30 May 2019
Clint Wheeldon: The Commonwealth of Australia was formed 118 years ago but over all those years, for more than a century, there has never been an Indigenous Australian in Cabinet until now. Yesterday, Ken Wyatt was sworn in as the Minister for Indigenous Australians, which means for the first time, there will be an Indigenous person at the table, making decisions and influencing policy at the very highest level of government.
Peter Cosgrove: Mr Wyatt, I invite you to take and subscribe the Oath of Office as Minister for Indigenous Australians.
Ken Wyatt: I, Peter George Wyatt, do swear that I will well and truly serve the people of Australia in the office of the Minister for Indigenous Australians and that I will be faithful and be a true allegiance to Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, Queen of Australia. So help me God.
[End of excerpt]
Clint Wheeldon: He also happens to be the Member for Hasluck here in WA, which is why he's been able to come into the studio this morning. Mr Ken Wyatt, good morning to you.
Ken Wyatt: Good morning, Clint. It's great to be here with you.
Clint Wheeldon: How busy have you been over the last 12 to 18 hours or so?
Ken Wyatt: Extremely. It started early this morning. I think I've spoken on just about every ABC radio station in the country now.
Clint Wheeldon: You saved your best to last though.
Ken Wyatt: Absolutely. Perth is the best place to live, and my seat of Hasluck, the people there are tremendous.
Clint Wheeldon: The Prime Minister broke with convention and got everyone to stand up when you came forward to take the oath. Your family was there. You were wearing a kangaroo hide given to you by Noongar elders. What was the moment like for you?
Ken Wyatt: I was emotional. I thought I've got to retain control of my voice when I read the oath. I can't let the emotion of pride sort of bubble up and create that emotional feeling. But I noticed the Prime Minister, when he announced my appointment, his voice quavered, and so, I knew that it was important to him as well. But I think the thing that struck me more than anything else is the importance in the historical context for our nation. Given the call I received from him was on Sunday, which was National Sorry Day, and I'd only been having a discussion with my wife Anna a few minutes before the call about what was I going to do for National Sorry Day and then Reconciliation Week. And she set me outside with the washing to hang up and I got the call. I picked the phone out of my pocket and it was The Prime Minister and he just said: I'd like to offer you the portfolio of Minister for Indigenous Australians, and I couldn't talk. It took me a good two minutes. In the meantime, he's saying: I take it by your silence, the answer is yes, and I eventually got out the yes to him. What welled up was every thought of where we had fought as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people on many issues, on many fronts, but we'd never been able to convince the decision makers who sit around the Cabinet table to take into account the detail around many of the issues that face our people across this nation. I knew what it meant and that's why the overwhelming emotions were significant.
Clint Wheeldon: Do you feel with such significance, although a wonderful opportunity, do you feel a weight of expectation on your shoulders knowing-
Ken Wyatt: [Interrupt] Yeah. Absolutely. The expectation- I'll use the PM's term: People are going to expect me to perform miracles. They will have expectations that the challenges and issues that people are facing in the community will be resolved in a way that they want. Now, I will work towards bringing about reforms and change but I want to do it with every colleague around the Cabinet table and every minister within the ministerial team, because when you play as a team, you are much more effective at effecting change on the ground. It was interesting that the Prime Minister used Dom Sheed’s kick in the grand final as the example of us winning government, and I think that we can do the same here for Indigenous Australians in a way that we've not been able to and that's not criticising any of my predecessors. I will spend more time listening and talking with people on the ground than they've been able to, partly because I come from that unique heritage. But I've also retained all the networks of colleagues, friends, associates and I've now had the privilege of walking in the world of corporate Australia in my other roles so I've got a network of people, who have already indicated by Twitter, that they want to walk with me.
Clint Wheeldon: Let's be honest and put the awkward question straight up on the table: being an Indigenous man, will that make you a better person in this role than a white person could be?
Ken Wyatt: No, I think one of the things that- there’s two parts to this. In one sense, no, because if any of us listen and take on board what we are being told and then act on it to achieve an outcome, then any of us can do that. What makes it better with me being Indigenous is the immersion within- I started life in poverty. The struggles and battles of the impact of racism in that era of the 50s and 60s where- racism was covert, but the knockbacks that you get have not deterred me. So, I’m in a far stronger position to understand where our mob are coming from and what they expect.
Now, they're going to be harsher on me than they will have been on Fred Chaney or Nigel Scullion or any of the other ministers, Robert Tickner, because they will expect me to bring to the table my cultural knowledge and understandings and not make the mistakes of the past. So that's where the pressure is. And then non-Indigenous Australians will be watching me very carefully to see how I perform, what I achieve and where I falter because it is one of the most challenging portfolios. I thought Aged Care was tough. But I know that our own portfolio is one that will challenge both my stamina and my capacity to be able to reshape the directions that we need to take in this country.
Clint Wheeldon: We’re speaking to Minister Ken Wyatt, sworn in yesterday as the Minister for Indigenous Australians. I notice that you're not the Minister for Indigenous Affairs. you're the Minister for Indigenous Australians. Does that mean that the role is different in any way?
Ken Wyatt: Well, when you talk about- I noticed this with Veterans yesterday. It wasn't the Minister for Veterans Affairs; it’s now the Minister for Veterans, which takes away that element of a departmental focus. This is now the Minister for Indigenous Australians, which does broaden, in many senses, my responsibility; in expectation as well. And so- but I'm looking forward to the trust that Scott Morrison has placed in me in fulfilling what's required and what he wants for our Government to achieve.
Clint Wheeldon: Can we talk about a couple of specifics? And I've heard you mention this before, but the Uluru Statement from the Heart: they’d called for constitutional recognition for Indigenous Australians, including a voice to Parliament. Will that happen under your watch?
Ken Wyatt: I'm very keen to go back and look at the whole sequence of reports that have now been done on the issue of constitutional recognition. I'm very keen to have constitutional recognition achieved. But I want to achieve it in a way that is inclusive first of Aboriginal and Torres Islander peoples in a consensual agreement to the set of words, Australians and then every state and territory as well, because we know that the benchmark is high for constitutional change and the majority of people; the majority of states. We just need the right words. I'm hearing from people all the time- even on the plane last night when I was coming back, passengers came up and said: I hope you can achieve constitutional recognition but get the words right. We’ll support it if the right words are there. And that's what we have to do. And there are ways that we can look at voices but it has to start at the community level. We have to listen to communities. I think Senator Dodson's concept of regional forums, along with Julie and Lisa, are both avenues that I want to go back and look at because I think that is important.
Governments make the mistake of listening to the same Indigenous leaders all the time on all issues. We also have to consider the quiet Australians who sit out in those communities.
Clint Wheeldon: On the Uluru Statement from the Heart, can a referendum on that happen in this term of government? I mean the next three years.
Ken Wyatt: Clint, anything's possible. We should never shut the door to saying it can't be done this term, because we may end up with a set of words that everybody agrees on before the end of the term. And if that's the case, then we should go to a referendum; if we don't, then we should hold it over. Because if we fail on this one, it has multiple impacts. It’ll impact on the psyche of this country, particularly those who back recognition of Indigenous Australians. The other, is often when you lose a referendum, it takes another 30 to 40 years to resurrect a similar question. I'd rather see us achieve what the ‘67 referendum achieved than to fail.
Clint Wheeldon: So, from where you are, that's- is that a fear that because so many referenda aren't successful, you have to make so sure that this will pass and be successful; getting the question absolutely right?
Ken Wyatt: It's not a fear of failure; it's a fear of not getting the right words. Because I don't want to see Indigenous Australians divided on a set of words. I don't want to see fellow Australians divided and opposing because a set of words they think have a far reach. And the third one that we all have to consider, is the unintended consequences of a set of words that a high court will look at a section of the constitution and then make a decision that was never the intent of the day in which those words were put into place. So I always thought that Eddie Mabo wouldn't win his case, just based on my rudimentary understanding of the Constitution. But the High Court found in Mabo’s favour and that was a great outcome, a native title then evolved from that High Court decision. And most Australians, had you said Eddie Mabo would win, they say he's got Buckley's. Anything is possible.
Clint Wheeldon: It's a quarter to nine. Our special guest on Breakfast here on ABC Radio Perth and WA is Mr Ken Wyatt, the Minister for Indigenous Australians.
Advocates like Gerry Georgatos have been strongly calling for you to be the Minister, not just for Indigenous Australians, but also suicide prevention. They want it to be given a separate title because it's such an important issue, particularly in the Indigenous community. Is that something that you support?
Ken Wyatt: Well I met with Gerry and we had a good conversation around much of the research that he's been doing, some of the underlying issues. And I want to catch up with him again, but I don't think we need a minister with that title. We need a minister who will accept and take that responsibility. Both Greg Hunt, who is the Minister for Health, and I have been working on this issue in the past 12 months. Yesterday, we met briefly and we will continue to do that work. There’s about 82 million, or thereabouts, that we've allocated – I think it's 88, in fact – that we've allocated to Indigenous suicide. But we have to go to the causal issues, the things that turn a young person to a state of futility, a sense of: there is no purpose of living, and start to address those. I'm a great advocate for now having Indigenous youth involved in some of those solutions, because they know what's impacting.
Clint Wheeldon: So I ask, with affecting Indigenous communities, especially in the Kimberley, we've had some inquest findings handed down a few months ago here in WA. What more can the Government do to try and help, to try and stop it?
Ken Wyatt: See the one thing that struck me with the coronial report when I read it was the number of suicides that occurred during the school holiday period, which leads me to make an assumption that teachers play a very critical and vital role. And I think the other thing that came through strongly from the youth in the Kimberley when they presented their report was suicides are not nine to five. What they were asking for- one of them termed a nocturnal worker, somebody who was available after hours that they could ring and sit and talk to, somebody who was trained to listen that had a cultural background. They also talked of the importance of school, they talked about wanting mentors and role models. They also raised something that concerned me, was they wanted to have a strong sense of pride in their culture and to be recognised for their cultural strength and not for it to be painted as a deficit. So there’s work we've got to do around that.
The other is relationship breakups. I don't think as fathers, that we spend time with our sons enough to be able to say: son, it's okay. You've had a great time in that relationship, but sometimes things don't work out. It’s better for it not to have worked out now. Let's talk you through it and work you through it. We leave them to struggle. Our fathers used to say: there's plenty more fish in the sea. It was a common term. But it gave you a sense that that person you loved was a point in time. And relationships are powerful. When they’re broken, it’s very hard to deal with a breakup. So that's another element that comes into play at times, along with the other issues the coroner identified. And I was pleased to say the McGowan Government who've responded saying they will implement all of the recommendations. So I'm very keen to work with Roger Cook and Ben Wyatt in their respective roles to see where the Commonwealth's work will dovetail with that of the State.
Clint Wheeldon: Closing the Gap. What sort of progress do you have in mind as a goal?
Ken Wyatt: Look, I think more recent discussions have been fruitful. The child mortality rate will always be challenging. If we focus just on child mortality rate in the health element, then we can achieve that. But when it's a death from an accident, a drowning, a fall, or even murder, they're outside the scope and control of governments. Although there are mental health issues that often prevail in murders. We were on track a couple of years ago until a mother in Cairns killed her children. What we should have seen, or somebody should’ve seen, was there were mental health problems, underpinned by whatever, and dealt with it. And we wouldn't have had that circumstance arise. So that one in itself will be extremely challenging. But education, we've got a great story there. The outcomes for tertiary pathways for Indigenous people is really something that we can crow about. I did say to the PM: don't focus on the gap. Let's focus on what we've achieved. If we've achieved 62 per cent attendance rate, then let's celebrate that 62 per cent of Aboriginal kids are in school and on a pathway to education. And instead of just stopping there, like a small business if I made a $10,000 profit, next year I'm going to aim for $15,000. So why don't we do that in some of the Closing the Gap targets saying: we've achieved 62 per cent, how about we push everybody to achieve another 5 percent on top of that. And we keep building on each success and then celebrate the gains we make.
Clint Wheeldon: When you look back when you first started, is this the sort of role that you one day hoped to have?
Ken Wyatt: I actually hadn't even thought about it then. I won my seat by, I think it was 948 votes. And I thought: wow. And a colleague of mine said you'll be a one hit wonder; you won't hold your seat. Because Hasluck changed hands and every election. It started Labor; Liberal; Labor. I have been given an incredible privilege by the people of Hasluck who’ve retained me in that seat for four consecutive terms, and I'll continue to serve with them. But my focus was on them. And then when I received the ministerial appointment first as an assistant minister, then I had to work out how to balance the expectations but still deliver. So, no- I never thought I'd sit around Cabinet because I was only going to survive three terms in my mind, given each time the margin was close, because marginal seats are tough. But you've got to win the respect of people.
Clint Wheeldon: Speaking of tough, you're a mad Dockers fan. We’ll see you at the footy? [Laughs]
Ken Wyatt: Ah, look, my wife did something to me. She came home one night and said: I've got membership tickets to the Eagles.
[Indistinct] She said: I'm tired of not going to football, so we now have membership to the Eagles. But my loyalty’s still with the Dockers. I went in saw them play Brisbane …
Clint Wheeldon: Wasn't that a good finish?
Ken Wyatt: Oh, it was a fantastic finish. But only just before that, I'd been told by the PM what my role was. He announced it. And so when I walked into the Dockers Presidents lounge, he was very generous. And Dale Alcock announced that I had just been made the Minister for Indigenous Australians, and they were very proud to have me there, given it was- their focus was on the Indigenous round.
Clint Wheeldon: Well, considering you've had those close finishes in electoral battles, you know what a close finish is like. And this one went the right way as well.
Ken Wyatt: It did, but we’ve got to get them to a grand final and then win. I don’t care if they win by 10 goals or one point; one day we need one of those trophies in our cabinet.
Clint Wheeldon: Do what you can in Parliament for us.
Ken Wyatt: [Laughs] Okay, will do.
Clint Wheeldon: Minister, a pleasure. Thank you very much for coming in.
Ken Wyatt: No, thank you, Clint.
Clint Wheeldon: Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt. It was great to have him in the studio.