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Ord-inary voters with views
Locals enjoying Lake Kununurra. Picture: Michael Wilson/The West Australian

For most of their history, the towns of the Kimberley - WA's northern-most electorate - have skewed towards Labor. The story in Kununurra is a bit different.

Built to service the Ord irrigation scheme half a century ago, Kununurra attracts the dreamers and the entrepreneurs, their imaginations captured like the waters of the Ord River across the boundless inland sea of Lake Argyle.

Unlike Labor-leaning Broome, Derby, Halls Creek and other Kimberley outposts, Kununurra voted Liberal in 2008.

As the tourist town of Broome tears itself apart along conservation-industrialisation lines, in the East Kimberley it seems there is room enough for everybody.

Broome has its beaches but the scenery around Kununurra takes the breath away. Like the waters of the Ord itself, the flow of Royalties for Regions dollars has allowed WA Nationals leader Brendon Grylls, the scheme's most fervent promoter, to nourish a conservative revival.

"I don't follow politics closely because I'm busy running the business," says Jill Williams, who with her partner Andy McWaters has established a flourishing drilling business in Kununurra.

"The new casino and the developments in Perth don'taffect me.

"But I'm quite passionate about Kununurra. It's such an exciting place with so much potential."

Transplants from South Australia via Broome three years ago, the couple believe that the Government's investment in the Ord is a leap of faith worth taking.

They've built a business and a home in what must be Australia's most scenic industrial estate, their sheds overlooked by an ancient red scarp and surrounded by banana, mango and citrus trees.

With a line that would bring a tear to Premier Colin Barnett's eye, Ms Williams said: "You've got to look at a bigger picture. If you want to open up and pioneer new country, a new frontier, then you can't be worried or focused on trying to recoup that investment.

"Why did we move up here? I think the next global resources boom will be food.

"The Chinese aren't silly. This should be a food bowl."

It's not all about the Ord, however.

Conversations with a swag of locals reveal nagging unease about high rents - inflated by the preponderance of subsidised government workers - while the No.1 problem they nominate is crime.

Indigenous disadvantage breeds vandalism and theft.

The sight of roller-shuttered stores on the main street does not project the tourist-friendly image the town is at pains to present.

Kununurra is a long way from Perth and Canberra but the bureaucracies are a long way removed from the problems on the ground - an issue that's compounded by the turnover of teachers or public servants who do their two years "up north", then leave.

The promise of jobs and opportunity for the Miriuwung Gajerrong people that were to flow from the resolution of native title remains a work in progress.

Kimberleyland Caravan Park manager Lee Irvin says the Royalties for Regions scheme has been "brilliant" for the town but she laments the cost of fuel.

"I would love to see the government offer a tax incentive for people to travel and take their holidays in the regional parts of the country," she said.

It's uncertain whether the Liberal-Nationals largesse will translate to electoral success because the goodwill generated in the East Kimberley could just as easily be neutralised by the anti-gas hub feeling in the West Kimberley.

The field is wide open, too, with Labor's Carol Martin retiring.

Her ALP successor is Josie Farrer, an Aboriginal community leader from Halls Creek. The Liberal candidate is Broome business- woman and councillor Jenny Bloom and the Nationals hopeful is former Wyndham-East Kimberley shire president Michell Pucci. The preferences of whoever finishes third could decide the contest.

Then there's the wildcard of the Greens' Chris Maher, his vote galvanised and energised by anti-Barnett sentiment.

It's a race to watch and one in which anything could happen.