We thought that power was free!

Nikunu Yunupingu and Richard Trudgen discuss that many Yolngu think power (electricity) is free. They talk about how in the mission days power on Yolngu communites was free, as well as when local governments initially took over and into the 1980’s. It’s mentioned that there has never been a full education program to explain the transition, so there is still confusion. Balanda understand that to receive power they have to enter into a contract with the power company and then pay for what they use, but this wasn’t the Yolngu experience for many years.

Nikunu explains that many Yolngu are completely naive about how electricity operates and works and that it’s important to tell the whole community so people can use it more efficiently. Many people are in debt due to lack of understanding. It also contributes to issues such as children destroying power boxes when the electricity goes off and they can’t get food. Because of parents own economic confusion, their children are also left in an information vacumn.

Richard talks about how everyone has to pay for power and water and that when it was free the councils and government thought it would make the communities healthier but it just made them more dependent. He says that it might cost the power company many millions of dollars to produce the power at Galiwin’ku, Ramingining, Milingimbi, Gapuwiyak, and Yirrkala. Somebody has to pay for it and reciprocate payment for its production – a ‘user pays’ system. So whoever uses the electricity has to pay for it.

He explains that electricity is measured in kilowatt hours. Together Richard and Nikunu talk about selling/buying power in units of quantity (comparisons are made to other measurements like inches and centimetres and to petrol, which is measured in litres and you pay for what you use.) They discuss that different electrical equipment uses different kilowatt hours and how when they are switched on it adds up to more kilowatt hours being used. Nikunu says this is a new concept for Yolngu, who naively go to the shop and buy another power card without realising what is using up the money on the card. Some Yolngu blame the house for being at fault for using too much money.

They unpack how paying for a ‘power card’ works and also how the “PowerPoint box” or “metre box” works, pointing out it has a timer and adds up units of power. This way Yolngu can check the quantity of power they are using by the metre box. They explore ways to save money and power, like switching off hot water systems, and explaining the English term ‘booster switch’. They also talk about turning off fans and lights.





There are 4 Stories in this podcast. Please see time stamps below:

  • Our understanding was the power was free. We naively buy the next power card without knowing why! – 00:00
  • We are confused because all houses are connected to the power station. Angry children are destroying power boxes – 9:29
  • What are kWHs? – 18:17
  • Switch off hot water booster to save power – 28:17