• Ken Wyatt is sworn in as the Assistant Health Minister, serving under Minister for Health, Sussan Ley (AAP)Source: AAP
Engaging with Aboriginal communities, constitutional recognition and dealing with racism: Ken Wyatt sworn in as Assistant Health Minister.
By
NITV News, Myles Morgan

30 Sep 2015 - 4:27 PM  UPDATED 1 Oct 2015 - 10:19 AM

The Governor-General, Sir Peter Cosgrove, has sworn Ken Wyatt in as Assistant Health Minister at a historic ceremony in Canberra.

Mr Wyatt becomes the first Indigenous person to be appointed a minister in a Federal Government and will join the Turnbull Government’s frontbench.

The Liberal member for the Perth electorate of Hasluck identifies with the Nyoongar, Yamatji and Wongi peoples.

Don’t just read about the gaps

In an interview with NITV News in the hours before he was sworn into the ministry, Mr Wyatt urged every politician in the Federal Parliament to meet and spend time the Indigenous people of their electorate.

“Every single member should get out into their electorate, meet with Aboriginal communities and organisations and get to understand the gaps in their own electorates,” Mr Wyatt said.

There is no substitute for experiencing the disadvantage many First Nations people face and the gaps in life expectancy, health, employment and education outcomes, according to Mr Wyatt.

“When you read a report, a report tells you there’s a gap but when you see it for yourself, firsthand, it is very real and tangible, and you can taste it and smell it.”

Mr Wyatt will bring his wealth of public service experience to his new role.

He’ll serve under Health Minister Sussan Ley and work alongside Rural Health Minister Fiona Nash.

“When you read a report, a report tells you there’s a gap but when you see it for yourself, firsthand, it is very real and tangible, and you can taste it and smell it.”

The new frontbencher will take on responsibility for aged care, while Rural Health Minister Fiona Nash will oversee indigenous health, drug and alcohol policy and organ donation.

Mr Wyatt said he isn’t sure what policy priorities he’ll be given, but he has some of his own.

“Service provision is one of the key things that will be at the foremost of my thinking,” he said.

With Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations (ACCHOs) considered the frontline in tackling Indigenous health disparity, Mr Wyatt will also focus on engaging with other community organisations.

“I think governments rely on Aboriginal organisations to be the panacea for closing the gap and it’s not; it’s just one element,” he said.

Local, state and federal governments will need to work with communities to turn the corner on health issues, according to the Assistant Health Minister.

“If they’re going to make a difference in any area where there’s a target, we need to work in partnership with Aboriginal communities- not just with the organisations but at the community level because the change will come from within a community.

“I’ve found when you sat with them and walked through the issues, they had practical solutions and committed to them. I would like to see more of that done across the nation.”

No change in the Recognition Debate

As the chair of the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition, Mr Wyatt has been one of the leaders in forming government policy to changing the Australian Constitution to acknowledge Indigenous people.

It was one of the centrepieces of the Abbott Government but the debate was filled with competing ideas on models and methods of progress towards a recognition referendum.

Former PM Tony Abbott had preferred a referendum in May 2017 on the fiftieth anniversary of the 1967 referendum.

Despite a new Prime Minister, progress is still on track according to Mr Wyatt.

“I don’t think there’ll be a major issue in that either being slowed or the commitment not being there,” he said of Prime Minister Turnbull.

“I think 2017 is still an appropriate time because it allows for the conversations to occur, it allows for the awareness to occur and I think that’s an important process.”

Wyatt ‘didn’t like’ the Healthy Welfare Card initially

As the leadership turmoil engulfed Canberra earlier this month, the government still passed legislation to trial the Healthy Welfare Card in Ceduna, South Australia and probably the East Kimberley region of Western Australia. The card will also likely be trialled in one other community.

The card will quarantine about 80 per cent of a person’s welfare payments on a debit card to be spent only on household and life essentials.

“I think 2017 is still an appropriate time because it allows for the conversations to occur, it allows for the awareness to occur and I think that’s an important process.”

The government says it will combat harmful spending on alcohol, drugs and pornography.

“Initially, I didn’t like the concept but I’ve also talked to communities who are going to trial it and want to trial it because they believe it is one way they can break the cycle of hunger, of going without and helping them for the future,” he said.

“I’ve been to communities where I’ve seen a card game and I’ve looked at the amount of money on the rug. Somebody stands to win all of that. I would rather see a process where our kids are fed, where families have the things they need.”

But he said the card should only be a temporary measure.

“I don’t want to see them on the debit card for the rest of their lives. It becomes problematic. We’ve got to transition them to being capable of managing their own finances.”

A Fremantle Dockers football sits on the window ledge next to the entrance of Mr Wyatt’s office.

On his desk, a Holy Bible and many folios and documents which will keep him busy as he comes to speed with his new portfolio.

Behind his desk, an Australian flag, an Aboriginal flag and the Western Australian flag. Aboriginal art, family photos, several toy construction trucks and a book on the Indigenous men who’ve served in the Defence Force also sit throughout his office.

Mr Wyatt said he is proud of many things in his life.

“I’m immensely proud of [my Aboriginality] but, equally, I’m proud to be an Australian who has had an incredibly journey into the positions I’ve held. I have the capacity to focus on the greater good of all as well as meeting the needs and expectations of our own people,” he said.

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Having already faced racism throughout his life and political career, Mr Wyatt said he has no doubt he’ll face it again.

“I listen to what is said [regarding his heritage], I feel a sense of sorriness for the person who is making the comment but I move on. I just let that stuff go over the top. If you’re doing your job and doing it well, you’re peers will judge you on that.”