In the fifth and final chapter in a special report into the family feud in the indigenous Noongar community that made national headlines, Research Journalism’s Kayt Davies sums up an enduring environment of unemployment, disadvantage and race-fuelled tension.

Murray Riley and the older Kicketts all feel like they’re fighting not only for their own children but their grandchildren, and their whole communities as well. It’s deadly serious and it’s manifesting as a competition between Kooraminning and Kaata-Koorliny Employment and Enterprise Development Aboriginal Corporation (KEEDAC) for funding to run programs.

KEEDAC has been around since 1999 and until July 2009 it was the administrator of Narrogin’s CDEP projects. CDEP stands for Community Development Employment Program; it was introduced in 1977 as a way to pay indigenous people to work in locations where it was difficult for them to find other employment. FaHCSIA shut down all CDEPs in June 2009, except for a few in remote areas that are now called reformed-CDEPs and will only be funded until mid-2012.

When it shut down the regional CDEPs, FaHCSIA said it would be replaced with Indigenous Employment Programs (IEPs). The problem, according to Chad Kickett, is that KEEDAC is still waiting for its IEP funding and in the meantime all of the people who had been earning wages on CDEP projects have been turfed onto the dole.

Whose job was it to deliver this news to the Noongar people of Narrogin? The Kicketts and Boltons, and it didn’t add to their popularity in town.

As Priscilla Kickett, community support officer at KEEDAC, said in her letter of submission to the Senate Inquiry on Regional and Remote Indigenous Communities: “The cessation of CDEP, which was managed by KEEDAC, created tremendous stress on the families and left workers with a sense of hopelessness regarding employment. In their eyes no one will employ an Aboriginal person.”

Adding to the confusion around the CDEP closure is the fact FaHCSIA cited widespread corruption in the CDEP system as one of the reasons for closing it down. While it made no specific mention of the Kicketts of Narrogin, it hasn’t publicly exonerated them either and suspicions of corruption (resulting in the withdrawal of popular CDEP programs) have fuelled the fires of hatred.

On the flipside, Chad Kickett has been a director of KEEDAC for six years; he said he joined the organisation at a point where it was in financial chaos and deficit when the federal government was just starting its review of CDEP. He said that within 12 months KEEDAC’s books were in good enough order that the government expanded its coverage area, to the point where it was employing 200 people.

There was a downside though. Chad said: “When it got harder to get money out of it, they [people from other Noongar families] would come and shout at us, and we’d say we couldn’t do anything and they got angry with us. The more we tried to help the community by fixing it up the worse it got. I used to run T-ball in the park for kids from all families but I don’t do it now. Too many parents are getting their kids into the hatred.”

Isobel Williams, a woman more closely related to the Colbungs than the Kicketts, described the impact of the withdrawal of the CDEP programs in Narrogin, saying: “It was really positive when it was here. A lot of people were willing to work and now there is nothing for them; nothing positive here no more.”

Her friend, who opted not to give his name, was angry that CDEP was shut down. He said: “I was on CDEP for 10 years. I used to work at the panelbeater and now there’s no work.” Between them they listed tree-lopping, welding, farm work, cooking, sewing, knitting and chopping wood as CDEP programs they thought had benefitted the community.

Priscilla Kickett is hoping that, once the new funding comes through, KEEDAC will start providing the former — CDEP workers with useful programs. It’s a waiting game though. Another wild card is that Murray Riley has just been appointed as youth and family officer at KEEDAC, and his presence in the office may improve or worsen relations between the feuding families.

In the meantime, the Narrogin Aboriginal Community Reference Group (NACRG), an organisation comprised primarily of Kicketts and chaired by Priscilla, is proactively making as much noise as it can about gaps in services that impact on the social and emotional health of Aboriginal people. It uses the word “racism” freely, often with adjectives such as “systemic”, “institutionalised” and “covert” attached.

Activism isn’t new to the Kicketts. Chad said they were proud of their ancestor John Kickett, who in 1917 wrote letters and gathered signatures as part of a campaign for government permission for his daughters to attend school. (In one letter he wrote: “Sir, I cannot see why my children could not attend [the school] here at Quairading. My People are fighting for Our King and Country.”)

Armed with stories such as this, and supported by people such as Darryl Kickett, former CEO of the Aboriginal Health Council, and Associate Professor Ted Wilkes from Curtin University’s National Drug Research Institute, the Kicketts of Narrogin are unlikely to stop campaigning for a better deal, even if the word “racist” raises a few hackles.

The Kicketts think the police in Narrogin are racist because they don’t take complaints about the behaviour of the feuding families seriously enough.  They have publicly complained, prompting an inquiry into the police behaviour. The result was exoneration, but before the result was in police commissioner Karl O’Callaghan said to a crowd gathered in Narrogin: “I’m very proud of the way you responded to the most recent challenges, I’m very proud of how the town has responded and I won’t have people criticising police for being racist, I won’t have people criticising police for doing the wrong thing when I know you’re out there trying to make decisions in a split second and trying to do it to benefit the community.”

Whether the police commissioner “will have it” or not, the criticisms will likely keep coming because the Kicketts want more to be done to stop low-level violence from escalating, and they want help with their teenage and adult kids that doesn’t involve the lock-up.

Asked for his definition of racism, Narrogin’s most senior police officer Sen Sgt Martin Voyez said: “It is when a person is treated differently or adversely because of their ethnic background.”

Does it happen in Narrogin? “A little bit, in the … years I’ve been here there’s been two incidents: what happened to Eli Kickett at the primary school and a hate letter that was sent to Priscilla.”

So why are a higher proportion of indigenous people imprisoned in Australia compared to non-indigenous people? “Hmmm, not sure. We don’t arrest and charge them because they’re indigenous. Where there is an offence being committed we arrest and charge whether they are Aboriginal or not.”

Voyez sits on the Interagency Group that is working on improving service provision and community relations in Narrogin. Dean Colbung, who hosted the wake that turned into a brawl last November, was a member of the Interagency group but he has stepped down, as he may not be returning to Narrogin for a while.

Like many police professionals, Voyez has an air of invulnerability to criticism. Police are used to nicking people who don’t want to be nicked, they know that not everyone is going to like them for doing their job. What matters to Voyez is that his superiors are happy with his performance.

According to Mayor Don Ennis, the police behaviour towards Narrogin’s Noongars can not only offend the Noongar population. Asked for a definition, he said: “The pure form is when the whole population objects to one group within the population and racism doesn’t exist in Narrogin in that pure form.

“What you do have is people perceiving a different application of the laws and rules for Noongar people, over issues like housing allocation and street drinking, and an ill feeling arises from that,” he said.

Chad Kickett thinks it’s important to talk about racism. He said: “It’s not like the KKK is going around, but there is racism in Narrogin, including among some of our people — especially when it comes to sports. But it’s OK to talk about it because the racist people know who they are, and the ones who aren’t should know that we’re not talking about them.”

He thinks the first thing the town needs to do is admit that there’s a problem. Getting everyone to admit to the problem is the sticking point though.

While the town is coming together in several  forums such as the Interagency Group, and the Reconcillation Action Group run by Mike Sully from the town council, there is still a sense in some quarters that the aim of all this work is to get the Kicketts to stop using the ‘r’ word.

The Kicketts are frustrated to the point of weariness. As Priscilla put it: “They say they hear us, but they don’t hear us.”

The collective deafness is evident in bureaucratic statements about what the family feud is all about. Don Ennis was quoted in The West Australian as saying: “no one can define when the arguments started or what they were about … the problem comes when [traditional] animosity rears its head, usually sparked by alcohol.”

Police Inspector David Picton King agrees: “Long-standing animosity between some families is endemic in WA’s indigenous community. It is evident in a range of locations and it ebbs and flows. All of a sudden, for some inexplicable reason, it bubbles up and causes police a great amount of anxiety and work, and then, for no apparent reason, it ebbs again.”

Statements such as these anger the Kicketts who see them as trivialising their issues, making them sound like rowdy drunks who get violent for no reason.

They also miss the point, or demonstrate the lack of communication in the town, despite the many meetings that have been called and held. There are layers of logic behind the feud and the Noongar people of Narrogin are keen to talk about them. The Kicketts say they want to get to grips with social problems at the core of the Gap statistics. While Murray Riley, representing the other side, said: “It’s about giving people the opportunity to be their own voice, rather than speaking for them.”

The question that remains is whether their dispute will continue to be trivialised to the point of exploding frustration or elevated into a genuine and empowering debate about pathways towards indigenous self-determination.

You can read previous chapters here. Research Journalism — published by the CREATEC Research Centre at Edith Cowan University — is a new academic journal for reporting issues of public concern.