Powerhouse of women lead Katherine in the Northern Territory

Published on Thursday, 10 November 2022 at 11:38:00 AM

IN MY OPINION - CEO Ingrid Stonhill

Some of Katherine's extraordinary powerhouse of women stand on the historic railway bridge. (From left) Linda Blackwood, Selena Uibo, Lis Clark, Kathryn Freeman, Angela Brannelly, Ingrid Stonhill, Kym Henderson, Jessica Powter, and Claire Brown. Photo: Shaana McNaught

Is it all in the name, Katherine? Katherine implies a pioneering spirit, a natural born leader, highly focused and achievement oriented. Well, that’s if you believe in the ‘meaning of your name’ when searching the web. But seriously, for the Northern Territory town of Katherine, maybe there really is something in that.

When our country and indeed the rest of the world are facing some of the most unprecedented challenges of our lifetimes, Katherine is powering up to take on its greatest economic growth period, probably since reconstruction after its devastating flood in 1998. This supercharged leap forward for this town and the Big Rivers Region is happening under the watch of a powerhouse of women.

“Katherine is powering up to take on its greatest economic growth period.”

Katherine was established as a township in 1871, with the original inhabitants the Dagoman and Jawoyn Aboriginal people. Initially it was run by a Town Management Board made up of Katherine’s local businessmen. The change to seeing more women in leadership positions started with the introduction of self-government for the Territory, with the democratic election process, on 1 July 1978.

In Australia, women are underrepresented in key decision-making roles across almost all industries in the Australian workforce. While 2020-21 data1 shows women make up half of employees, women comprise only 19 percent of CEOs and 32.5 percent of key management positions. Katherine however is attracting women as natural-born leaders into key decision-making roles.

Today, women leadership roles in the Northern Territory are not unusual. Some of Katherine's female leaders. (From left) Angela Brannelly, Claire Brown, Linda Blackwood, Jessica Powter, Lis Clark, Kym Henderson, Ingrid Stonhill, Kathryn Freeman, Selena Uibo. Photo: Shaana McNaught

Perhaps it’s the influence of its female name as to why Katherine and its surrounding areas have bucked trends by electing pinnacle female representatives consistently. While a female mayor for Katherine is not a new phenomenon — current Mayor Lis Clark is the fourth woman elected out of a history of five Katherine Town Council mayors — what is interesting is that council’s three lead roles are female.

Along with Mayor Clark and Deputy Mayor Kym Henderson, this year I came to town, welcomed as the first female Chief Executive Officer in Council's 42-year history. Perhaps it took having two women at the council’s helm to make that happen.

Although new to Katherine, already I have heavily invested in this region. I am a member of the Big Rivers Regional Economic Growth Committee, Board Member of Nitmiluk National Park and a member of the Katherine Region Executive Committee of the Chamber of Commerce NT.

But it’s not just Council that is seeing a high number of female leaders. In the nearby Arnhem electorate, there is Minister Selena Uibo, whose home-based electorate office is in Katherine. She was Australia’s youngest ever Aboriginal Affairs Minister, appointed in 2018, and the third woman to hold this electorate since. A passionate advocate, Minister Uibo believes that the Territory will never reach its full potential unless there is meaningful investment in remote Territorians. The Big Rivers Region, which Katherine is the hub of, encompasses 26 remote communities.

Then we have Jo Hersey (pictured right), who is the third female the Katherine electorate has chosen as its NT Legislative Assembly representative, coming into power in the 2020 election. This is the long-term Katherine resident’s first foray into the political arena but she is well networked as a former hairdresser.

The draw to Katherine

The pioneering spirit noted in the name of Katherine is well documented. Many yarns exist about the good ole days, but true examples of the hardships faced by many women can be read in the stories they tell of early settler life in the Territory. Within the Big Rivers Region, just south of Katherine, is one of the most famous stories of Elsey Station, depicted in the book and movie We of the Never Never. In more recent times Katherine authors such as Toni Tapp Coutts and Jacqueline Hammar have shared their stories and endured hardship to try out new things, another quality attributed to the name of Katherine.

Katherine is not only the crossroads of the Top End — whether coming from the south, the west or the north you have no alternate option but to go through Katherine — but also a major hub for service provision to the Big Rivers Region.

The federal government’s presence is strongly felt in Katherine, with the Tindal RAAF Base, situated just 15 kilometres outside of the CBD. This puts Katherine on the map as one of Australia’s largest fighter plane towns.

What may not be so widely known is that Katherine is at the heart of a region with an extraordinary economy, driven by key industry sectors including natural resources, agriculture and tourism. It boasts 20 percent of Australia’s mango production and 38 percent of Australia’s premium live beef exports and so much more. It is home to some of the most renowned award-winning tourism destinations in Northern Australia including Nitmiluk and Elsey National Parks.

"Katherine is at the heart of a region with an extraordinary economy, driven by key industry sectors including natural resources, agriculture and tourism.”

It is not surprising then that we find many key government industries represented in Katherine, which covers 360,000 square kilometres, accounting for an area greater than Germany. What is surprising is the breadth of women driving these powerful positions in government.

Female leadership in the Northern Territory

Claire Brown is the first ever woman appointed as Executive Director of the Northern Region Department of Infrastructure, Planning and Logistics. Attitudes took some changing and she tells the story of the previous director having a shelf full of toy trucks. When she took the role the tone-deaf joke was that she might have a shelf of barbie dolls.

Now women leadership roles in the Northern Territory are not unusual. Brown has been promoted is off to Darwin and Louise McCormick was recently appointed as the first ever female Infrastructure NT Commissioner, and the NT government itself is led by Chief Minister Natasha-Fyles.

Back to Katherine and there is the Executive Director of Big Rivers - Territory Families, Housing and Communities Kathryn Freeman who holds one of the most culturally and geographically diverse and complex portfolios in government. Similarly this could be said for Angela Brannelly, Regional Executive Director, Big Rivers Region, NT Health who navigated the heightened vulnerabilities of the Big Rivers Region population through two years of Covid-19.

The NT Government’s Department of Industry, Tourism and Trade is headed by Jessica Powter, the Regional Director, who is tasked with economic development planning to support growth in these priority sectors.

With so much growth and planned expansion for Katherine and the Big Rivers Region, pressure points become exposed, none more so than the shortage of housing and the rising costs of the housing market in general. Alison Ross (pictured right) is familiar with this as owner of Katherine’s Elders Real Estate. She visited Katherine some 20 odd years ago and forgot to leave. Invested not only in her own business, Ross chairs the Big Rivers Regional Economic Growth Committee and serves on the Katherine Region Executive Committee, Chamber of Commerce NT. Led by a woman, this committee services current demands and meets the future needs of this burgeoning community.

Women of the land have long been celebrated in this Territory town and recognised through the Country Women’s Association. The old adage that if you want something done, ask a busy man, and if you want work well done, then ask a busy woman is as true now as it ever was. Linda Blackwood is a country woman, based on a station just out of Katherine. Recognized in 2018 as NT’s Rural Woman of the Year, Blackwood grows her family business while also committing to growing local business through her involvement as chair of the Katherine Region Executive Committee, Chamber of Commerce NT.

“If you want something done, ask a busy man, and if you want work well done, then ask a busy woman.”

All these women are impressive, highly focused and achievement oriented, getting on with getting the job done. But what is even more impressive is that these women are a small representation of many more, who are taking the town of Katherine and the Big Rivers Region through an extraordinary period of growth. Hold on to your hats people, the girls have got this.

1 www.wgea.gov.au/women-in-leadership

Ingrid will be the guest speaker at the Katherine Executive Committee of the Chamber of Commerce NT's November Women in Business lunch on Wednesday November 10.

As printed in the NT News, Northern Territory Government section, Wednesday November 9, 2022.

Back to All News