Ken Lechleitner on polling day, campaigning for Warren H. Williams (back to the camera) in Hermannsburg.
By KIERAN FINNANE
The Darwin-focussed politics of successive Territory governments have finally got the challenge they deserved and it came from the black vote in the bush. Credit has to go to the Country Liberals’ significant work in communicating with bush electorates and fielding credible candidates with strong local roots – this transformation of the Country Liberals is one of the major changes wrought by Labor’s 11 years in power.
But the performance of the First Nations Political Party, particularly in the electorate of Stuart, suggests a broader politicisation of Aboriginal people, no longer happy to have other voices speaking for them, no longer wedded to Labor because of its historical support for land rights.
Maurie Ryan (pictured, in 2007) for the FNPP in Stuart has attracted 16.4% of the count to date, a healthy vote for a minor party candidate, and his preferences will decide the final result. His strongest support came unsurprisingly from the Lajamanu booth, up in the Victoria River area in the far north of the electorate, his home country. Here he got more than half the vote. He also outpolled the Country Liberals’ Bess Price in her home community of Yuendumu, although there Labor’s Karl Hampton got almost half the vote. (Lajamanu and Yuendumu are the two Growth Towns of the vast electorate.)
The challenge for the Country Liberals government will now be to respond to their new support base. Their promise is no less than scaling back Labor’s “super-shires”, putting smaller, more effective structures in their place – a daunting task and necessarily expensive as lack of adequate funding in the sector, no matter what the governing structures, is critical.
The challenge for the First Nations Political Party is to remain active, develop its thinking beyond the broad brush, and identify future credible candidates. On polling day at Hermannsburg Ken Lechleitner, one of the party’s founders together with Mr Ryan, was excited about the future. He said the party would re-register as “Australia’s First Nations Political Party” and contest the next federal election, possibly also outside the Territory: “There’s a lot of interest in other states – if these guys do well, there’ll be a rippling effect.”
He says there are already candidates willing to stand in six lower house seats, as well as for the Senate. They are not necessarily Indigenous and Mr Lechleitner is enthusiastic about this.
“Our party is about all nations coming together, coming to a watering hole or a place where we meet, bringing all sorts of cultures together, in a culture of working and development.”
He pointed with satisfaction to the non-Indigenous candidates standing for the FNPP in the Territory – Edan Baxter in the seat of Araluen and Dimitrious Magripilis in Sanderson (Mr Baxter had more support than Mr Magripilis, with 7.8% of the vote compared to 2.1%).
One of Mr Lechleitner’s key ideas is for Aboriginal people to be able to use their land as other landholders do – developing its commercial potential by using it as collateral for a bank loan.
The Alice Springs News Online asked him about what he thought would happen if the commercial venture fell over and the bank foreclosed. How would he feel about the land passing out of Aboriginal ownership?
He spoke first of the necessity for “financial training” – “You have to understand what you’re getting yourself into” – and then enthused about the possibilities of enterprises reflecting Aboriginal knowledge, such as commercialising their intellectual property regarding plants of nutritional and medicinal value.
But, the News put to him, no matter how good the idea, there are inherent risks in business. Would Aboriginal people be willing to risk their land?
Only “a limited portion” would be offered as collateral, he said. His wife, Michelle, joined the discussion: “We wouldn’t dream of giving our land away, we know how hard our old people fought for it,” she said. But, through her side of the family, they have “a beautiful block” in the Jay Creek area with nothing on it but a shed. They’d like to do something with it, but don’t have any way of raising capital.
The discussion moves back to the broad brush vision. Mr Lechleitner talks about the importance of Aboriginal labour in the post-war years in Alice Springs, but “they didn’t understand the economy, how to generate wealth”. Joint ventures are the answer, for instance in agricultural enterprises: “Other cultures understand how to grow food off the land to perfection, but we’ve got the land, let’s work something out.”
As we are talking, he receives a phone call from his sister in Yuendumu who tells him that the polling booth there might be closing because “family fights” have broken out. The subject changes: “That’s another thing we want to do – uphold traditional law, to remedy this situation so people can get on with life. He could get in there [pointing to FNPP candidate for Namatjira, Warren H. Williams] and write the law that we could live under.” Without this, Aboriginal people, like the feuding families in Yuendumu, will continue “living in fear”, said Mr Leichleitner.
The two issues he focussed on are among the biggest challenges facing the Territory. Can the FNPP take the debates any further? That will be their task in the coming years.
In building political credibility they also can’t afford to do what Mr Lechleitner did in the lead-up to the election. At the meet-the-candidates forum on August 7 he was still saying he would stand in one of the Alice Springs seats. In the end he didn’t.