'Down here things look ugly': remote communities feel familiar frustration ahead of NT election

Over-policing, housing, health services and fracking are the big issues for voters disheartened by both sides of Northern Territory politics

“Some people don’t like repeating themselves,” says Naomi Wilfred, an Alawa elder from Minyerri in the Northern Territory.

She explains why people in the community – and in many other remote parts of the Northern Territory – feel a familiar sense of frustration come election time.

“We’re repeating ourselves doing the same thing over and over and it just doesn’t work.

“We give them what they need [by voting] but at the other end, what we need, we don’t get that.

“We have concerns around housing, fencing, everything. Some of [the homes] have rain problems. The renovations are not getting done properly. But whatever government policies, it’s not working. We vote for them and make them look good upstairs, but down here things look ugly.”

In the Territory, the vast remote electorates known as “the bush” have historically been Labor heartland; often ignored as irrelevant to a political contest that plays out back above the Berrimah Line, in Darwin and its suburbs.

In 2012, these remote communities unexpectedly put the Country Liberal party into power. Four years later they shifted back to Labor again – frustrated at the unfulfilled promises made by the CLP, whose term in power was overshadowed by incurable infighting and repeated scandal.

In 2020, that sense that nothing ever changes is as strong as ever in the remote parts of the Territory.

This year, the NT auditor general found that one of the Gunner government’s signature policies – the “room to breathe” Indigenous housing program – had been mismanaged so badly she could not tell “whether its objectives are being achieved economically, efficiently and effectively”.

In Minyerri and countless other communities, people still live too-many to a single home. Their properties still leak. Like they did in 2016 and 2012 and long before that.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean votes in the bush cannot be valuable. In the 25-member NT Legislative Assembly, most seats attract fewer than 5,000 total votes, and even fewer in the bush.

A few hundred votes can shift an entire Territory election.

Larissa Baldwin, the First Nations justice campaign director for GetUp, has been traversing the Territory, working with community leaders and assisting people to enrol to vote.

“When we talk to people specifically about the election, they feel very disillusioned with the process of voting,” Baldwin says. “It doesn’t matter which government it is, they feel their vote doesn’t matter.”

The previous week, the chief minister, Michael Gunner, was in nearby Ngukurr announcing a Treaty process.

Northern Territory chief minister Michael Gunner
Many people in remote parts of the Northern Territory are asking how Michael Gunner’s Treaty process can improve problems with housing and health. Photograph: James Gourley/AAP

“We were talking to people about that and they said ‘is Treaty going to change housing, is Treaty going to give us access to dialysis?’,” Baldwin says.

“For us it’s an issues-driven campaign and that’s what we’re talking to people about. It’s about the democratic participation of Indigenous communities and we really want to make sure people make informed votes.

“I feel like people are a bit disillusioned at Labor, the promise of having so many Aboriginal members of parliament in there and the thought that this time could be different. It’s a little bit disheartening.

“But there’s a lot of ways to influence political parties, and one of those is by raising community voices. People talking about food security, about social services, about a fair go for everyone. When those issues have more weight behind them, they come to the attention of people who may be ignoring them.”

GetUp is canvassing candidates and will prepare scorecards for how they stack up on issues – allowing people to vote based on which candidate best represents their views.

After running a similar enrolment and engagement effort in remote communities during the federal election, feedback from the group’s supporters suggested it was one of the most valued campaigns.

Voter enrolment among Indigenous people (68.2%) and all Territorians (85%) are well below the national average, and the Australian Electoral Commission has raised concerns that a cultural barrier exists in communities where people are disengaged.

The NT electoral commissioner has said about 25,000 people are believed to be missing from the electoral roll. The AEC has suggested up to 42% of First Nations people are not enrolled.

“Democratic participation in the NT matters, it matters to our members,” Baldwin says. “There’s nothing flash about getting people to enrol, but it’s important work.”

Voters in remote communities have told campaigners their biggest concerns relate to over-policing, housing, health services and fracking.

The onshore gas industry, and the potential unconventional gas resource of the Beetaloo Basin, has long been posited as an economic and jobs panacea for the Territory – ironically to counter the economic bust cycle that arrived during the wind-down of the last big gas project, the Inpex plant in Darwin.

The gas industry figure Andrew Liveris is heading the Territory’s Economic Reconstruction Commission, and has said in a series of recent interviews that onshore gas is critical to its future.

Labor won the last election by promising a moratorium on fracking; but it has since held a scientific inquiry, allowed the industry to proceed with new regulations, and pinned some economic capital on its success.

The issue, above all others, risks voter backlash in particular bush communities and seats. Minyerri has declared itself a fracking-free zone.

Nick Milyari Fitzpatrick, a Yanyuwa man from Borroloola and community organiser for Seed Mob, a branch of the Australian Youth Climate Coalition, says a survey in his home community found 96.8% of people did not want fracking to occur.

“So much of the Territory is against fracking. The water table is sacred. We can’t be mucking around with the water table,” he says.

“The fracking industry doesn’t have a social licence. At the election we can make that clear.”


Ben Smee

The GuardianTramp

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