By Holly Tancredi, Contributing Editor

Australia has been defined by its past decisions, and so too will today’s decisions define its future. Through the northern regions of Australia, the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility (NAIF), a Federal Government entity, works to facilitate growth through investing in major infrastructure developments and increasing private sector interest. The most recent appointment to its Board is Vanessa Elliott, a Jaru woman with over 30 years experience working across government, industry, and community.

Ms Elliott spoke to Infrastructure Magazine to discuss her new appointment, and how her work is influenced by her cultural identity. “My life focus is nation building, sustainability, economic inclusion and above all else, being a devoted mum. For me, there is a lot to learn from the North,” Ms Elliott said.

Ms Elliott made clear the value of her own identity and history, and how it continues to influence and connect to her work.

“It is important that we embrace the total sum of our identity.

“So much of Australia was settled under duress. Some call it frontier conflicts, others genocide. Time continues over 100 plus years to unravel its own story and on our watch; we must listen, linger, leverage opportunities for an inclusive nation. We must keep moving forward promoting care, unity and equality.”

Ms Elliott was straightforward in her description of Australia’s complex past and her personal feelings towards embracing inclusion. It is clear that her respect for the complexities of Australia’s history and the need for compassionate understanding will directly impact her newly appointed role.

“Our shared national history had past hurts that included displacing First Nations and rendering us invisible through Terra Nullius. We can learn from the past, and that’s why Australia now has Land Rights, Native Title, and Indigenous Land Use Agreements.

“I am equally comfortable with the many migrants who left a life to be something here. I know silence is also speaking and I am forever inspired by these stories and their contribution to regional and remote Australia.”

With historical roots from the Kimberley region of Western Australia, Ms Elliott also has family and cultural connections across the Western Desert, Central Australia and Northern Queensland, the very regions the NAIF covers.

“My grandfather was a drover and had Aboriginal Chinese heritage and my Jaja (maternal grandmother) was a cultural leader and historian with Aboriginal Irish heritage. The Irish link to the Durrack’s. My grandparents owned and ran their own cattle station during the rise of the Pastoral Industry. The Chinese link came from Hong Kong to Northern Australia during the Gold rush era,” Ms Elliott explains.

Ms Elliott with her Jaru Elders, Aunty Lizzy and Janet Jingle, at the Mangkaja Arts Centre, Fitzroy Crossing, Kimberley region of WA. Image: Vanessa Elliott.

Building out of the rubble

As part of the NAIF, Ms Elliott’s role includes funding projects that deliver wide-reaching public benefits, while ensuring those projects provide strong indigenous outcomes and opportunities. Ms Elliott said developing Northern Australia with the NAIF Mandate will lead the country in its “truth-telling and inclusion with global economic gains”.

“It is so important as a nation, we rise up from the rubble of our past – never deny it – but seek a way forward, to bring purpose to the past pain, and honour, to the healing process.

“I believe economic development deliverables and infrastructure is the greatest pulse check of who we serve. It sums up a nation’s health especially the social determinants, its fiscal flows, and how they support diversified economies, and even circular economies, as a measure of inclusivity.

“I am acutely aware of racial, economic, environmental and geographical marginalisation.

“This includes how to make room, be balanced,  how to design and be intentional about how we strengthen Northern Australia through NAIF’s Mandate.”

The groundwork for success

With ample experience behind her, Ms Elliott understands there’s a multitude of values and metrics that will form the basis of success in her new role. Having a sense of place, at a localised level is a key interest of Ms Elliott, who places great importance on the “tenacity to be bold, to be global, to serve our local” while also building up Australia’s ecology and economy under sustainability tenets.

“My career was built on responding to development coming to regional and remote Australia and how we can derive mutual benefits.

These range from the Aboriginal Art Centre in the early 1990s, to national road networks, rail lines, ports, headworks to mining, energy mega projects, and land use. “This diversity has shown me the power of intentionality in a plan.” Ms Elliott also said it will be a key priority for her to listen to the market and what it wants to lean into and share.

“My focus is always about what reaps a multiplier effect. What builds sustainable service systems, and logistics? What builds identity, purpose, belonging and branding to northern Australia?”

The price of growth

What makes the northern regions unique also creates challenges around movement and costs. This cost, Ms Elliott said, is why the NAIF board exists. “Growing up it was cheaper to fly around the world than to fly home to Halls Creek or Kununurra,” Ms Elliott said.

“The cost to do business in the North, the elements, and the need to keep pace with global demand whilst honouring the local – it’s the greatest challenge for us all.

“We must promote our pristine environments, wide open spaces and invest in the right network governance, industries, commodities and innovation to attract more investment and opportunity.

“The challenge is to meet demand and to support those who want to be a supplier of choice in Northern Australia.”

Looking ahead, Ms Elliott is determined to support the region to prosperity where “heritage is honoured, hope is encouraged and help is at hand”.

“Change comes from those with the courage to facilitate change to be seen, heard and responded to.”

Future generations

Speaking fondly of her daughter, Ms Elliott reiterated a well-known but astute statement regarding the need for diverse representation: “We can only be what we see”.

“My daughter spent her early years in Halls Creek and now she is working in the USA,” Ms Elliott said.

“Economic development and infrastructure make permanent impressions on future generations and we need to prepare rites of passage for our young people to prosper.

“I have worked on many infrastructure projects and look forward to the day that the talent from human services, residential planning, and industrialised planning, work collectively in remote and regional areas to truly co-design, map, develop and deliver intergenerational life course opportunities for live, local communities.

“Northern Australian children should be given every opportunity to be as innovative and courageous as the marketplace will empower them to be.

“I believe when we face our histories, we should make room for place based stories and honour.

“It is an honour to be a NAIF Board member and a nice way to round off 30 years working for government, industry and community.”

Ms Elliott reflected on the importance of organisations such as the NAIF, with a final reminder that Australians should serve their communities, and help build a society and future that is representative and inclusive of all its residents.

“We shall be known best for how we serve our own.”

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