Australia

Ken Wyatt lays out his strategy to bring an Indigenous voice to Australia's parliament

0:00

In a NAIDOC Week interview with SBS News, the first Indigenous person appointed Minister for Indigenous Australians says the Coalition is committed to exploring steps towards a referendum.

Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt says he is committed to bringing about an Indigenous voice to parliament, but urged caution and patience around the issue.

In an interview with SBS News, Mr Wyatt laid out his strategy around an Indigenous voice, saying the majority of Australians need to be brought onside before it becomes a reality.

"I need to be pragmatic," said Mr Wyatt, the first Indigenous Australian to hold his ministerial position.

'Voice, treaty, truth' is the theme of this year's NAIDOC Week, marked 7-14 July.

Ken Wyatt talks to SBS News.
Ken Wyatt talks to SBS News.
SBS News

The landmark 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart called for the establishment of a "First Nations Voice" in the Australian Constitution, a process that would require a referendum.

But to the ire of many Indigenous groups, the Coalition has dragged its feet on the Indigenous voice, with former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, and then Scott Morrison, saying it could create a "third chamber" of parliament.

"I think there were some concerns about some elements of the language [in the Uluru statement] like 'sovereignty' ... and not having what the voice was defined as," Mr Wyatt said.

But the minister said the Coalition was committed to exploring what a voice could look like.

"Our government is committed, we've set aside a budget ... I've already started the process of meeting some of our key leaders seeking their views about what they believe is achievable."

Ken Wyatt sits down with SBS News.
Ken Wyatt sits down with SBS News.
SBS News

Asked directly by SBS News if he supports the voice, Mr Wyatt said: "I support the intent of what I believe is being described ... People are frustrated, they're not being listened to and I support the way in which they've described needing something to allow voices to permeate to the top".

What would the voice look like?

Mr Wyatt said one of the most important things moving forward is not just thinking of the voice "as a structure that either sits in parliament or gives advice to parliament".

"The voice in many senses is multilayered. It is a family who wants to be heard on an issue, it is a community," he said.

"The voice, I think, has to be thought of as being a continuum from the individual and family through to getting yourself heard by the Australian parliament - that can be done in many ways."

Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt during his swearing in at Government House.
Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt during his swearing in at Government House.
AAP

And he urged Australians to not "fear a voice".

"We work with states, we work with local governments. They are voices within the local government structure."

But, he said many Australians need to be brought onside.

"What it has to be is something that is meaningful - that grabs the minds of every Australian and they will accept it ... We're getting there slowly."

What it has to be is something that is meaningful - that grabs the minds of every Australian and they will accept it.

- Ken Wyatt

"If we go to a referendum and we don't have the support of our people, and we don't have the support of the majority of Australians nor the majority of the states, we lose it ... Symbolically that would be seen as a massive defeat."

Labor went to the last election promising if elected, it would fast track a referendum to constitutionally enshrine the voice to parliament.

While the Coalition has been far less forthright, Mr Wyatt said the government was up to the task.

"Every referendum that has gone through has only ever been won by a Coalition government. A Labor government has never won a referendum," he said.

Bipartisan support

Shadow Indigenous Australians Minister Linda Burney said the new opposition was ready to work with the government.

"Bipartisanship does not mean a race to the bottom, it means we aspire to the highest possible point," she said.

But, she added, "it's up to the prime minister and Ken Wyatt to convince members of their team that this is a very worthwhile thing to pursue".

Linda Burney at Parliament House.
Linda Burney at Parliament House.
AAP

While both major parties have pledged to work together, it comes after decades of previous promises. Community advocates are now hoping for meaningful change.

National Congress of Australia's First Peoples co-chair Dr Jackie Huggins said both parties need to move forward together.

"We need to get this right because if a referendum falls over, what would that say to our people?" she said.

"We will never be at peace with ourselves if we can't work out the relationship that we have between us all."

0:00
Watch: Indigenous recognition in focus for NAIDOC week 2019.
Watch: Indigenous recognition in focus for NAIDOC week 2019.

NAIDOC Week is marked 7-14 July and celebrates the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. For more stories on NAIDOC celebrations around the country go to sbs.com.au/nitv/naidoc

Stay up to date with SBS NEWS

  • App
  • Subscribe
  • Follow
  • Listen
  • Watch