Comment | Australia’s first Indigenous minister has a healthy record but will surely face accusations of selling out.
Myles Morgan

21 Sep 2015 - 12:51 PM  UPDATED 21 Sep 2015 - 12:58 PM

Ken Wyatt has become the first Aboriginal person in Australia’s history to be appointed a minister in Federal Parliament.

Turnbull's historic ministry as Ken Wyatt becomes Australia's first Indigenous frontbencher in federal parliament
Ken Wyatt has made history again.

Unfortunately, he couldn’t be at this history making moment of his swearing. He was overseas on parliamentary business.

As the new assistant health minister, he will be Sussan Ley’s second-in-command in the health portfolio. He won't be part of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s Cabinet, but it is a major promotion for a man who is proud of his Nyoongar, Yamatji and Wongi heritage.

It also gives him a central role in a portfolio that deals with hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for Indigenous health organisations. 

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There have been Indigenous politicians in similarly high-profile positions as Ken Wyatt, such as Neville Bonner, Aden Ridgeway, Nova Peris, Jacqui Lambie and Jo Lindgren. But no Indigenous person has been a minister in a ruling political party at the federal level until now.

It is unchartered territory for a man who some will see as a de facto Indigenous Affairs Minister. It is unfamiliar ground for a man who is expected to support Liberal policies yet may be accused of selling out his ancestry or becoming a "coconut" by fellow Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, a very real risk for any Indigenous liberal supporter.

The first Indigenous member of the House of Representatives Ken Wyatt delivers his maiden speech to the House of Representatives in Canberra on Sept. 29, 2010.

But more than 200 years have passed since the colonisation of Australia, so is it a timely appointment or far overdue? Did Mr Turnbull appoint Ken Wyatt as a token gesture to have an Aboriginal face in his new ministry, or was it based on merit?

As symbolic and historic as it is, it appears Mr Turnbull rightly cares more for hard work and track records than ancestry when it comes to political appointments.

"It is unchartered territory for a man who some will see as a de facto Indigenous Affairs Minister

Over the last 40 years, Ken Wyatt has been a school teacher, worked in the Western Australian Education Department and he was charged with directing Aboriginal programs at the Western Australian and New South Wales health departments. In terms of credentials, his are solid and deserving of reward.

A loyal Liberal under Prime Minister Abbott, he was also unafraid to speak his mind. In 2014 he threatened to cross the floor when Mr Abbott proposed to repeal Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, which stipulates that offending, insulting, humiliating and intimidating a person based on their race or ethnicity is illegal.

Mr Wyatt told the ABC's Q and A program in August 2014: "I can say categorically when that comes back into the party room and we debate it, if it hasn’t got the mechanisms for protection, then certainly I will be challenging that lack of commitment.

"I said a lot of you in here will never experience racial vilification. It is only a handful in this room that will experience that. Let me tell you, the pain of that stays with people." 

"Did Mr Turnbull appoint Ken Wyatt as a token gesture to have an Aboriginal face in his new ministry, or was it based on merit?"

In chairing the parliamentary committee on Constitutional recognition of Indigenous people, he has been passionate and opinionated.

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"This is not about singling out Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people or affording them extra rights above all other Australians", Mr Wyatt told parliament in June.

"This is about correcting the contextual silence that is so currently deafening in the constitution."

He also called for the recognition referendum to be held sooner than Mr Abbott wanted.

As assistant health minister, Ken Wyatt's agenda has far greater scope. Putting aside the advocacy expected of him as a First Nations man, he will have to deal with the very real health issues facing Indigenous people: lower life expectancies, greater rates of obesity, high rates of diabetes and dialysis, poor eye health, higher suicide rates and always fluctuating budgets.

"As assistant health minister, Ken Wyatt's agenda has far greater scope"

There will be no precedents and no advice to rely on. But, maybe Ken Wyatt can find guidance in what he told Parliament during his maiden speech in 2010:

I hope that all governments continue to embrace new solutions to enduring problems where old approaches have failed, where enduring approaches need to change and where the future we all influence is based on mutual respect, mutual resolve and mutual responsibility.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and the agencies of government need to jettison the old mindsets that embody Indigenous Australians as passive recipients of government programs and services, and to instead truly regard people as equals and allow them to be equal partners in developing their solutions.

Ken Wyatt's rise to assistant health minister

  • 1952: Born in Bunbury, Western Australia.
  • 1973-86: Held position as a primary school teacher.
  • 1996-2002: Held several positions in Western Australia Education and Health Departments, and the New South Wales Health Department.
  • 2010: Elected to parliament as the Liberal member for Hasluck.