Australia

Boom or bust: the issues that matter in Australia’s largest electorate

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Durack covers a region central to Australia’s economy, where some of the nation’s most pressing issues are lived everyday.

Covering an area the size of Mexico, Durack is the largest electorate in Australia and the second largest in the world.

You may not have heard of it, but Durack includes a region central to Australia’s economy and where some of the nation’s most pressing issues are lived everyday.

The electorate stretches over most of Western Australia from agricultural communities east of Perth, to the resource rich northwest and Indigenous communities along the Northern Territory border.

It’s a safe seat for the government, held by Liberal MP Melissa Price on a comfortable margin.

But the end of WA’s mining boom, pressures on farmers and a lack of progress in closing the gap with Indigenous Australians means that many in the electorate feel ignored by Canberra. 

Mining and Resources 

In the last decade, the Pilbara region of northern West Australia has been a powerhouse of economic growth for the state and Australia.

But in recent years, communities here have sought to recover from the end of the mining boom.

Ben Malley was raised on a farm in Smithton, Tasmania and moved to Karratha in 2007.

Durack
Durack voter Ben Malley.
SBS News

He watched as over the coming years, a small town became the centre of the global resources industry.

“When I got here, the place was really picking up, there was a massive shortage of labour. The people they did have were stressed,” Mr Malley said.

“Everybody was just trying to do enough to meet demands. Sun up to sun down, everyday.”

As a transient workforce of fly-in fly-out workers began to arrive, Mr Malley said the local community accepted the good with the bad.  

“A lot of fly-in-fly-out scenario people that were coming in who were only here to work, didn’t want to socialise. That takes a toll on the community,” he said.

Mr Malley runs a fleet maintenance business in Karratha’s industrial area, repairing heavy machinery and vehicles across the Pilbara.

Durack
The Dampier port outside of Karratha.
AAP

He wants to see any future mining boom to provide long-term benefits to local businesses.

“There are a lot of people that are struggling in business at the moment, for sure. If it could be released slowly so that the businesses here could grow with the boom so to speak, would be the best-case scenario,” Mr Malley said.

“But it’s a supply and demand world. As far as stretching it out so the commodity is there to be harvested ...(realistically) the targets that are set by the global economy don’t allow that.”

But Mr Malley says despite the massive contributions the region has made to Australia’s GDP, neither of the major parties are looking out for the interests of workers in this electorate.

“Australia as a whole, we don’t manufacture anything any more, it all seem to get shipped over seas and we are buying back what we essentially (export as) raw product, when we could be doing that here,” Mr Malley said.

“People like myself, the guys that are here on the ground, it doesn’t seem that they take much interest in us. But we are Australia, we are what makes Australia.”

Another growth in export commodities is expected soon, with WA shown to have globally significant deposits of lithium and other minerals.

Candidates for Durack were asked how they would ensure local businesses could keep pace.

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Labor candidate for Durack Sharyn Morrow said that her party would invest $75 million in future mining operations, especially focused on lithium deposits in WA.

Both Liberal candidate Melissa Price and Nationals candidate Scott Bourne said the implementation of a Designated Area Migration Agreement, would help small to medium businesses compete with big mining companies.

The DAMA allows local employers to sponsor skilled and semi-skilled workers from overseas.

“The issues for local businesses will be major companies offering higher wages,” Mr Bourne said.

“This agreement would assist businesses who would normally lose staff…as they would be able to attract staff from a larger talent pool.”

Mr Bourne said a suspension of the fringe benefits tax, which allows companies to write off the cost of flights, meals and accommodation as a business expense, could limit the use of fly-in fly-out workers.  

Other candidates said the best way to ensure local businesses thrive is to diversify alongside the export industry.

United Australia Party candidate Brenden Hatton said he wants to see the region support a local manufacturing industry.

“This will not only level the boom and bust nature of mining, it will also provide…a better return on Western Australia’s resources,” he said.

Health and education

Huyen Tram Le moved to Australia in 2010, arriving in Melbourne from Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam.

Durack
Durack voter Huyen Tram Le.
SBS News

 Ms Tram Le earned a Masters degree in finance, but began studying childcare to achieve Australian residency under the skilled migrants visa.

She’s lived in Karratha ever since.

“When I was a girl, I used to dream I would be an English-speaking teacher. But then later on I studied banking and finance,” Ms Tram Le said.

“But after that, the career chose me. I love children and it’s opened another gate for me to become a resident in Australia.”

She’s preparing to vote for the first time as an Australian citizen, and wants to see change in the childcare industry.

“The wages for the labour who work in the childcare services is really low,” Ms Tram Le said.

“To be a childcare educator, people prefer to work in a school because they get more pay (than childcare). Even with the same qualification.

“Honestly, our job is like a teacher job. If you evaluate right the early childcare educator, maybe in the future the education in Australia is getting better.”

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Huyen Tram Le originally lived in Ho Chi Minh City.
SBS News

Health and education are major issues across the electorate of Durack.

Improving mental health services has been a big focus of incumbent Liberal Melissa Price’s re-election bid.

“Supporting our young people who may be struggling with mental health is a high priority for me,” Ms Price said.  

This week, the Liberal candidate announced $11 million of funding across four years for new headspace centres in Port Hedland and Karratha, following on from those in Geraldton and Kununurra.

For its part, Labor has promised to reduce annual childcare bills by $2,100, for families earning up to $174,000, and boost the wages of childcare workers.

But Ms Tram Le said she’s not convinced, and hasn’t paid much attention to the election campaign.

“Not really much, my life at the moment is just work. My life is just working, working and working,” Ms Tram Le said.

“They have the (policy) there for us to follow, but after the election, what is going to happen? That’s why I’m concerned”.

Indigenous voters

Cost of living and job security aren’t the only issues affecting voters in Durack.

Nearly one in five voters are Indigenous Australians.

On the Burrup Peninsula, Clinton Walker runs his own tourism business, exploring ancient rock art believed to be about 50,000 years old.

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Durack voter Clinton Walker.
SBS News

“We’re in a place now known as Deep Gorge, my people call it ‘Murujuga’, he said.

Mr Walker, a descendant of the Ngarluma and Yindjibarndi people, started his business six years, delivering cultural awareness training to mining companies.

He said both state and federal governments have been slow to promote Indigenous tourism as a means of employment for First Australians.

“Obviously, the mining and resources industry is going to be around a long time,” he said.

“But from an Indigenous perspective, tourism is really important… because it keeps us grounded in our culture.

“When you compare the dollar between tourism and the resources industry, (money from) tourism stays in the community much longer.”

Labor candidate for Durack Sharyn Morrow said that if elected, a Labor government would establish a Voice for First Nations people to the parliament, enshrined in the Constitution.

Mr Walker wants to see the conversation shift from closing remote Aboriginal communities to growing them into sustainable businesses. 

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The ancient rock art at the Burrup Peninsula.
SBS News

“There was a push to remove Aboriginal people from those said communities, from our point of view as people was like pushing us back off the country again,” he said. 

“For those really remote communities, (tourism) could really benefit them to help them to stay on country, which is the biggest issue we face as Aboriginal people.

“From my opinion, putting more funding in towards Indigenous tourism, helps Aboriginal people work and stay out on country, keeping their culture alive.”

Future of farming

On the family farm 300km east of Perth, Jessie Davis is taking over the business from her dad.

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Durack voter Jessie Davis.
SBS News

Ms Davis is a fourth generation farmer, producing grain crops and sheep from a sprawling ten thousand acre farm. 

“I’m taking over from dad now, it’s really only him and me. So the buck stops with us,” she said.

Like many primary producers all over the country, Ms Davis said family-run farming businesses need more support.

“I think we’ve been quite fortunate to see a roll-out of the NBN coming through the regions, but its still not fast enough for what we need to do business,” she said.

“Our individual farm is spending thousands of dollars a year to get good internet, and that is not reflective of what our city counterparts are doing.

“The mobile black spot program too is still showing a lot of black spots in our region”.

With farmers across Australia facing drought and criticisms of animal welfare management, Ms Davis said voters in her area are looking for an advocate in parliament.

“I really don’t think our city counterparts understand what happens day-to-day on farm, and also what happens with our farm produce in the domestic and international market,” she said.

“I think Australian produce is seen worldwide as an industry-leading, clean green sustainable type of farming. However, in our own cities I don’t think that’s being reflected and I think that’s really concerning.”

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Sheep on the Davis family farm near Narembeen, Western Australia
SBS News

The Labor and Liberal candidates for Durack supported educating students about agriculture in Australia, with Labor pledging $400,000 to secure the future of Primary Industries Education Foundation Australia. 

Nationals candidate Scott Bourne said many Australians have never had the opportunity to see where their food comes from.

“In regards to livestock, I have yet to meet a farmer who does not pride themselves on the welfare of their livestock,” he said.

But Ms Davis said without a committed representative in Parliament, farmers in Durack would be left on their own.  

“I think (politicians) are too far removed from what regional Australia wants and needs. I think they forget they’re representing…the roots of agriculture and regional Australia,” she said. 

Who’s running in your electorate? Check out our interactive map

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