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Katherine Mayor Fay Miller, who called out Minister's 'misogynist' quip, confronts cancer

By Conor Byrne, Wednesday September 9, 2020 - 13:00 EST
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Katherine Mayor Fay Miller will resign on November 30 after nearly two decades serving the town she's called home since 1989. - ABC

She accused a Federal Minister of misogyny, watched her livelihood wash away, nearly died in a car accident, was deputy opposition leader of the Northern Territory, and led her town through a groundwater contamination crisis.

However, Katherine Mayor Fay Miller will remove her mayoral chains on November 30 as she faces the biggest battle of her life, the incurable bone marrow cancer myelofibrosis.

"We had to go sit in the car and seriously Google it to find out what it's about," the 73-year-old mother of two and grandmother of two said.

"It's not curable, but it's manageable."

She made in 2018 when she called out Health Minister Greg Hunt as a misogynist.

She was requesting better counselling services after it was revealed the region's water was contaminated with PFAS, and she suggested then-senator Nigel Scullion could be more helpful.

"He relocated his chair, pointing towards me and said, 'you need to f***ing get over it, you need to f***ing make Senator Scullion your best friend'," Ms Miller said of Mr Hunt during their subsequent meeting.

"And then he sat back a little in his chair and said, 'I've heard you're feisty'."

Asked in a later interview how she found Mr Hunt's attitude during the meeting, Ms Miller replied: "That was misogynist."

Six months on from their meeting, Mr Hunt apologised for using "strong language".

'Bolted and plated together in the neck'

One of the most challenging moments of her former life was seeing her caravan park go under water in the .

She rebuilt, and was elected as an alderman in 2001, winning a Legislative Assembly by-election the following year.

But Ms Miller broke her neck in a in 2006.

I'm still bolted and plated together in the neck," she said.

"The only reason I retired from Parliament in 2008 was I was taking far too many drugs and painkillers to keep myself going."

While recovering, Katherine was and her home was affected.

"I couldn't do a damn thing about it."

'They bought off people in Katherine'

After her time in Parliament, her fondest memories were of working in the Katherine Visitor Centre.

"I could sell ice to the Eskimos," she said.

But the good times weren't to last.

Her late husband Mike died of cancer in 2010.

"It took about 12 months to get my head around the fact that he wasn't around anymore," she said.

But public life called again and she smashed the polls in 2012 to become Katherine Mayor — literally a poisoned chalice, as news was about to break that PFAS firefighting chemicals at the town's biggest industry, RAAF Tindal, had contaminated groundwater.

She had to juggle Defence, governments, the people, the council, and lawyers.

"I could have really gone off the rails and been a total bitch, but there was no point — the damage was done," she said.

"My opinion of the lawyers is they wouldn't have done it if there wasn't money in it for them."

Ms Miller was entitled to a piece of the $92.5 million payout given to Katherine after the PFAS class action.

She said it did not bode well for the town.

"I've been drinking town water for the 30 years I've been here," she said.

"In principle, I didn't lodge a claim. They bought off people in Katherine.

"There are people who got $16,000 or $17,000 and were nowhere near the contaminated area.

"And then there are people whose properties will never be worth what they were ever again."

'You never give up'

Ms Miller, originally from Ceduna in South Australia, now faces her biggest challenge.

"I'm a pretty determined kind of person. I was brought up that you never give up," she said.

While she's given up the job she hasn't given up the fight for Katherine.

"The pride for me is being able to serve my community with dignity," she said.

"I've always done the best that I can do and I'll continue to do that: listening to the people and being able to do the best that I could.

"Sometimes I haven't always had a good outcome but it wasn't from lack of trying.

"Wherever you live you need to contribute to make it the best it can be."

She has stern words for her successor.

"You've got to have a lot of passion and be prepared to do a lot of hours outside hours. Early mornings. Late nights," she said.

Finding love again

The silver lining is Ms Miller has found love again.

She married Dennis Cheal in May this year, just after she discovered her cancer.

The couple are moving to Darwin for treatment before Christmas, after their belated honeymoon — a return train ride to Adelaide on the Ghan.

"I never imagined I'd ever leave Katherine," she said.


© ABC 2020

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