Those of us lucky enough to have visited the Kimberley region of WA is well aware of the sheer natural beauty of the region. It’s the kind of beauty that words can’t express, photos can’t convey and the energy you feel under your feet just can’t be explained. That’s the beautiful side of the Kimberley, the region that is pretty much an untapped tourism mecca that should be on the global ‘must visit in your lifetime’ list. It really is the hidden gem of Australia – I know this as I lived in the Kimberley for 23 years.
It’s also an area rich in natural resources, not just minerals, oil and gas, which could be harnessed to create endless employment opportunities. Of course, a balance needs to be sought as the beautiful landscapes and pristine environment needs to be protected whilst developing such an area.
At the opposite end of these many opportunities and astonishing natural beauty is a disturbingly high level of social problems that are not talked about and that you will never see in the tourism brochures.
Some of the statistics from the region are concerning, to say the least:
The first shocking fact is that Kimberley has one of the highest youth suicide rates in the world, nearly all are Indigenous youth. That is quite a shameful label for one of the richest and most liberal thinking countries on the planet to own. Whilst the whole country stops to talk about mainly urbanised first world problems such as equal marriage rights, we have this devastating epidemic that is not spoken about with the same media, political and social attention.
The next shocking fact is that Kimberley has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country, again most Indigenous people are out of work, some figures state as high as 80%. The CDEP program was able to hide the real statistics of employment rates, as the CDEP was not administered through Centrelink. The many hundreds of thousands of Indigenous people who were paid $200 per week to undertake 16 hours of work (raking the same patch of dirt each day) were not counted as ‘unemployed’, on the other hand, they were not qualified as employed either and they were not eligible for loans or finance whilst on CDEP, they were in no man’s land. Most importantly, all of those people were forgotten about when the nation spoke about unemployment levels, just imagine what the real figures would have said under the successive governments that were happy to brush the problem under the carpet for the last 30 years. Now what we have are generations of Indigenous people who have been disempowered, untrained and marginalised from mainstream society because of their apparent ‘lifestyle choices’.
The third startling fact is that 7% of the whole of the Kimberley is in one form of homelessness or another. This is before we even consider the potential effects of closing the remote communities in the Kimberley region.
Maybe because the region is so far away from Canberra it is also far from the minds of the decision-makers who sit in Australia’s capital city. I do wonder how many of those politicians, executive Public Servants and key policymakers paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for a highly collectible Rover Thomas or Lilly Karadada painting from the Kimberley. Do they know the stories of where those paintings were made in the red dirt in those and many more collectible artists remote communities? Many, if not all of those world-renowned artists lived in abject poverty; they only received a fraction of the money that their paintings fetched in the auctions. I even know of times when chartered flights from Germany arrived in the remote communities to buy the artworks straight off the ground before they had even finished drying. It could be a resurrected industry if managed right.
Furthermore, I have seen many female politicians on the news wearing Broome pearls, the best and most expensive pearls in the world. Do they ever wonder about the people who pioneered the famous pearling industry of the Kimberley and how they could reignite the slowing industry that already has the prestigious world best tag? Just two industries that are from the Kimberley that are already on the world stage and could provide many Indigenous employment or business opportunities with the right minds and investment.
Another area of investment is in communication technology, as most of the Kimberley is a black spot for internet and phone reception. How can you establish a business in the 21st Century when you don’t have access to the internet or mobile phone coverage? Installing cables for internet access would create large numbers of jobs for the locals who would also benefit from training and the outcome would benefit the growth of business in the region, which would provide ongoing jobs. A pretty common sense approach in my opinion.
Local communities should be supported to establish market gardens, egg farms, livestock, the art industry, pearling, tourism and all the other opportunities. Those projects could be run and managed by the occupants of the communities so they become self-sufficient, the jobs then create themselves and hope is given back to the people. With hope comes a future and with a future comes the desire to stay alive.
In my 23 years in the Kimberley, I personally developed many small businesses that supported local jobs. With my business background, local knowledge and focus on entrepreneurship, I would love to advise the decision-makers on how to build businesses in Indigenous communities. I believe I can bring the kind of insight and personal vested interest in the improvement of Indigenous people’s lives, that not many other people have.