• Noongar man Ken Wyatt is sworn in as the as Minister for Indigenous Australians by Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove. (AAP)Source: AAP
The appointment of Ken Wyatt as the Minister for Indigenous Australians not only made history but gives hope for Indigenous Australians and the policies surrounding our wellbeing.
By
Rangi Hirini

Source:
The Point
29 May 2019 - 5:18 PM  UPDATED 29 May 2019 - 5:18 PM

With his booka wrapped around him and a book in hand, Ken Wyatt addressed the Governor-General in front of his peers and the Australian nation.

"I Kenneth George Wyatt, do swear that I will well and truly serve the people of Australia in the Office of Indigenous Australians," he vowed. 

It was a historic moment for Australia and for Indigenous Australians.

Never before has Australia had an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person in the role of Minister for Indigenous Affairs. Many Indigenous political commentators say the announcement of Ken Wyatt as minister for the portfolio will result in more meaningful action on issues that affect us. 

In a tweet, Wyatt thanked the Prime Minister for the honour. 

"I am committed to honouring our people, our cultures, our shared heritage and all Australians," he said. 

Last year, Wyatt said the portfolio has been "challenging" for every minister.

“What I really want to see is somebody who is passionate about making the changes and closing the gap because if we don’t we’re going to be talking about this stuff in 30, 40 years time,” he told a local Perth radio station.

Fast forward to last week and Wyatt was now the one who was publicly vying for the job.

“If he [Morrison] offers it to me I would do it with great pride and with a view to building the relationships from the community level upwards,” Mr Wyatt said on May 19.

“It does make sense (to have an Indigenous MP in that portfolio) to some extent, yes.”

Humble Beginnings 

It’s been a tough journey for Ken Wyatt. Born before the 1967 referendum, his mother Mona Abdullah was taken to the Roeland Native Farm, an Aboriginal mission about 170 kilometres south of Perth, as was his cousin Cedric Wyatt (father to WA Minister Ben Wyatt).

Mr Wyatt has previously told Living Black the removal of his mother from her family was very difficult.

“Her parents certainly didn't want them in the missions, but they did come and see them at events, and used to talk to them, so from their perspective they didn't grow up as kids together and it wasn't until later that they met up and came together as a total family," he said. 

Mr Wyatt’s mother met his father during her teens, when she was sent to work as a domestic servant on a property near Nannine.  On August 4th 1952, the couple welcomed their first son, Ken, and took him back to Nannine, where he spent his first seven years. As a result, mr Wyatt has Noongar, Wongi, and Yamatji ties, along with English, Irish and Indian ancestry.

Years later the family moved to the town of Corrigin in the Wheatbelt, 229km southeast of Perth. Wyatt’s family was at the centre of a petition attempting to evict the family who was the first Aboriginal family to have moved into the town.

 

Mr Wyatt described his only education as the "School of the Air".

His first teacher, Lynne Abernathy, who gave him half an hour’s one-on-one coaching every day before school, was a start in the "life of the mind" that Mr Wyatt said he never forgot.

“My thirst for knowledge began with her — when I had whooping cough for three months, she’d bring books and spelling lists to my house to read,” he previously told The Australian.

In 2010, during Mr Wyatt’s maiden speech, he talked about the importance of education and the impact it can make to children’s lives.

“Education is the great engine of personal development. It is through education that the daughter of a peasant can become a doctor, that the son of a mine worker can become the head of the mine, that a child of a farm worker can become the president of a great nation,” he said.

Political Ambitions

Before entering politics, Mr Wyatt worked in the fields of health and education including being the Director of Aboriginal Health in New South Wales and Western Australia and Director of Aboriginal Education with the WA Department of Education.

He has also been awarded the Order of Australia in the Queen's Birthday Honours list and a Centenary of Federation Medal for his services to Aboriginal health and education. But it’s been over the course of the past nine years that Wyatt has made political history. 

In 2010, he became Australia’s first Aboriginal person elected to the House of Representatives after he won the seat of Hasluck from the ALP.

During his maiden speech, Wyatt wore a traditional booka, or kangaroo skin cloak, presented to him by Perth’s Noongar elders and decorated with cockatoo feathers that signified his status in Noongar culture.

“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,” he said.

“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.”

During his speech, Wyatt also took the time to deliver the Indigenous response to Kevin Rudd’s 2008 apology, as the standing orders prevented a response at the time.

“On behalf of my mother, her siblings and all Indigenous Australians, I, as an Aboriginal voice in this chamber, say thank you for the apology delivered in the federal parliament and I thank the Hon. Kevin Rudd for honouring his commitment to the Stolen Generation."

In 2015, Mr Wyatt made history again after he became the inaugural First Nations member of the Federal Executive after being sworn in as Assistant Minister for Health. And in 2017, he became the first Indigenous person to be promoted to the ministry when he became the inaugural Aboriginal Health Minister.

At the time, he told NITV News that he doesn’t think too much about historic firsts in his role.  

"I made a comment to a friend: I don't see myself as an historic figure and they said 'but you're going to have to accept the reality of that in years to come after you've gone, people will talk about the fact that you're the first Indigenous person elected to the House of Reps, the first Indigenous member because it took 200 plus years to do it'," he said.  

In that same year, the ninth annual Closing the Gap report was delivered and only one of the seven targets was on track. Wyatt called the results a ‘failure’. Months later in December, the Federal Government asked for input from Indigenous Australia as they headed into the second decade of the program.

Wyatt’s stance on Indigenous issues

Ken Wyatt’s stance on issues like Closing the Gap, Voice to Parliament, youth suicide, and Changing the Date weren’t key targets for him during the May election campaign, but that hasn’t stopped him from previously voicing his opinion on some of these issues. 

Speaking to The Point, three days before the Election Day, Mr Wyatt said that the Morrison Government was committed to forming some kind of Voice to Parliament after allocating $7.3 million in the 2019-20 budget for a "co-design of options" though it’s unclear what exactly that would involve. 

“[Morrison] is committed to having a way in which Aboriginal voices will be listened to and taken forward into the thinking of government," he said. 

Mr Wyatt said that the Uluru Statement “reflects the frustration” of communities not being able to raise their concerns during the process of informing the government of policies that was important to First Nation’s people.

The former Aged Care Minister has also thrown his support behind constitutional recognition and said he would like to see it go through first, before Treaty. 

“This is not about singling out Aboriginal or Torres Strait Island people or affording them extra rights above all other Australians. This is about correcting the contextual silence that is currently so deafening in the constitution,” has said previously

This year’s indigenous youth suicide crisis has also sparked a swift reaction from Mr Wyatt who held an ‘emergency meeting’ in January after five suicides in the first nine days of the year. An immediate flow of $3 million was given to Western Australia, with half of the funding going awards youth ambassadors for the Pilbara and Kimberley. 

The Coalition had also committed $42 million on mental health initiatives for ATSI youth, on top of $5 million allocated in the budget for Indigenous youth suicide prevention.

As for Australia Day, Mr Wyatt doesn’t think we should change the date, yet, but says the date should change when Australia becomes a republic.

“Anger is deep but there is no sense of dwelling on that anger but to look at ways of moving forward,” he told ABC Perth. 

Mr Wyatt supported Scott Morrison’s proposal for an Indigenous Day and suggested a day during NAIDOC Week.

Following the deficits of the 2017 Closing the Gap report, this year a new partnership agreement was announced as the Government refreshed the Closing the Gap strategy.

Under a ten-year agreement, Indigenous peak bodies will share ownership and accountability to deliver real, substantive change for Indigenous Australians. 

In April, Mr Wyatt announced $51 million for a renewed commitment to Closing the Gap.

Looking Ahead

The day of the Prime Minister’s announcement, mr Wyatt tweeted his delight and said he was “incredibly honoured” to be the first Aboriginal person to hold the Indigenous Affairs portfolio. 

“[I’m] committed to working & walking together with our Elders, families & communities to ensure the greatness of our many nations is reflected in the greatness of our Australian nation,” he wrote.

It has not been confirmed if Mr Wyatt’s portfolio of Aboriginal Health will merge into his Indigenous Affairs portfolio or if it will remain separate. It also hasn’t been confirmed if Tony Abbott’s former role of special envoy will continue. 

Earlier in the week, the Prime Minister said he was committed to "getting an outcome" on constitutional recognition but didn't give a timeframe for the process. 

“My priorities for Indigenous Australians are to ensure Indigenous kids are in school and getting an education, that young Indigenous Australians are not taking their own lives and that there are real jobs for Indigenous Australians so they can plan for their future with confidence like any other Australian,” he said.

“Recognition must be achieved alongside these practical goals and we will continue to work together.”

The 46th Parliament of Australia is expected to convene in the first week of July.

- For more, tune in to NITV's The Point, 8.30pm tonight on Ch34

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