By KIERAN FINNANE
Messaging is what Councillor Jacinta Nampijinpa Price does best: it is the way she earns her living as Yamba the Honeyant’s best friend in TV and live shows for children; it has taken her very quickly to national prominence, speaking forthrightly on violence in Aboriginal communities, particularly perpetrated by men against women and perpetuated, as she sees it, by aspects of traditional Aboriginal culture.
It has been surprising then to see this confidant, articulate and talented woman take a low profile in the Town Council, where she has sat since the by-election of late 2015.
She describes herself as still “quite fresh” in the role in terms of learning the ropes, and says the incoming council, with at least five new councillors, will take time to hit its stride for this reason.
Her comments in the council chamber, when she has made them, have almost always been prefaced by “I agree with the Deputy Mayor”, referring to Jamie de Brenni, whose lead in debates and votes she has followed.
She laughs when this is put to her and gives an instance of when she hasn’t agreed with him (she defended a council policy document’s plain speaking about the town’s demographics, as it wasn’t “a pitch to tourists”.)
In this election, on their how-to-votes, Crs Price and de Brenni are preferencing each other at number two, and their preferred make-up of the eight-member council (plus mayor) differs only in Cr Price’s inclusion of Donna Lemon, as opposed to Cr de Brenni’s of Glen Auricht.
What explains her close relationship with Cr de Brenni?
“We came into council at the same time and we share a lot of commonalities in the way we think, the way we see our town.
“We’re both locals, Jamie was born, grown up here, I was born in Darwin but I’ve been here since I was three. I think it’s just being Alice Springs locals who understand people of all walks of life from here and generally wanting what’s best and taking a very honest approach, a no bullshit approach, if you like.
“That’s what I like about Jamie, he’s one of the most honest people in this political world that I’ve come across.
“I value honesty, particularly when it comes to some of the issues I try to address. It’s tough, it’s hard but it’s the only way to move forward.”
Above: Cr Price on the microphone, and from left Crs Jade Kudrenko, Eli Melky, Chansey Paech. Her conservative allies sat on the other side of the chamber.
Stop here: her role as an Alice Springs councillor has given her a platform from which to speak (it is generally how she is introduced in the national media), but what has council done about violence against women, which is so disproportionate in Alice Springs?
Not much, Cr Price admits, other than supporting the maintenance of services in its conversations with police and other NT Government agencies and representatives.
She would definitely like to see council get involved in more campaigning on this issue. She has previously suggested council use signing on rubbish collection trucks for the slogan “Violence against women is rubbish” (following the lead of a Sydney council). This proved tricky as rubbish collection here is done by a private contractor. A proposal to have the slogan used on rubbish bins around the CBD has since been discussed in council’s Public Art Advisory Committee, but seems to have languished there.
Our discussion turns to council’s relationship with Aboriginal organisations. It has two memoranda of understanding, one with Tangentyere Council, one with Lhere Artepe Aboriginal Corporation, with the latter (the native title holders’ body corporate) identified as the peak Aboriginal body with which council will deal. Council has sub-committees to liaise with both but as recently stated by CEO Rex Mooney these committees have been “inactive for some time”.
Says Cr Price of council: “We’ve reached out quite often. You can take a horse to water but you can’t force it to drink.”
The problem, she suggests, lies with what has been going on internally in those organisations, although Lhere Artepe seems to have recently resolved some of its problems.
But this hasn’t stopped her from dealing directly with Aboriginal people, including of course her own large extended family: for example, during the recent spike of antisocial behaviour by young people, she held a forum with women, including some residents of town camps, to hear from them what they think needs to be done.
This led to suggestions that working bees be held to refurbish community centres in the camps, where creative programs could be offered to engage young people. She will wait till the new council is formed to progress this further.
On her councillor’s role to date in working young people, she has enjoyed being involved with council’s Youth Action Group, is impressed by their great, inclusive vision for the town and proud to see her 16-year-old son, Ethan, as a member of the group.
On her championing of broader “recreational and creative opportunities”, a feature of her previous election campaign, she speaks of trying to get an amphitheatre for the town, which would make it more competitive to host big events like the National Indigenous Music Awards.
An amphitheatre was on council’s wish list put to the new NT Labor Government, but she says council could also explore other opportunities for investment in such projects by companies wanting to do business here, such as Tellus Holdings (proposing a salt mine near Titjikala).
The discussion returns to her alliance with conservatives and against progressives (to use an alternative term for the lower case ‘g’ green candidates).
Left: Cr Price’s swearing-in, October 2015, with her mother Bess Price officiating, as then Country Liberal NT Minister for Local Government.
Although Donna Digby makes it into Cr Price’s ideal council at number eight position, Cr Price has placed prominent environmentalist Jimmy Cocking at number 17 on her how-to-vote. Ms Digby gives Mr Cocking her number two, and even Cr de Brenni has him at number 12, so it seems to speak to particular antipathy. (Mr Cocking returns the favour, placing Cr Price at his number 17.) What’s behind this?
“I’ve never felt he has actually listened to me as an Aboriginal woman, who understands the ins and outs of my community, my culture. I don’t think I’ve ever been listed to by ‘greens’.
“I’ve had a lot to do with Jimmy in the arts, I have a lot of respect for him there but I think we’ve got to take a very realistic approach to how we deal with things in our community.
“There are certain things [advanced by greens] I agree with. I’m all for solar, all for renewables, I’m all for protecting our water sources.”
Does that go to being against fracking?
“We’ve known it’s been happening for some time and there’s been no issues in terms of what’s gone on out Hermannsburg way. I am against it if it’s endangering our water sources.”
(To date the resources at the Mereenie and Palm Valley fields have been conventional oil and gas, not the unconventional resources requiring controversial hydraulic fracturing.)
What level of risk would she be prepared to run?
“Zero risk, basically.”
Neither the fracking industry nor the government regulator will guarantee zero risk: “as low as reasonably possible” is the term they use.
She thinks a moment then says: “Well then, I’m against it. We’ve got 150 years of water left. I would not want to see that destroyed whatsoever.”
If council is made up of conservatives and greens, how does she think the relationships will go?
Although her how-to-vote proposes a fairly solid conservative council, she would welcome a “diverse mix”: “What people will realise is that once we are in there we are all pretty much individuals.”
Her voting pattern has not reflected that: it has been very much with the “old white fellas” (on the 12th Council since her election the conservatives, Mayor Damien Ryan, Deputy Mayor de Brenni, Crs Brendan Heenan, Steve Brown and Dave Douglas.)
Again she laughs: “I guess my values are very similar to the ‘old white fellas’!”
Take for instance Chansey Paech, she says, the former councillor, now MLA for Namatjira, the opposite of an ‘old white fella’: “He was all for symbolism, whereas I’m more about practicality. It’s all very nice to have symbolic gestures, but in practical terms, are they doing anything?”
Flying the Aboriginal flag from Anzac Hill, recently debated on council, could be put in this category. In the debate Cr Price’s comments aligned with the conservative block, which again deferred making a decision, while enthusing for Mayor Ryan’s suggestion that the flag be flown instead from on top of the Heavitree Range.
She makes the point that council had not received any response on the issue “from the traditional owners of the community”, without which she was reluctant to make a decision.
“What we have had is a very strong response from the veterans who have talked about us being united as one under the Australian flag.
“I am a believer in this idea of being unified. We are all Australians.”
It’s a bit like the whole Australia Day argument, she says. (This has had currency in the national media this week, following a Victorian council’s decision to stop referring to January 26 as Australia Day.)
“I have to hear all arguments, I like to contemplate something, not just go, oh well, knee jerk. I’m Warlpiri and kartiya at the same time.”
Rather than using this position of dual heritage to find common ground, hasn’t she tended towards divisiveness, for instance in her strident criticism of the Left?
“Maybe I’m too blunt, I’m straight to the point in who I am. I do understand the political side, why you’ve got to make people want to come on your ride with you, whatever that is, but I don’t want people coming on my ride unless it’s genuinely for the real fight, the honest fight, the meaningful way forward.”
We have seen Cr Price take her “real fight” to the national stage on the issues of violence in Aboriginal communities; we have yet to see this kind of spirited performance in the context of council.