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First Nations Candidates Set To Make History At NSW Council Elections

Murrawarri Ngemba woman Lily Shearer is campaigning in the Brewarrina Shire, which is set to have a First Nations majority council for the first time. (Jamie James)
First Nations people are pushing for a greater say at the local government level with at least 142 candidates staking their claim for positions across New South Wales.

According to the NSW Electoral Commission, the percentage of Indigenous candidates has risen from 2.6 to 3.7 since the 2016 election.

In the outback town of Brewarrina a record number of seven Indigenous are running, with the shire set to have an Indigenous-majority council for the first time in its history.

While almost 70 per cent of Brewarrina’s population identify as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, only three of its councillors are Indigenous.

“Throwing my hat into the ring is my action for making change,” Murrawarri Ngemba woman Lily Shearer told NITV News.

“We outnumber white fellas here, and they’ve been making decisions about our future without yarning to us.”

Ms Shearer, who’s running as an independent candidate, said she’s keen to have a say in how the town’s infrastructure is managed.

“My roads are the original highways of this Country, which are our waterways,” she said.

“Our Ngunnhu (fish traps) are the oldest human-made structure in the world.”

The Ngemba people of Brewarrina used their knowledge of the river and fish ecology to trap freshwater fish in these fish traps, known as Ngunnhu. The site which is located where the Barwon and Darling river meet is a significant gathering place for the Ngemba, Morowari, Paarkinji, Weilwan, Barabinja, Ualarai and Kamilaroi people. Source: Getty/iStock

The council secured $920,000 of funding in July to build a lookout and walkway around the Ngunnhu, as part of the state government’s efforts to boost economic activity in communities around the Murray–Darling Basin.

If elected, Ms Shearer said she’d work to redirect the resources to restore the heritage-listed fish traps instead.

“We should be cleaning up the fish traps and putting the rocks back in their proper places first so that when we do have tourists come through, there is something beautiful to see,” Ms Shearer said.

“If we keep our community and Country clean, then we are leading by example and looking after Country.”

“And if you look after Country, everybody knows Country will look after you.”

Protecting Country is also the number one priority for Greens candidate and Ngemba woman Trish Frail.

"I have proven my commitment to the community with the anti-nuclear campaign and stopped the council building a nuclear waste dump here at Brewarrina Shire," Ms Frail said.

Other candidates in Brewarrina include Donna Jeffries, Tom Stanton, Marky Brown and Isaac and Douglas Gordon.

Black could be the new Orange

In the Central West, Juru man Gerald Power is leading an all-Indigenous and Independent ticket in Orange. 

“This ticket is really about showcasing, encouraging and supporting First Nations people to come on board and be part of the political landscape,” Mr Power told NITV News.

Wiradjuri man Brett Naden said he was surprised when Mr Power asked him to enter the race.

“I was even more surprised to find that we were the first full card of Indigenous people that would represent a local government area,” Mr Naden said.

The NSW government launched the Stand for Your Community campaign in July to increase the diversity of candidates in this year’s council elections.

One of the campaign’s ambassadors, Wiradjuri and Yuin man Alfie Walker, has been a Goulburn Mulwaree councillor for nine years.

“I used to attend the Local Aboriginal Government Network conferences and it made me realise there was a lot of Aboriginal staff employed by local government, but I could count the number of people who were actually councillors on two hands,” Mr Walker told NITV.

“It dawned on me that the local, state and federal government had decision-making powers that impact on local Aboriginal communities but representation at the table was really small.”

Mr Walker said despite the increasing rates of Indigenous candidates across the board, he wants to see more.

“I think it's an improvement but I'd like to see more people just put their hand up,” Mr Walker said.

"The message needs to go out that it's actually not that hard to campaign.”

Goulburn Mulwaree councillor and Wiradjuri Yuin man Alfie Walker was part of the NSW Government's campaign to increase applications from under-represented groups in the local government elections this year. Source: NSW Government

No more 'neglect' in Moree

There are currently no First Nations councillors under the age of 30 in NSW.

But Gomeroi woman Mekayla Cochrane, campaigning in Moree Plains, wants to change that.

“I'm young and energetic. I'm not worn out by this system just yet,” Ms Cochrane told NITV News.

The 25-year-old candidate works to address the overrepresentation of young Aboriginal people in the justice system at Just Reinvest and NSW Youth Justice. 

She has also worked in community development at the Moree Plains Council where she began thinking of running to steer the council to better prioritise Aboriginal communities.

“There are areas that are highly populated by Aboriginal people, and their parks and recreational activities have been neglected,” Ms Cochrane said.

“I would like to make sure they aren’t neglected anymore and that they have resources in their own community to encourage the growth and development of kids.

“We need First Nations people to be involved in issues that affect them and have to have better ways of making sure the solutions that they know will work are given a chance.

A first for Sydney

It’s a sentiment echoed by Wiradjuri woman Yvonne Weldon who became the first Indigenous candidate to run for Sydney Lord Mayor in July.

She’s been running a prominent campaign “to build an even better, greener and fairer Sydney where no one is left behind."

NSW residents will head to the polls on December 4, with voting compulsory.

For more information about how to vote at the Local Council elections, head to the NSW Electoral Commission website.

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