Ilana was born in Perth in 1965, and has 2 older brothers and a younger half brother. Ilana only met her birth father when she was 18, as her parents separated when she was very young, and her mother married her step father when Ilana was 4.
Ilana’s step father had a farm in the wheat/sheep belt of WA and Ilana caught the school bus to Kalannie (75 miles away) to a school of 60 children.
When Ilana was in grade 6, the farm was sold, and the family moved into the eastern hills district of Perth, an area of small rural holdings. Ilana went to a public high school, and attended a private boarding school for year 10, which was great for Ilana because she could take her horse.
Ilana’s mother always took a great interest in community affairs, helping at the kindergarten and being a member of the Volunteer Fire Brigade. She also had a great love of wildlife – Ilana says “she much prefers animals to people” – and even today has a property out of Perth which is gazetted for environmental protection.
Ilana’s grandmother was one of the first women to graduate in fine arts at the University of WA, was an avid reader and prolific artist in most mediums. Ilana would often spend holidays with her grandmother, who had a big influence on her political views, especially because of her progressive views on the treatment of Aboriginal people and her great interest in WA and federal politics.
Ilana’s mother was Anglican and Ilana was christened in the Anglican church at 9 years of age. Church provided one of the few social opportunities that Ilana’s mother was able to access, as they lived so remotely. Ilana said that in fact neither her mother nor her father were really believers. Today, Ilana has no religion but has “a personal sense of spirituality around earth and life.”
When Ilana finished school, she moved to Sydney. Her first real job was with the United Nations Information Centre, helping compile their newsletter. And then she took a voluntary job with a community radio station on Sydney’s north shore, “learned to be a dj” and helped establish a news program, and run a country music program with Smokey Dawson.
This was the beginning of her career in media, as she went on to apply for a job with the ABC. When she was 20, she started working at Tamworth ABC, doing the afternoon show, broadcasting to a large catchment area around Tamworth. In 1986, she was head hunted to the ABC in Darwin. In the extract below, Ilana describes the learning experiences of those years in Darwin.
Ilana eventually resigned from the ABC. She began to get interested in the environment movement and its campaign at Coronation Hill. She worked with the Greenpeace representative in Darwin and was as early member of the Anti-Uranium group in Darwin.
I started to look at the whole picture, from a resource extraction proposal, through to whose land it [the Ranger proposal] was on, and what the legislation said, and that led me into politics.
One of the key contributions I reckon I have made was lobbying the environment movement to take on the issue of Aboriginal community development as a key part in their negotiations and considerations. When I started, there was no consideration given to the role of the Aboriginal people and their country, and how they were backed into a corner to approve an exploration license.
Ilana was working as a volunteer with the Environment Centre of NT and was also working on a book venture about Kakadu. While living in Kakadu in a tent at Gadjaduba Billabong, she formed a close relationship with Big Bill Neidjie, a senior elder of the Kakadu lands.
She was also part of a collaborative effort between the major environment groups on opposing the uranium mining.
I asked Ilana whether she would have called herself a leader in the environment movement . She describes the role she played in the environment movement in the extract below:
In 1988- early 90, Ilana contacted Greens political parties in other parts of Australia, with a view to setting up a Greens party in the NT. She stood for election several times, first as a Green Independent, and was then a founder of the Greens in NT, becoming its Convenor.
In 1988, Ilana decided to act on her long term desire to start a newspaper with some friends in the Trades and Labour Council, was contracted to do a re-enactment of the original Northern Standard paper (pre its purchase by Murdoch) as part of the Bi-centennial.
She then was part of a phone in project – “dobbing in” corruption and cronyism in NT – and wrote up the phone in results in a newspaper called the NT Blues, a caricature of the NT News, which was delivered by Australia Post to every household in the NT. There was lots of controversy as the paper went to production, during which time Ilana worked closely with the unions and even had armed Transport and Workers Union reps guarding the copy before it went to press.
Soon after that, Ilana was offered a position with the ABC doing Territory Extra – a daily news hour. At this time, Ilana also became involved in the East Timor campaign and was very publicly sacked because of a media stunt at her home, next door to the Indonesian Consulate, which highlighted the genocide in East Timor, the death of five Australian media men at Balibo and the brutality of the Indonesian military.
Ilana was involved in campaigning for the liberation of East Timor from 1988-98, as part of an organisation called Australians For a Free East Timor (AFFET). The extract below explains how the organisation worked.
During this time, Ilana was also doing paid work as the NT project manager with the Australian Trust for Conservation Volunteers.
Ilana met and married Sonny Inbaraj, the Editor of The Nation, Thailand’s largest English speaking newspaper and moved to Thailand for a year in 1993-94. The couple then moved back to Darwin, and started a newspaper called The Australasian, which Ilana describes as breaking a number of big human rights and economics stories over its 16 or so issues. In 1996-97, Ilana worked for Dawn House, a domestic violence shelter.
After Timor’s liberation, Ilana went immediately to Timor, where she helped start the Asia Pacific Support Collective, which supported the Timorese in establishing grass roots civil society initiatives and new businesses in the post-liberation period.
Sonny and Ilana divorced during this time in Timor, and Ilana met Carey, who is the father of Ilana’s older child. Carey was working for the US State department, but after a year in Timor together, they moved to Zanzibar in Africa. Carey spent much of his time in Kenya, however, helping his brother seek election into the Kenyan parliament.
Ilana lived, mostly as a single parent, in Zanzibar for 2 years, helping local women to start a development organisation, the first task of which was to clean up Zanzibar. Her child support money from Australia allowed her to live comfortably in Zanaibar, but as a first time mother without access to good communications, she really missed child rearing support and advice, and had to deal with big scares like a local cholera outbreak.
Ilana and Carey eventually separated as Carey moved to the US, and Ilana moved back to Australia in 2005.
On her return, Ilana was keen to help reinvigorate the Greens, and she stood in local, state and federal elections as the lead candidate. She was also involved in training other candidates.
In 2006, Ilana began working at the Larrakia Nation, the peak representative body of the Larrakia peoples in the top end. She had her second child with a new partner in 2007, and after maternity leave, returned to Larrakia and “was landed” into the CEO job.
It’s an enormous challenge . It’s been very very hard to work at Larrakia Nation. When I took over there were 25 cdep- subsidised staff ant the Organisation was close to insolvency. Now there’s 90 staff and we hace 3-year renewable funding for more than half of the programs.
I asked Ilana, in looking at all the different initiatives she’s started, what she saw as the characteristics of her leadership style.
I do have an ability to think ahead and conceptualise the essence of a problem, and the practical solutions. I have a horror of starting things that don’t survive when I leave, which is one of the reasons I was so keen to come back to Darwin to continue work with the Greens.
With the Larrakia Nation, I’ve got a whole lot of pilot projects started which will develop and grow with or without me.
I asked about the biggest challenges of leadership
I think a key thing is alone-ness – not having many people you can discuss, debrief, and problem solve with. I find I’ve developed great resilience, and this is a critical factor to help work out how to do it. Developing resilience seems to be accidental – a chance thing. For me, I think it was access to a man called Ron Hartree who I met in Tamworth – an artist, educator, spiritual man – who really listened and understood so much. I know that wherever I am in the world and whatever time it is, I can ring him up.
But also I’m pretty stubborn and determined, and I’ve developed problem solving skills along the way – perhaps beginning with [my childhood] on the farm – an isolated space where you have to make do. … I don’t come from a structured business or corporate background, and there’s a lot of decisions I’ll make on instinct and political knowledge, and because I’ve been around the NT for more than 20 years.
I’ve also been able to observe and access some great thinkers – including Ron Hartree and Greens like Bob Brown, Christine Milne, and particularly Marg Blakers.
Ilana said in conclusion:
I do think women in leadership positions, particularly those with small children, require more assistance, acknowledgement and mentoring. We work in very difficult circumstances, and there aren’t many places to go to for support – for back up.
Comments welcome below.