Councillor profiles Kaye Thurlow President of East Arnhem Regional Council

Article image - Councillor profiles  Kaye Thurlow President of East Arnhem Regional Council

East Arnhem Regional Council (EARC) is situated in the far north-eastern corner of the Northern Territory, covering a land mass of approximately 33,359 square km. The council area is comprised of nine major Aboriginal communities, many homelands and outstations. There are two mining towns within the boundaries that do not form part of Council responsibilities. 

The Yolŋu (Aboriginal people of East Arnhem Land) welcomed the missionaries onto their land about 100 years ago. Since then they have maintained their languages and cultural traditions as they have grown as a vibrant and proud people. Notable locals such as Gurumul Yunupingu, Yothu Yindi Band, Baker Boy, George Rrurrambu, former Australians of the year Galarrawuy and Mandawuy Yunupingu all hail from this area, as did the 1963 Yirrkala Bark Petition.

Five of the nine major communities are located on islands, which adds to the remoteness and challenges of providing services to Council constituents, over 90 percent of whom are Aboriginal. Twelve of the fourteen elected members are Aboriginal locals, with myself and one other non Aboriginal member being long term residents of the area. There are nine Local Authorities with community members meeting regularly, providing a strong voice to Council from the individual communities. 

When the Northern Territory Government created nine ‘super shires’ in 2008 from 63 community councils, there was a significant loss of control that community members legitimately claimed had been taken away from them. 

These Local Authorities are gradually being strengthened, developing more involvement with local Council projects and services in their individual communities, while still being part of the whole Council.

Cross cultural links
Initially elected to the inaugural East Arnhem Regional Council in 2008, I was elected by my fellow councillors to the position of President in March 2019, to replace Banambi Wunungmurra who retired for health reasons. 

It was a very humbling honour and challenge for me to be asked by senior Aboriginal councillors to become their team leader to help them through a difficult period of change. One of the greatest challenges for Council is the threat of the three communities of the Groote Eylandt archipelago trying to break away from EARC, to the financial detriment of all.

I live in Galiwin’ku on Elcho Island, where I first arrived as a young school teacher in 1969. I spent much of the next 37 years teaching in Galiwin’ku, Milingimbi and Lajamanu, retiring as a principal in 2007. 

Since then, I was welcomed by the people of Galiwin’ku to continue living in their community and was then elected to EARC in 2008. 

My community interests of over 50 years have been in supporting cross-cultural links between the people of Elcho Island and the broader East Arnhem Region within the wider Australian community. I am particularly focused on encouraging the Yolŋu and Anindilyakwa people in maintaining their self respect and cultural integrity, while at the same time finding positive pathways to embrace living in the 21st century.

Advocate for empowerment
I have been an EARC representative member of the Local Government Association of the Northern Territory (LGANT) during most of my years as councillor, and have been a strong advocate for empowerment of the regional areas of local government, whilst working together with the LGANT board members to raise the profile of local government throughout the Northern Territory. 

My focus is increased empowerment and skills development of councillors in the planning and prioritising of Council business and upskilling of members of Local Authorities. I seek to support developing a higher profile for regional councils among all levels of government, so that local government is recognised as an integral partner in the growth of a proud and prosperous Australia.

As well as my Council and President responsibilities, I have become connected to a group of senior Aboriginal ladies and their remote homeland area about 42 km from the Galiwin’ku community on Elcho Island. The ladies enjoy including me in their traditional hunting and gathering way of life. Together we fish and gather various shellfish, mud crabs, mangrove worms, yams and bush fruits. As well, we collect pandanus for treating, dyeing and weaving to create baskets and mats.

My wish list for the future includes: a focus on community safety including upgrading roads and transport infrastructure, improved street lighting, town planning and housing development, and telecommunications provision; and support for community development such as economic development, education and employment, health, hygiene and housing, sport and recreational provision, encouragement of cultural diversity and respect for all.