By Matthew Knott

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Garth Hamilton knew something unusual, something seismic, was stirring in conservative Australia when Jacinta Nampijinpa Price came to town last month.

When it was announced that Price, the Coalition’s Indigenous Australians spokeswoman, would appear at Toowoomba’s main convention centre to speak against the Voice to parliament on a Monday night all 1250 tickets, priced at $5 each, were snapped up by the day of the event; when organisers hustled to lift capacity to 1400, those seats sold out too.

Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price has has a meteoric rise since entering parliament last year. Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

“If we’d had more time, we could have doubled that easily,” says Hamilton, who represents the southern Queensland electorate of Groom, ranked the third most conservative in the country by the ABC’s Vote Compass.

What most struck the Liberal National MP, though, was not the size of the crowd but the attendees’ reverence for Price, a first-term senator from the Northern Territory who only entered parliament last July. More than a politician, he says Price has become a political phenomenon.

“I’ve never seen anything like it in politics – they were cheering on her every sentence,” he says. “It was extraordinary.”

Nationals Senator Bridget McKenzie says Price received the same rock star reception while launching the Victorian No campaign in Melbourne on Friday.

“When she came to the stage, it was electrifying,” McKenzie says. “Afterwards, people were staying back and lining up for photos and signatures.”

The Melbourne event was held the day after Price made an incendiary appearance at the National Press Club, with most coverage focussing on her provocative, off-the-cuff remark that she did not believe Indigenous people continue to suffer negative impacts of colonisation.

Among the many outraged Indigenous groups was the Central Land Council, which covers the southern half of the NT.

“The senator’s denial of history and its ongoing impacts is disgraceful,” the council said in a statement released this week. “Her remarks are hurting the families of the stolen generation, those who lost their land, their wages and their opportunities.”

Yuendumu elder Ned Jampijinpa Hargraves last year blasted Price for failing to respect the work of Aboriginal leaders in remote Australia who are trying to reduce alcohol abuse and domestic abuse. “I spend all day every day serving my community for free,” Hargraves said on Facebook. “That is my cultural duty. That is more than I can say for you, Jacinta.”

Price is a polarising figure who is immersed in the tribally conservative media ecosystem of Sky News and News Corporation. She has posed for smiling photos with One Nation senator Pauline Hanson and been reluctant to distance herself from, let alone criticise, offensive comments made by fellow No campaigners.

It was recently revealed that David Adler – who sits on the advisory board of right-wing activist group Advance, of which Price is a former spokeswoman – had suggested Aboriginal journalist Stan Grant was artificially darkening his skin and had questioned Senator Lidia Thorpe’s Aboriginality. Kerry White, a board member of a separate No group, was this week revealed to have made the evidence-free claim that the Voice would force white people to pay to live in Australia and had rejected the reality of the stolen generations. Price has not supported these comments.

Leading Yes advocate Noel Pearson claimed earlier this year that Price was caught up in a “redneck celebrity vortex”, alleging she was being used as a pawn by conservative think tanks to “punch down on other black fellas” – a charge Price rejected as “belittling” and “bullying”.

Indigenous academic Marcia Langton was just as scathing in a 2018 piece, describing most of Price’s followers as “rabid racists” and disparaging her as the “useful coloured help” for white conservatives.

The opprobrium generated by Price’s press club remarks meant she dominated the final day of parliament before Australians vote in the referendum and overshadowed football legend Michael Long’s arrival in Canberra after a 650-kilometre trek to promote the Voice.

In the past week, Price’s press club speech has been streamed 130,000 times on YouTube – leaps ahead of Indigenous Australians Minister Linda Burney’s July appearance (10,500 total views) and Langton’s speech earlier this month (19,000 views).

It’s the same story on Facebook, where Price has amassed 218,000 followers. That’s double Opposition Leader Peter Dutton (110,000 followers), Nationals leader David Littleproud (30,000) and Burney (45,000).

Looking at her page, it’s clear why. While other politicians upload sanitised posts about their factory visits and community events, Price regularly writes personal, often confronting posts, about life in remote Aboriginal Australia.

“Last week there was news I’d lost one of my uncles in a car crash along with a cousin,” she wrote in a post this week. “This week I am reminded that my family is still seeking justice for the senseless killing of one of my nephews. It never ends but we must push forward for a better tomorrow.”

Price has previously spoken about her experience as a victim of domestic violence and last year posted a photo on social media of her elderly grandmother after she was attacked by a younger woman to highlight social problems in central Australia.

Several No advocates privately contrast her declarative communication style with that of Nyunggai Warren Mundine, who made a muddled Insiders appearance on Sunday in which he backed treaties and a change to Australia Day (two ideas fiercely resisted by Price and most No advocates). On the other side of the contest, Burney, who recently revealed her speaking voice has been affected by health issues, has struggled to cut through the din of the debate.

If the Voice is voted down on October 14 – as the published polls suggest it will – Price will be regarded as a conservative legend. Progressives, meanwhile, will accuse her of setting back the reconciliation cause by at least a generation.

“I think she’s been the most important voice on the No side: more influential than Dutton, Littleproud, Warren Mundine or anyone else frankly,” says Tom Switzer, the head of the Centre for Independent Studies, a conservative think tank where Price formerly worked as Indigenous program director. “She’s the most vocal, she works the hardest … I suspect that some Labor Party people who will vote No will have been influenced by the fact that an articulate, sound Indigenous woman is prepared to stand up to the zeitgeist.”

Former prime minister and No advocate Tony Abbott describes Price as a “fair dinkum national hero”.

“Almost nothing takes more moral courage than speaking out against your noisy peers and that’s exactly what she’s done,” Abbott says.

Now 42, Price was already well-known in the NT before entering politics. From 2007 she starred in the beloved children’s TV show Yamba’s Playtime, which aired on the local Channel Nine affiliate, playing the best friend of an outback honey ant. In 2013 released her debut album Dry River, a mix of folk, country and soul that Triple J compared to Tracy Chapman. McKenzie believes Price’s background as a children’s entertainer and musician helps explain her ability to emotionally connect with a political audience.

Jacinta Price in her days as a folk singer.Credit: ABC

In 2015 Price followed her mother Bess – a Warlpiri woman who served as a Country Liberal minister in the NT government from 2012 to 2016 – into politics by being elected as an Alice Springs councillor. Most often, she later said, she found herself siding “with the old white fellas” on the council.

In her first speech to parliament last July, she railed against the idea of the Voice, saying it would “drive a wedge further between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia” and that she “has never needed a paternalistic government to bestow my own empowerment upon me”.

A Liberal MP, speaking on condition of anonymity, says her first speech should be regarded as “the real starting point of the No campaign – she gave people permission to have that point of view”.

Nationals MPs say Price played a crucial role in convincing Littleproud, and the broader party room, to declare a unified No position last November, long before the wording of the referendum question had been settled. At the time, support for the Voice was polling around 60 per cent with just 38 per cent of Australians saying they would vote No. Those figures have now flipped, with 57 per cent saying they will vote No and 43 per cent Yes according to the latest Resolve Political Monitor.

“She’s been able to say things that others who are non-Indigenous or male would not be able to say,” says Nationals MP and former leader Michael McCormack. “When she walks to the front of the party room, people listen.”

Dutton appointed her to the Indigenous Australians portfolio in April, far quicker than most colleagues had expected, replacing former spokesman and passionate Yes advocate Julian Leeser.

Price says she has received death threats during the referendum campaign and was bombarded with abuse last week when her mobile phone number was published online. Describing Price as a “bit of a warrior queen”, Alice Springs councillor Eli Melky says he admires his former colleague’s ability to withstand the backlash. “We didn’t always vote the same way, but she’s a sincere, honest person,” he says. “She’s not doing this as a circus act.”

If the Voice is defeated, Switzer says Price’s “credibility and prestige will be enhanced greatly”.

After the referendum, Price has indicated a desire to broaden her remit by speaking out against gender transition for children, saying earlier this month that transgender issues were high on her list of priorities. A spokesman for Price did not respond to requests for comment.

Asked where Price’s career could go, McKenzie replies: “She has all the qualities of a great leader. She connects with people at an emotional level, she’s a strong and powerful communicator and she’s not swayed by vested interests”.

Other colleagues say they could see her as education or social services minister, challenging Labor’s traditional strengths in these portfolios as she has done in Indigenous affairs.

“I don’t think she can just be pigeonholed as an Indigenous activist,” McCormack says. “Jacinta Price could be anything.”

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