10 May 2023

From Canberra to Seisia: young leader gives voice to community

| Matt Nicholls
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TALEI Elu was born to be a leader, but she says it has been a natural transformation, rather than a planned strategy.

The daughter of Joseph Elu, a giant in the public service world, especially in Indigenous affairs, Talei believes her best work will come in the private sector, rather than in government.

Not that she hasn’t given it a go.

The young Torres Strait Islander has been there and done that when it comes to working in the bubble that is Canberra.

Now back living in Seisia, which is definitely “home”, the Cape York resident is getting things done at a grassroots level.

Funnily enough, it was the threat of COVID lockdowns that resulted in Talei returning to the Northern Peninsula Area.

“I got a whiff that (the government) were going to be closing off the Cape and I didn’t really trust them to make the right decisions for my family,” she said.

Without even asking permission from her boss, she was on a plane to Bamaga to get home before she was locked out.

She kept her job and transitioned to a new remote role but then began to see life from a new perspective.

“I started looking back into our history and looking at trying to record some stories with my camera and my audio recorder,” she said.

“I suddenly had this new interest in trying to preserve cultures.”

Then came a new job offer for an Indigenous-owned media and communications company that would allow her to tell the stories of people from across Australia from all different backgrounds.

“So yeah, I just took the leap and I quit,” Talei said.

“I thought it was going to be a much more intense decision. But it was actually ‘this is what’s best for me’ and it was easy.

“I quit the federal government after six years and I have been enjoying it ever since.”

Talei Elu turned her back on Canberra to give back to her community.

Away from work, Talei’s role as a volunteer and advocate for her community in the last two years has made a difference to her fellow Seisia residents. Frustrated with the poor Telstra service in the town, she has taken up the fight with both the telco and the federal government to get a result.

There has still been no action on improving the 4G service, but Talei holds out hope.

At the very least, she has put it on their radar.

“Not having phone reception or mobile data is a restrictive barrier,” she said.

“People class it as a basic necessity, yet we’re not getting the same level compared to most places around the country.

“When COVID hit a lot of the messaging was digital and we were so reliant on our phones.

“A lot of people with prepaid services are not going to be downloading PDFs and doing research, so they get their information off Facebook and Instagram.”

Off her own bat, Talei made up posters with COVID information and spread the word about the importance of vaccination and when clinics were being held in the NPA.

She said there was a real fear in the community about the spread of the virus.

As for being a leader, Talei said she wasn’t sure how she felt about the label.

Having organised numerous beach clean-ups in Seisia and the NPA, Talei said it was done because of her love of the beach and her family, not because she wanted to be a leader.

“It’s just more like, well, this is an issue that’s affecting my nieces and nephews who are walking on the beach and they might cut their foot,” she said.

“Plus, it’s an ugly thing to look at the rubbish on the beach.

“I really respect that place. It’s Aboriginal country.

“My granddad, he worked so hard to try and find a place that he could allow his family to enjoy for a long time.

“So I have a real respect for this tiny little plot of land that he chose to settle his family on.”

On her father’s side, Talei’s family was from Saibai Island, but migrated to the mainland in the 1940s.

Her mother is from Fiji and she sees familiarities between the two cultures, especially their love of family.

Raised in Seisia for the first six years of her life, Talei and her family packed up their belongings and headed to the cold of Canberra when her father took a role in the federal government.

“I still remember when we would do the five-day drive from Canberra to Cape York and then back down again in the Christmas holidays,” she said.

“I went to school in Canberra and then the Gold Coast, so I missed a lot of time in Seisia.”

For those that don’t know her father, he’s considered a big deal when it comes to Indigenous policy and leadership in the Torres Strait.

He has served on the TSRA board for decades and was a councillor with NPARC. He also has roles with Seisia Enterprises and various other bodies.

“The reason he’s a good leader is because he’s a good gardener,” Talei said.

“He understands how to make something grow and prosper.

“That requires an understanding of your surroundings and what else is growing around you.

“He can look and read the environment, know his place in it and know how he can grow within it.

“Enough people know his character from back in the day and would say that he probably just cut everything down!”

As for long-term aspirations, Talei says she has unfinished business in Seisia and would like to see more infrastructure built in the community to allow locals to flourish.

“We need quality enabling infrastructure. We know that we’re being given the short stick in terms of quality in terms of telecommunications, power network and the like,” she said.

“If we had the quality infrastructure then, of course, we would be doing better as a community.

“You’d have better health outcomes, business opportunities and employment opportunities.”

A crack at politics is unlikely.

“I haven’t mapped out what the next step is but as for working in politics, I definitely know that it is not for me,” she said.

“I’m very adamant that you don’t need to be a politician to make a change, you don’t need to have an elected position to do something.”

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