The Kimberley is set to be hotly contested at the upcoming March election, with a record number of Aboriginal candidates in the running for the 2.5 million square kilometre seat.
The seat has been held by an Aboriginal person since 1980, when Ernie Bridge took the seat from Liberal incumbent Keith Ridge and became the State’s first Aboriginal member of Parliament.
Mr Bridge held the seat for over two decades then handed the baton to Carol Martin in 2001, who became the first Aboriginal woman in any Parliament nationally.
Since Ms Martin’s retirement in 2013, Labor MP Josie Farrer has held the seat.
The Kija woman took the seat in the last State election in 2017 with a 63 per cent two-party-preferred vote, leading Liberal’s Warren Greatorex by 13 per cent.
With Ms Farrer set for retirement, the question is whether an unknown can capitalise on Labor Premier Mark McGowan’s unprecedented popularity. Mr McGowan’s approval ratings have been sky-high during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Labor, Liberals, Greens, and Nationals are all fielding candidates for the seat, with three Aboriginal women in the running among the major parties.
Labor’s Divina D’Anna is a Yawuru, Nimanburr and Bardi woman whose career has been focused on advocacy, especially working in Native Title, self-empowerment and suicide prevention.
Ms D’Anna’s priorities would be investment in education, health care and job creation.
The Labor candidate says she would address crime by increasing the number of police stationed in the Kimberley and continue to facilitate the Kimberley Juvenile Justice Strategy.
Ms D’Anna spoke of current State Government programs tackling the suicide and mental health epidemic, including the March 2020 Commitment to Aboriginal Youth Wellbeing.
“Like many others in the Kimberley I have been deeply affected by suicide,” she said.
“This issue is something I am passionate about and one that is close to home for me.”
Liberal candidate Geoff Haerewa’s policy priorities would be addressing community safety, alcohol abuse and housing.
Mr Haerewa has served three years as president of the Derby/West Kimberley Shire and is advocating for uniform alcohol restrictions across the Kimberley region to prevent alcohol being brought from bigger centres such as Broome into dry communities.
Mr Haerewa said the banned drinkers register is only the first step to tackling alcohol dependence.
“The next step is to bring services back to the regions to wrap around the services that are directly involved in alcohol addiction, and try to help these people with alcohol dependency,” he said.
Mr Haerewa believes the social services needed to address alcohol abuse, domestic violence, and mental health issues must be permanently on the ground in remote communities rather than coming in from Broome and other regional centres.
When asked about how he would address the Kimberley’s high suicide rates, Mr Haerewa said preventing suicide was about making sure the correct services were in place and being efficiently run.
When pressed on what specific policy prescriptions he would put in place to reduce lives lost to suicide in the region, he said it was a complex topic and his priority would be assessing what services are currently available.
Bunuba Kija woman Millie Hills is the first Indigenous woman to be preselected for a State election by the Nationals party.
She currently chairs Yura Yungi Aboriginal Medical Service and sits on the executive of Kimberley Aboriginal Medical Services.
Ms Hills believes in improving remote health through better access to health care and more
education about alcohol and nutrition.
Ms Hills said she will be focusing on crime prevention, the banned drinkers register, and protecting the Fitzroy River.
She believes investment in groundwater wells is a better solution than taking water from the Fitzroy.
The Nationals candidate also said tackling drug and alcohol abuse requires vulnerable communities to have more culturally appropriate, community based social services closer to where they live.
“The conversation needs to be happening all the time, about people’s drinking habits. You can’t just sit in an office and wait for someone to come and tell you they’ve got a problem,” Ms Hills told the National Indigenous Times.
Ms Hills is one of 12 children with seven brothers and four sisters. And they all still live in the Kimberley.
The Greens’ Naomi Pigram grew up in the Kimberley with Yawuru and Wadjarri connections. She describes herself as a “proud Indigenous person who was born and raised in big spirit Country”.
Ms Pigram said her aim is to “protect Country and community”.
She supports a ban on fracking and significant environmental protections for the Fitzroy River.
The Greens candidate is calling for investment in evidence-based initiatives to tackle the Kimberley’s significant social issues. She said she was motivated to run for office in large part by the high suicide rates in the Kimberley region, calling for more investment into research into the factors that push the numbers up.
“I think it is totally unacceptable that a young person in the Kimberley is expected to wait for up to two weeks to see a mental health professional or to access clinical support when at risk of taking their life,” she said.
By Sarah Smit