Jacinta Nampijinpa Price wanted to be many things when she was a child – a concert violinist, a police officer, a lawyer.
It was only after decades of witnessing – and sometimes experiencing – abuse and poor outcomes in Indigenous communities, and living under “political incompetence” for decades, that she began her foray into politics.
Now, the first-term senator is a household name after leading the No campaign in the Voice to Parliament referendum.
But before that, the senator was a sporty kid. She was the only girl on the primary school cricket team and she played netball, basketball, softball, before later getting into kickboxing, martial arts and AFL.
She was also musically minded – first the violin, then a foray into the “cooler” hip-hop scene and later into bands. In her own words, from year one she remembers “just wanting to be on stage and sing and perform”.
“There was nothing that I wouldn’t try in life. Like, I always thought I’d have a go at something, and if I didn’t like it, I’d leave it behind,” she said.
“That really helped me determine what I like to do and what directions I wanted to go.”
She was heavily pregnant at her year 12 formal – in fact, that was her due date – and by 21 she was married with three kids.
She “loved being a mum to boys” but was acutely conscious of the stereotypes that came from being a young Indigenous mum and was determined to buck the typecast.
She spent her first years of motherhood working with her parents, Bess and Dave, as a cross-cultural educator. She had a love of the arts and went on to internships at museums and art galleries and later a journalism cadetship at Imparja.
It was with Imparja she found success with children’s show Yamba’s Playtime, which took her travelling across the country.
The same love of music she’d had as a young girl also took her on the road as a touring artist.
By that time she’d also seen alcohol abuse rip parts of her family apart and knew about family members who had become child sex abuse victims.
In those years, Senator Nampijinpa Price had seen first hand the horrors that so often came with being an Indigenous woman – she was a survivor of domestic violence.
Some time after her marriage broke down, she met a man and began experiencing things she’d heard about for years.
“I certainly was aware of family and domestic violence and alcohol and substance abuse in my wider extended family and I’d seen a lot of that first hand and for me personally I hadn’t been personally victimised by it until that situation,” she said, echoing similar words she’d said in the Senate last November.
She left the relationship early, knowing how bad things could get, especially given “political incompetence” had been accepted for too long.
Family has “always been instrumental” in Senator Nampijinpa Price’s life and she credits her parents’ support to allow her to pursue so many things in life and her now-husband Colin Lillie for being the “braveheart” in her corner.
But outside of her inner circle, violence was tearing her wider family apart.
“About 10 years ago, racism was seen as the No.1 concern for Indigenous Australians when, to me, it wasn’t racism that was killing my family, it was alcohol and family violence,” she said.
So buoyed by her experience – and her mantra of “give anything a go” – that when an opening came up at Alice Springs Town Council in 2015, she ran for it.
She was sworn in by her mother, who was the Northern Territory’s local government minister at the time, and spent the next six years on the council, including one as deputy mayor.
“I think the real experience of being a single mother … It prompted me to be more outgoing because I had to demonstrate to my babies that … you can be a successful human being, no matter what circumstances you’re faced with,” she said.
In 2019, she made an unsuccessful tilt for the NT seat of Lingiari before being preselected as the CLP’s senate candidate for the 2022 election.
“In terms of politics, I think I was always so frustrated with how ineffective Labor was in Lingiari, especially given that Warren Snowden had been in that seat since I was five years old, and the lives of my family had not changed and not improved during that time. I was really frustrated,” she said.
“I could see what was going on in remote communities and the way that romanticism of Aboriginal people and culture overshadowed the reality of what was going on.
“I wanted to affect change for the vulnerable, particularly in the Northern Territory, and the only way I was going to do that was to be part of the system that brings about that change.”
ON LEADING NO
Having lived the life she had, Senator Nampijinpa Price made up her mind about the Uluru Statement from the Heart years before she entered Canberra.
“When the Uluru Statement from the Heart first came out, I couldn’t support that. I just thought it was … a group of Aboriginal people coming together with their own agenda and claiming that this is for the benefit of all Aboriginal people and agreed to by all Aboriginal people when it wasn’t,” she said.
“I also knew at that point that there were individuals with an understanding of my position on things that deliberately sought to be non-inclusive when it came to myself, and certainly my mother, on the positions that we took, and they never wanted us to be a part of any of those negotiations (in the lead-up).
“The paternalism was … insulting, but that often occurs in this space.”
Only about 11 months into her role as senator, she was elevated to a position she’d only dared to dream of and certainly not one she’d expected before at least her second term.
She said she was “surprised” by Julian Leeser’s decision to step down as Indigenous affairs spokesman after the Liberal Party announced it would vote no to the Voice.
“I certainly did not assume at all that I would be considered … and then I was having dinner with my husband and Peter Dutton during his pre-planned trip to Alice Springs about a week later and I said to him, ‘So, am I being considered?’ And he said, ‘Absolutely’,” she said.
“And I went ‘OK, fair enough, I will have to think about it’.
“I didn’t want to step on anybody’s shoes, but at the same time … I knew that I had to be in this position to be powerful enough to fight this referendum.”
She went on to become a divisive figure throughout the campaign, particularly after fielding a question after her National Press Club address where she said there were “no ongoing negative impacts of colonisation” on Indigenous Australians.
THE FUTURE IS BRIGHT
Riding a win in the wake of the referendum’s defeat, Senator Nampijinpa Price is turning her mind to the future.
Despite an unsuccessful bid to force the government to support a royal commission into child sex abuse in Indigenous communities, she’s committed to holding hearings across the country to drive more drastic action.
She’s been met with criticism, including by former Australian of the year and child sex abuse survivor Grace Tame, that such an inquiry shouldn’t be pigeonholed to just Indigenous communities.
But Senator Nampijinpa Price and her family know all too acutely the heartbreak and damage that occurs in Indigenous communities.
One of her aunts has been missing for more than 40 years.
“At the age of 14, she was dragged out to an outstation... She went missing, and I don’t believe an investigation was launched,” she said.
“I had another aunt who was brutally raped.
“This crap is so prevalent, it’s ridiculous. And it needs to be sorted out because that is what leads people to high rates of incarceration, substance abuse, violence, and perpetuating that violence.”
She’s buoyed by the support of her Indigenous colleague, Kerrynne Liddle, and Mr Dutton, to launch their own inquiry.
“It’s been acknowledged that the system isn’t working. We’re here to fix it, it needs to be done,” she said.
“We can’t keep giving oxygen to the Aboriginal industry who Australia said no to … This is about improving the lives of our most marginalised, and if they can’t do that, move on and let somebody else do it.”
As for the question on everybody’s lips – will Jacinta Nampijinpa Price become prime minister? – she says it’s not a priority.
“I know others have leadership ambitions for me, but I’ve been (here only) 18 months, and my ambitions are trying to sort out the mess that currently exists,” she said.
“There’s a hell of a lot of work that needs to be done. That’s what I really want to get my hands stuck into.”