The seat of Kimberley in Western Australia’s far north is making history as the state heads to the polls on Saturday.
For the first time, both the Labor and Liberal parties have Aboriginal candidates running for control of the giant electorate, where about 44 percent of the population is Aboriginal.
Sitting member Labor’s Josie Farrer, a former Halls Creek shire council president, is locked in a political battle with former policeman Warren Greatorex, the Liberal’s first Indigenous candidate for the state’s lower house.
Complicating the tight-fought contest are cyclonic weather conditions and flooding in the region.
Asked this week if any special arrangements had been made so that people in communities cut off by flood waters could vote, the WA Electoral Commission said: “… the communities were not visited due to the conditions which prevented accessibility”.
The WAEC said community members were no longer at the affected locations and were presumably at places where they could vote with mobile voting teams.
In the final days of the campaign this week, Ms Farrer was visiting towns such as Halls Creek, which sits between Fitzroy Crossing and Turkey Creek.
“There are lots of places we can’t get to…,” Ms Farrer said. “You never know when you are going to get stuck between rivers or swollen creeks.”
Ms Farrer has held the seat of Kimberley since 2013. It has been in Labor hands for many decades, but is not considered a safe seat.
She said she could not believe the Liberal Party had the audacity to field an Aboriginal candidate in the region when the state’s Liberal Premier Colin Barnett had been advocating the closure of up to 150 remote communities.
“I’m trying to make sure Aboriginal people get to keep their communities,” she told NIT this week.
“The Premier made a statement loud and clear that he was going to shut down the communities in the Parliament last year. People have said to me ‘Oh, he’s sorry he said that’. I said ‘Well he didn’t make a public comment about it. He didn’t come out publicly and tell Aboriginal people he was now not going to shut their communities’.
“That’s their home. Most of their funding was cut. When your funding gets cut for power, water and roads, of course it has a big effect on people living out in the communities.”
Ms Farrer said many people had also had their welfare payments cut by the federal Liberal government.
“We saw the effects over the Christmas break where mothers couldn’t even afford to buy food or presents for their kids,” she said. “In the east part of the Kimberley, that’s where they’ve got the white card [cashless welfare card], an initiative that the Federal Government imposed on the people and yet they say it had the approval of traditional owners.
“That’s the difference between me and Warren. I’m a grassroots person. I know what it’s like to be without anything.”
Ms Farrer said she believed Mr Greatorex’s candidacy was confusing many Aboriginal voters, some of whom couldn’t read and didn’t associate him with the policies of Mr Barnett’s government.
“In the white man’s world, it is exciting because you have two Indigenous candidates for the Kimberley,” she said. “This has never happened before. It is one of those things that non-Indigenous people see (and) yes, it is a contest between two Indigenous people, one male and one female, but the thing is the different parties they represent.”
She said a win for the Liberals would be a disaster for the Kimberley.
“Our people are still living in a time zone where it was always Indigenous people being treated differently,” she said.
Mr Greatorex could not be reached for comment this week. In a previous interview with the ABC, he said that as a lead negotiator between traditional owners and the WA government in developing national parks in the Kimberley, he’s got the skills for the job.
He also cited business growth and self-sufficiency for Kimberley constituents as key goals.
The Kimberley has a history of political firsts. In 1980, the Labor Party’s Ernie Bridge was elected to the seat, becoming the first Aboriginal cabinet minister in Australia in 1986. He served in the ministry until Labor lost power in 1993 and later continued to represent the seat as an Independent before retiring in 2001.
This year’s contest also includes two Independents and candidates for the Greens, Nationals, One Nation and Flux parties.
By Wendy Caccetta