MORNINGTON ISLAND mayor Kyle Yanner stood at the lectern before hundreds of local government mayors, CEOs and councillors at the LGAQ Annual Conference and told the crowd he’d be taking them on a “journey that is only just beginning”.

At times confronting and at times amusing, Mayor Yanner had the audience hanging on his every word as he recounted his journey from being a frustrated (and at times divisive) community activist to becoming a leader who’s deeply respected in his tiny community in the Gulf of Carpentaria all the way to the halls of Queensland and Federal Parliament.

Mayor Yanner was introduced as someone whose passion, work ethic and leadership is going a long way to improving the lives of the people he represents.

Below is his speech in full:

Mornington Shire mayor Kyle Yanner

Mornington Island mayor Kyle Yanner’s speech at the 2021 LGAQ Annual Conference

Acknowledgment to country all tos and my yankal kaidilt Lardil wannyi garrawa and gangalidda mob.

My showcase is going to be a little different to what you are used to. I have been asked to showcase my journey to becoming a new Mayor in a struggling community. And, rather than highlighting the successful outcomes of a project that has a clear beginning, middle and end, I’m going to take you with me on a journey that is only just beginning.

This is a journey that is – literally – life and death for our community.

Who I am and where I come from

I am Kyle Yanner, Mayor of Mornington Shire, and I am passionate about my community – as I’m sure you are about your community. And I – probably also like you – got into this gig to address some monumental problems that are devastating my community.

My partner Ereehna and I have two gorgeous children and we have been permanently living in Gununa, Mornington Island since returning home in 2019.

Gununa is at the southern end of Mornington Island, which is in the Gulf of Carpentaria, about 100 kilometres north-west of Normanton. It is a stunning place, and we live there because of its incredible beauty, and because you can’t do, anywhere else in the world, what we can do at home.

My goals and aspirations for my time in local government are simple: I am fighting for a better life for every single member of the Mornington community.

My background is pretty typical of a young fella growing up in Mornington. It has been hard, I’ve endured a lot of discrimination, come up against a lot of authority, and have had to do it without much support. 

I have come through it – I have survived – but why have so many of my people not made it? 

  • Why do so many of my people die so young? 
  • Why are they imprisoned far more frequently than whitefellas? 
  • Why do my people commit suicide at much higher rates than non-Indigenous people?
  • Why are my people so disempowered?

My fight for a better life for my community started almost immediately when I came home to Mornington Island to live out my tourism dream. When I came home, it was instantly, painfully obvious that my community had gone backwards. 

And that it had gone back further than ever. People in my community were pushed into the corner – dictated to – and had lost all confidence and hope for change. They were oppressed and repressed; powerless.

So, I began taking my arguments to the council. I would find myself at the Shire Office, just about every second day – with questions and suggestions about why and how things had changed for the worse, and why a lot of our community’s workers had been laid off with little to no prospects of being able to find more work.

And why, at the same time, did we have (what seemed like) a million contractors on the Island, while our boys who were able to find work were being paid so poorly?

Why were they importing overburden – mining waste! – to the island? And had they given any thought at all to its impact on the future environmental and economic sustainability of our beautiful island, which my community relies on for traditional hunting and fishing?

Why and how had council – a provider of services for our island and its people – convinced itself that the community worked for it, rather than it working for the community?

And you know, it felt like all the other government and non-government service providers on the Island operated the same way… All those service providers, coming in on the lunchtime plane on Monday and leaving on the corresponding flight on Friday.  

So, I started attending community meetings as a local – and a passionate one, I might add. I wasn’t exactly always welcomed with open arms, either… 

I even attended a roundtable meeting with government ministers and local government representatives, where I presented a petition – signed by 300 members (a quarter!) of our community – that I got together in a single afternoon.  

The petition stated, loudly and clearly, that we had no confidence in the council – and especially the CEO at the time – because of a lack of transparency, openness, and community consultation.

I could see that the youth of the island, in particular, were feeling lost – alienated – so I set up bush camps with some of our young people. It started off with seven youth who were in trouble with the police and who required extra attention over the school holidays.

This became 32 young community members staying at my camp for a month, who all required extra attention. Thirty-two! And there was no way I could turn any of them away, so I made do so with the miniscule resources we had, almost all of which was donated by local Indigenous organisation, Mirndiayan, our local art and culture centre. And you won’t be surprised to learn that Mirndiayan itself had very little money.

My request to council for support yielded only $500 in fuel vouchers and we received $300 for food from Save The Children. This was for 32 people, for a month.

After this camp we tried to hold a bigger and better camp for the Easter holidays, as at this time petrol sniffing was out of control on the island, with an appallingly high number of our young people ending up in hospital, so I was desperate to get them out bush and out of harm’s way.

But I was knocked back by council and by other service providers when I asked for support and any funding for wages. Through this process, I could see that service delivery in a whole range of government services was dismally failing my community.  

Our people were dying of chronic disease, could not afford proper food, and were catastrophically addicted to ‘home brew’ grog.

Around this time people were started talking about the council elections and about 60 of the older community members approached me, urging me to run for Mayor.

After a few weeks of weighing up my options I came to believe that I might be able to reform some of the things council did – and the way it did them – and also that council had more access to other parts of other tiers of government. I decided I could be the catalyst for the much-needed change my community needed… and, sure enough, here I am. 

Mornington Shire council meeting

Now as Mayor

When I was elected Mayor in April 2020, I knew it was a going to be a big – really big – job and that there was a lot that needed to be changed.

To be honest, I didn’t appreciate just how big a job it would be.

I knew my mob were in strife by almost any measure you can name when it came to health, education, corrective services, youth services, justice… But I didn’t realise how far behind we were until Gidgee Health shared some health stats with us.

Our Acting CEO Graham King then compiled an overview of all the statistics available on our community, and it clearly showed we were at a crisis point in every area:

  • There is significant overcrowding on the island, with in some cases up to 11 people or more living in a two-bedroom home;
  • The homelessness rate on the island is 20 times higher than for the rest of Queensland;
  • The death rate is 40 per cent higher than the rest of Queensland, with our people dying far younger than the state average;
  • Many residents are suffering chronic disease – not just one but multiple chronic diseases;
  • And our children are not going to school. 

In fact, 100 per cent of Mornington Island’s residents are considered to be in the ‘most disadvantaged category’ under the ‘Relative Socio-Economic Disadvantaged Index’, produced by the Queensland Statistician.

Just think about that for a moment. That’s every single member of our community of 1,200 people in that ‘most disadvantaged’ category.

It was unacceptable. In every way. I was not willing to tolerate such conditions for my people it fueled me to work as hard as I could for change. 

So, Graham and I discussed what we could do and we settled on working for a full independent audit of the services being delivered to the island, looking for it to give us the answers we needed to what was going wrong and how we could change it for the better. 

We met with Craig Crawford, the Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Straight Island Partnerships (who we thought was our Ministerial champion) to ask him to support an audit. 

We showed him our Shire’s statistics covering income, cost of living, health, crime, schooling and domestic violence, and, to his credit, he immediately stated that he supported an independent audit, and that he would take it to State Government for approval.  

He warned us it would be hard, because getting governments on board is costly, but told us he would do his best. 

At the same time, we wrote up a media release, outlining the third world conditions my community was enduring and going public with our call for an independent audit.

The release came out the same day my fellow First Nations Mayors were gathered in Cairns to attend the Indigenous Leaders Forum.

They came out publicly in the media to amplify our call for an audit. I thank them for their support, and the reality set in for me that it was not just my community suffering… it was all of Queensland’s First Nations communities.

This inspired me further, knowing that it will be beneficial to all our brothers and sisters who are struggling to overcome disadvantage. 

We then took our campaign for change to Brisbane, where I met with Mornington’s ministerial champions, Minister Meaghan Scanlon and Assistant Minister Lance McCallum, as well as our Director-General champion Dr John Wakefield and Chief Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heath Officer Hayleen Grogan.

It was my first time meeting with ministers, and my first time setting foot in State Parliament, but here we were… tucked in a small room at Parliament, facing these important people.

Normally in circumstances where I’m not sure how welcomed I’m going to be, I’d bring along the wirey and firey lads. For my first meeting at Parliament, I had… two ladies, something else I am not used to! But these two ladies had me well and truly covered. Thank you, Sarah and Shayne.

So, within an hour, I had told the ministers the exact circumstances our once beautiful community was facing. No beating around the bush. No sugar coating it. I explained exactly what is happening right now and, on top of it, we invited them up to see for themselves what we are up against.

I must say having real life experience, which is something that can’t be taught in a classroom, the Ministers all comprehended exactly why I came to meet with them.  And the expressions on their faces told me that they were not just listening to me… they were hearing me. They were actually going to help us. 

Let me tell you about the importance of the media

While I was down in Brisbane, I also got some media training. I was not at all familiar with the media and this was one of the best things I did. They put me in front of a camera, showed me how to deal with questions, and how to ensure I was getting my message across loud and clear.

Let me tell you, getting the media’s attention was crucial. 

The media loves controversy, but it also likes a compelling story, and we gave them one… Through the raw, unadorned truth of the issues facing my community and, also thanks to an initial disagreement in the ministerial ranks over whether the independent audit we were calling for was needed.

Minister for Health Yvette D’Ath initially rejected the idea, after the first story ran on the front page of the Cairns Post, while Minister Crawford had signed up to supporting it.

Minister D’Ath insisted she has just poured $2 million into the community. Without my even saying anything, letters started flying her way to let her know that this was basically bullshit!

So, I fired a media statement straight back at her, saying her comments were not correct and that, basically, the money had been spent inappropriately – wasted. It was tit for tat for a couple of days but, eventually, her initial response was turned around by her fellow ministers.

A couple of days later our story ran on the front page of the Courier-Mail. 

Courier Mail coverage of the Mornington Island community’s struggles

The next day, the Premier told the paper she would also come up and visit, to see first-hand the reality of what our community is facing.

We are still waiting for her to set a date for the trip, but I guarantee we will hold her to her word, and we will look partner with her and her government to build Mornington’s future.

We also worked with our local members to help us influence government. State MP Robbie Katter helped us secure further meetings in Brisbane while his father, Federal MP Bob Katter, opened doors for me in Canberra. Our timing was good, as the whole TCICA mob was in the capital, so we were also able to meet other ministers while we were there.

With the Courier Mail stories and the support of my local members and fellow Mayors, it was not too long before both the then-Acting Prime Minister Michael McCormack and the Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt visited Mornington Island to witness conditions for themselves and to hear our solutions. 

Our Government Champions were next to visit: Minister Meaghan Scanlon, Assistant Minister Lance McCallum and Director-General Dr John Wakefield made good their commitments to visit the island last month.

We have now secured that much-needed independent audit of all government services on the island.  

It is going ahead. It is the start of the journey.

This is mind blowing, not only for our community, but hopefully it will be something that leads to benefits for all Indigenous communities.  

We know the service delivery is failing, we know that millions of dollars are being wasted, but now we are going to find out what really is going on – and who might be going to jail. It is that serious. Where is the money going?

Mornington Island at dusk

In conclusion, I will make the following points:

  • Know your Shire’s statistics. Not just your economic profile, but your social and economic profile – so you can accurately portray what is going on. Mornington’s profile was so out of line with the rest of Queensland that it could only be described as ‘third world’.  
  • Get the media on board. First, we got lucky with some disagreement in ministerial ranks, but the stats don’t lie, and they told the real story. The media has got behind us – the Courier Mail, Cairns Post and NITV (SBS), to name a few. I don’t think the Premier would have responded so quickly, had it not been for the front page of the Courier Mail. And – equally importantly – they have been back. We also got some great media, recently, with the return of legal alcohol to the island.
  • Work with your local MPs to help you influence government.
  • Have the solutions, also. We have put in a great deal of effort to identify our community-driven 5-year implementation plan. We’ve looked hard and we know how to get ourselves out of this mess, we just need some Australian and State government assistance where it counts. The Deputy Prime Minister, on his visit, said “Kyle came to Canberra to highlight the problems, but he also had the solutions”. Yes, we have solutions.
  • One more thing… get a good CEO. And surround and support that CEO with good officers. 

Thank you for the invitation to tell our story – and thank you for listening.

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