“Sometimes they’re people I’ve been to school with, or teacher’s college, or we’ve been on committees together. And there’s usually someone on the community who’s married into my family,” says Mrs Price.
She doesn’t under-estimate the size of the challenge. The physical distances alone are daunting (the electorate covers over 300,000 sqkm, stretching into country north of Katherine). The support she’s getting is buoying. All sorts of people, including her family members, are donating money for fuel; one supporter has loaned her a 4WD; people are helping out with accommodation and food. This kind of help is vital as the party provides only a shoe-string budget for the campaign.
Sometimes, to maintain visibility, she sits out on the corner of the Tanami Road and the Stuart Highway: “The yapa, they all know my vehicle, they all know it’s me, they all wave and smile and yell out. My family are all really proud of me. I’m enjoying it, it’s exciting, I don’t have meetings or appointments, I just go and sit down with people and talk.
“My understanding is that people want change. Karl hasn’t done enough. He hasn’t been out to see them enough, to talk them. Promises have been made but not delivered. People want to see things happening, with roads, shires, settling issues like the feuding at Yuendumu. They want someone who understands the bush.”
Bess Price talking to Amy Stafford.
Interestingly, she says the Intervention and its update as Stronger Futures don’t rate highly among the issues people bring up with her. She says key features like income management are now widely accepted or, better still, seen as helpful. However there is still a lot of confusion over changes and understanding the roles of different players – the Central Land Council in negotiations over leasing, and the various levels of responsibility within the NT and Australian governments. And people are frustrated at being told to “do this and do that in their community and on their land”, she says.
If she gets in, she’ll prioritise visiting throughout the electorate for at least a year: “We won’t be able to fix everything but I’ll be talking to people about what needs fixing most urgently.”
And if the CLP wins government she’ll resist portfolio duties if offered them, at least for the first term.
“I just want to be a good local member.”
And her take on that is working with people to help them help themselves.
Note: When sitting MLA for Stuart and Minister for Central Australia, Labor’s Karl Hampton, sees fit to respond to the many questions and requests for comment put to him by the Alice Springs News Online in recent times, we will talk to him too about his election campaign.