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Thursday Island: A complex melting pot at the edge of Australia

The first female mayor of the Torres Shire Council talking to Back Roads on the Thursday Island shore
Thursday Island mayor Vonda Malone is passionate about her community.

ABC Far North: Charlie McKillop

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Vonda Malone made history in 2016, becoming the first woman to be elected mayor of the Torres Shire Council, presiding over the islands at Australia's northern tip.

But for Cr Malone, who was born and raised on Thursday Island, being the first to do something has been a hallmark all her life.

She was school captain of the first group of Year 12 students to graduate from the local high school, and was the first Torres Strait Islander to participate in the Indigenous Scholarship Program run by the United Nations in Geneva.

For a time she worked for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, but was lured back from her posting in New Zealand to the tropical shores of the Torres Strait.

"I'm passionate about my community, and I wanted to contribute in a greater way."

The view from Thursday Island with a boat fishing in the bright sea
The view from Thursday Island looking out on locals catching fish.

ABC TV: Brigid Donovan

When it came to the election, Cr Malone saw it as an "opportune time to step up to the mark", and said the community was ready for change, particularly a female in a senior role.

"I'm very humbled by the response. I think it shows our community is very progressive to have that confidence in me," she said.

But Cr Malone has been given no easy task.

The island communities at the tip of Australia, and their rich history and eclectic culture, need to adapt to keep people in the community.

Priests and pearlers

It was a big step for the remote community, whose history stretches far back into time — long before missionaries came in the 1870s.

The arrival of missionaries delivered Christianity to the islanders, and its influence was profound.

At the same time, a flourishing pearling industry attracted immigrants and prosperity until the mid-20th century, when it collapsed after pearl shells stopped being used to make buttons.

The pearling industry, with its workers from Japan, Malaysia, India and the Pacific Islands, established the multiculturalism that has become part of Thursday Island's identity.

A close-up photo of an older Torres Strait Islander man
Henry 'Seaman' Dan, is a Thursday island local and ARIA award winner.

ABC TV: Ron Ekkel

Torres Strait Islanders have their own flag and a rich artistic and creative culture.

ARIA award-winning artist Henry 'Seaman' Dan was born and bred on the island.

He is an example of its multiculturalism and artistry — his great grandfather was pearl diver from Jamaica and his great grandmother was a chief's daughter from New Caledonia.

Dan himself is a community elder and former pearl diver, along with being a renowned musician.

His grandson, local hip-hop artist and filmmaker Patrick Mau, said in the past five years Torres Strait Islander musicians, artists, dancers and actors had been "doing great things".

"Art has now created a little bit of an awareness so people know a bit about the Torres Strait," he said.

Mau said his music gave him a chance to tell the story of his ancestors, and educate others about Torres Strait Islanders and their place in the world.

When he started his musical career, there was no internet on the island.

Church.
Religion had a significant impact on the Torres Strait.

ABC TV

Now, improvements in technology allow him to run a successful creative enterprise from the remote island.

"The technology is so advanced that I could be sitting here communicating with another artist or an organisation in the USA, or anywhere down in Australia," Mau said.

"The technology is really good and the opportunities have been growing."

'Sustainable lifestyle' needed to keep locals on the island

Looking for opportunities and planning for the future is important to Cr Malone too.

These days, Thursday Island is the administrative hub for the Torres Strait, and state and federal government agencies are the biggest employment providers.

According to the Mayor, more of those jobs could be filled by locals.

"We need to see more employment outcomes for our people," Cr Malone said.

Sunset over a beach.
The sun setting off the horizon from Thursday Island.

Supplied: Melanie Stanhope

"There are a lot of services that are fly-in fly-out. We would like to see a lot of those jobs go to local people because we don't see enough of that, and we still have huge unemployment issues."

When jobs leave so do people, and one of the biggest challenges for the islands' economy is keeping people there, rather than losing them to the mainland.

Limited employment opportunities, low housing stock and rents of $600 to $1,200 per week are forcing locals to relocate to centres like Cairns and Townsville, where living costs are reasonable and employment options are more abundant.

Despite Thursday Island having a high school that goes all the way to Year 12, many students board on mainland Australia.

The issue was so pressing it became a focus of Cr Malone's election campaign.

"I think over the last six years I've seen such a big movement of people away from our community," she said.

Cr Malone understands the community has to be able to offer a sustainable lifestyle to bring people back.

Patrick Mau standing on the shore of Thursday Island talking about Torres Strait Islander culture
Mau Power is the first MC to tour and record from the Torres Strait Islands.

ABC TV: Ron Ekkel

"We do have people who have skills, they are people that have moved away. We need to be able to attract them to return home and fill those government positions with our own people," she said.

"We've got to bring the balance back and ensure that our local people can stay in their homes, can have meaningful employment and be able to contribute constructively to improving our community."

Mau is one local whose connections to family and place keep bringing him back to Thursday Island.

"When I jump up off the Qantas plane after a long journey or a long trip away, when the sun hits you and you just stand there, take a moment and absorb it, you get a sense of belonging," he said.