Political dirty tricks and ‘skulduggery’ scar electoral history in outback Australia

It sounds like the plot of a political thriller — a secret team sent to the outback to meddle in an election, a mysterious barrel of port, and a court battle that has influenced voting patterns for decades. 

But the election scandals that occurred in the Kimberley region in the 1970s and ’80s during state elections are recorded in dozens of documents, and the memories of Aboriginal elders who were the subject of the “dirty tricks” used in the election campaigns.

Ironically, the shameful episodes aimed at disenfranchising Indigenous people led to the creation of the first government-backed education campaigns to engage Aboriginal voters, which continue to this day.

“It was one of the most horrible episodes of trying to divert people from their right to vote,” former Kimberley MP Carol Martin says.

A woman stands thoughtfully in front of colourful artwork.
Carol Martin was in her 20s and involved in land rights campaigns in the Kimberley when the voter suppression scandals occurred.(ABC MIdwest and Wheatbelt: Ashleigh Davis)

The 2022 federal campaign has been characterised by allegations of “ghost” candidates and social media misinformation.

But the history of voter manipulation in Australia stretches back decades, to a handful of tiny bush polling booths that were the focus of a campaign to deny Aboriginal people their legal vote.

‘An extraordinary period of change’

Aboriginal people were given the right to vote in 1961, but participation remained very low for years.

A split image showing two crude how-to-vote cards, one for a banana and another for a cow.
Government voter education pamphlets distributed to Indigenous communities in the 1970s.  (Supplied: Susan Bradley)

By the time the 1977 WA state election was called, tensions were brewing.

Aboriginal families had transitioned out of Christian missions and cattle stations, and were trying to adjust to their new-found freedoms and autonomy.

Historian and author Howard Pederson says the land rights movement was growing rapidly.

“It was an extraordinary period of social, political and economic transformation,” he says.

“Up until then, many people had very little control over their lives.

A man with fair hair stands wearing a bright patterned shirt.
Author Howard Pederson has been researching the era for a planned book.(ABC News: Erin Parke)

And in the Kimberley, a high-profile Gidja man from Halls Creek was standing for parliament and threatening the status quo.

Labor candidate Ernie Bridge was a triple threat — an Indigenous country-and-western singer, a successful businessman, and popular local shire president.

The WA Liberal government feared cabinet minister Alan Ridge could lose the crucial seat, so strategists in Perth swung into action, devising a plan to intervene.

Ernie Bridge plays guitar
Ernie Bridge was the first Aboriginal MP in Western Australia and the first Aboriginal cabinet minister in the nation.(ABC News: Ben Collins)

A thwarted plan

“It was a pretty radical and bold thing to do,” Mr Pederson says.

“They concocted a scheme to fly a group of lawyers to the Kimberley just before the election, to be posted at half a dozen remote polling stations.”

Aboriginal people turning up to vote were questioned in detail about their legal status and right to vote.

Some, who could not read or write, were denied their right to present a how-to-vote card to indicate their preference.

In one incident in Kununurra, an off-duty policeman was found to have illegally ordered away a group of local Aboriginal people gathered at the voting centre.

Labor Minister Ernie Bridge responds to questions from reporters outside WA State Parliament in 1990.
Kimberley MP Ernie Bridge outside state parliament in 1990.(Supplied: State Library of Western Australia)

The Court of Disputed Returns would later determine that more than 90 people were illegally prevented from voting.

That was enough to overturn the result, and the courts ordered a fresh ballot, which the Liberal party ended up winning again.

It wouldn’t be until the next state election — in 1980 — that Mr Bridge won the seat of Kimberley for Labor.

It was the start of a 20-year parliamentary career, and the start of Labor’s 40-year stranglehold on the seat.

But that election was also mired in controversy.

The Turkey Creek Wine Festival

On polling day in 1980, a scandalous rumour spread through the Kimberley grapevine.

Two men had transported a 44-gallon drum of fortified wine to the Turkey Creek community to try to get residents too drunk to vote.

Labor MP Peter Dowding described the incident in scathing terms in parliament later that year.

A rectangular newspaper article with photos of two men included
The Turkey Creek incident resulted in an apology and $1,000 donation to the community from the men involved, but no charges were laid. (Supplied: National Library of Australia/Trove )

“On election day this year there was a blatant and self-confessed attempt … to intoxicate a group of Aborigines at Turkey Creek,” Mr Dowding told parliament.

“The idea was to incapacitate them to such an extent that they would be unable to implement their previous intention to vote for the Labor party candidates.”

Liberal minister Phil Lockyer responded vigorously, denying the alcohol was planted by the Liberal party.

“I just [want to] make it clear that immediately [after] this incident became public, the Liberal Party dissociated itself … it was a disgraceful thing to be done, and that it was something that nobody in his right mind would support,” Mr Lockyer said.

“Even though I personally think the Turkey Creek incident was a terrible thing, there are some people who believe the person concerned should be knighted.”

Image of a white t shirt with the words "turkey creek wine festival 1980" screen printed onto it.
The Turkey Creek election day scandal was immortalised on T-shirts printed in the nearby town of Kununurra. (Supplied: Tom Stephens)

A government report into racial discrimination later quoted one of the men involved as saying:

The sabotage attempt failed — the community chairman tipped the alcohol into the dirt, and Ernie Bridge finally won the seat of Kimberley.

There was no evidence linking the incident to the Liberal party, and it quickly distanced itself from what soon became known as the ‘Turkey Creek Wine Festival’.

But the incident reinforced a belief that conservative factions would stop at nothing to try to stop Aboriginal people from voting.

A dodgy fake cheque?

Kununurra local Keith Wright, who stood as an Independent candidate in 1977, told the ABC this week that the men were trying to make a point by disrupting the poll.

A smiling man with blue eyes
Keith Wright remains a well-known character in the Kimberley town of Kununurra.(Supplied: Keith Wright )

“They were under the impression that if they weren’t literate enough to understand the political situation, then they shouldn’t vote,” he says.

“I don’t necessarily agree with that … but there were a lot of things that were done then that wouldn’t be done now, either due to legalities or changing public opinion.”

Mr Wright’s own campaign tactics attracted criticism — he distributed a flyer designed to look like a cheque.

He denies it was a bid to trick non-literate people into voting for him.

“There was no intention to give the impression that I was going to hand out money.

“I had it cleared by the Reserve Bank of Australia, so there were no legal issues with it.”

A piece of paper resembling a cheque
Keith Wright denies his how-to-vote flyer was designed to mislead non-literate voters. (Supplied: Susan Bradley)

Loyalty to Labor ‘unhealthy’

Around the same time, the WA Liberal party tried to introduce literacy tests for voters, which was widely interpreted as a bid to suppress the Indigenous vote.

These incidents — as well as support for land rights and the Apology to the Stolen Generation — created a life-long loyalty to the Australian Labor Party in many Aboriginal communities.

Election data shows remote community residents continue to vote overwhelmingly Labor.

The trend is not enough to shift things at a federal level. The seat of Durack has been held by Liberal MP Melissa Price, who enjoys widespread support across the larger towns of the Pilbara and Mid West, since 2013. 

But some believe that the loyalty many Indigenous people have to Labor is misplaced and unhealthy.

a man looks at the camera while standing in front of a hedge.
Warren Greatorex says he stood for the Liberal Party to provide an alternative for remote voters.(ABC News: Ben Collins)

Warren Greatorex is a Nyikina and Jabirr Jabirr man, who has previously run for parliament for the Liberal party.

He says too many Aboriginal people vote automatically for the ALP.

“As a young bloke growing up in the Kimberley, we were always influenced to vote Labor, but didn’t really understand why,” he says.

“I think it’s something that needs to change, because things aren’t getting better up here, and you need to ask why.

He says Labor has failed to address the unprecedented youth crime rates in the region, or improve engagement in education.

A piece of paper designed like a voting ballot paper
A government voter education pamphlet that was distributed to Indigenous communities during the 1970s.  (Supplied)

Indigenous vote still lags behind

More than 40 years after the Kimberley election scandals, Aboriginal people are still less likely to be enrolled to vote than the rest of the population.

About 97 per cent of the adult population is thought to be on the electoral roll, but only 80 per cent of eligible Aboriginal people.

Gina Dario, from the Australian Electoral Commission, says the number is slowly increasing.

a woman casts a vote in a rural polling booth
The Australian Electoral Commission now runs a remote polling program, visiting hundreds of isolated communities to collect votes.(ABC News: Michael Franchi)

“We have an Indigenous national engagement program, but it’s a long-standing challenge,” she says.

“It’s obviously really important, if we want our parliament to be truly representative.”

A cherished T-shirt from a dark day

Yamatji and Noongar woman Carol Martin remained in parliament for 12 years.

For years she cherished her ‘Turkey Creek Wine Festival’ T-shirt, as a darkly humorous nod to a shameful episode.

But she says it is also an important reminder of the need for vigilance around the preservation of basic rights.

A woman holds a photo up
Carol Martin holds a photo of herself with former prime minister Gough Whitlam.(ABC Midwest and Wheatbelt: Ashleigh Davis)

She cites the Morrison government’s recent push to introduce voter identification requirements, which it abandoned after accepting it wouldn’t pass the Senate.

“I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but come on — who’s going to be disadvantaged by that?” she asks.

“Most Aboriginal people in remote communities don’t have ID cards, they might not have a birth certificate or a drivers license or any of those documents … so that excludes a huge number of people straight off.