At long last, an Indigenous politician is leading Australia’s Indigenous Affairs portfolio. But Coalition cabinet member Ken Wyatt now faces a monumental task in progressing the Uluru Statement from the Heart, closing the gap, and undoing centuries of government failures.
Two years after being delivered by the First Nations National Constitutional Convention, the Uluru Statement from the Heart has seen support flourish in practically all sectors bar one: the Coalition leadership. The call for a constitutional Voice to Parliament and Makarrata Commission, for truth-telling and treaty supervision, was embraced by a majority of the 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander convention delegates; both Labor and the Greens; key conservative voices; and, according to a UNSW survey, most members of the Australian public.
Popular support for a referendum has only ramped up from the legal, financial and medical communities, extending to a bipartisan parliamentary committee last November and culminating in today’s front-page campaign launch from The Sydney Morning Herald.
Now, as in 2017, the key barrier remains the government; Malcolm Turnbull previously rejected a First Nations Voice as being “a third chamber of parliament”. As Turnbull knew, the advisory body would be designed by government and only empower Indigenous Australians to comment on legislation directly affecting their communities. However Scott Morrison echoed the excuse after taking over last year.
The Coalition did flag $7.3 million during the election for yet another inquiry and $160 million for a referendum on the issue, but comments from Morrison and population minister Alan Tudge in the last week have been non-committal. Indigenous Australian leaders have been split on where the movement should go under the Coalition: Labor MP Pat Dodson was convinced progress died at the election but lawyer and activist Noel Pearson was confident that, with bipartisanship vital, a referendum proposal could now be ready within three years.
Key to whatever happens next will be Ken Wyatt, who became the first Indigenous Australian frontbencher as assistant health minister in 2015. After being sworn in today he is both Australia’s first Indigenous Affairs Minister and first Indigenous cabinet minister.
The son of a Yamatji man and Wongi and Noongar woman, Wyatt worked as director of Aboriginal education at the WA Department of Education and first entered parliament after winning the marginal seat of Hasluck in 2010.
He since made a name for himself as minister for Indigenous health. His nomination has been welcomed by Indigenous leaders from across the political spectrum — not least of all because he will be following former minister Nigel Scullion, who redistributed funding to fishing groups fighting Indigenous land use agreements. While he will no doubt be beholden to the party line, Wyatt supported the Uluru Statement since its delivery in 2017 and, since holding his seat in the election, has maintained that a version of the Voice to Parliament could survive the Coalition.
But he faces an uphill battle with the rest of cabinet. Morrison’s emphasis today has been on taking “as long as needed” to create constitutional recognition. There are, sadly, many related but separate areas Wyatt will tackle in the meantime, notably the bipartisan and decades-long failure to enact real progress on closing the gap where the ten-year life expectancy gap has widened.
Just two indicators — early childhood education and year 12 or equivalent attainment — were on track since the latest report was handed down in February. And while Morrison has pledged further engagement, his move to “refresh” the targets has not inspired faith in any funding or reforms.
There’s also the devastating spike in Indigenous youth suicides, which the government has set aside a relatively meagre $19.6 million towards, as well as more proactively damaging Coalition policies like expanding the cashless debit card trials, maintaining the regional work-for-the-dole community development program, and dissolving and merging legal services in the Indigenous Legal Assistance Program.
At the state level, NSW has just expanded widely-condemned child removal powers, the NT has granted new powers to youth detention guards, WA has Indigenous citizens in jail for parking fines, and Victoria and Queensland are yet to implement outstanding recommendations from the royal commission into deaths in custody of ending the criminalisation of public drunkness.
Wyatt, no matter how strong his experience and passion, has his work cut out for him. It is now up to the Coalition party room to listen, and act, on what he brings to the table.