Transcript - Radio National - Interview with Hamish Macdonald

30 May 2019

Hamish Macdonald: He's a man facing a monumental challenge in a history making position. Wrapped in a kangaroo skin cloak, decorated with the feathers of a red tailed black cockatoo, Noongar man, Ken Wyatt was yesterday sworn in as Australia's first Indigenous member of Cabinet and indeed the first Aboriginal Minister for Indigenous Australians. As he carries the hopes and aspirations of Indigenous Australians, he has plenty to do - working out how to achieve constitutional recognition, finalising new Closing the Gap policy targets and tackling alarmingly high rates of Indigenous suicide. Ken Wyatt joins me now from our Perth studios. A very good morning to you, Ken.


Ken Wyatt:        Good morning Hamish.


Hamish Macdonald: Congratulations. This must be quite a milestone for you personally, I imagine.


Ken Wyatt:        It is and it's a milestone for Indigenous Australians. It's taken us 119 years to have our first Indigenous Australian as a Minister within Cabinet and the strength of that is you're sitting at the table with colleagues who determine policies and directions for our country for all Australians and it's a very privileged position to be in.

Hamish Macdonald: Your mum was a member of the Stolen Generations; what do you think she would have made of all of this?

Ken Wyatt:        She would've been immensely proud, but I know she would have shed a lot of tears because- and I think about where we came from, out of a life of poverty. My father was a railway ganger, low salary, because even when I finished- as I started teaching, my salary was much higher than his finishing salary at the end of his life in being a railway ganger. And it hit me that they had provided for us on a meagre income, but we made the most of it by growing our own vegetables, trapping rabbits then as I used to, and just being the ordinary kid in the block who would never have thought that he would have been sitting at a cabinet table.

Hamish Macdonald: Did you ever have, or did your parents ever have this kind of ambition for you at an early age?

Ken Wyatt:        Not at the level because it was not possible, not in the context of what Australia was like in the 60s. Aboriginal kids- I had a teacher of mine who just said - you would be better off getting a job now on farms because at least you'll have an income. And that inspired me to prove him wrong. But look, there is- there's just been a journey of commitment, hard work, hard slog and being determined to reach milestone points in my life.

Hamish Macdonald: We've heard, even on this program this week, a great deal of optimism from Indigenous leaders about your appointment. Does having an Indigenous person serve as Minister for Indigenous Australians in your view make a substantive difference to what you can do in that role?

Ken Wyatt:        I think Indigenous health- I was readily available to listen to the leadership, to hear their views and to consider them in the context of what we were planning. So it was a powerful relationship because our networks based on our working careers are quite strong, we retain many of them and we don't allow friendships to dissipate. So that, having somebody you trust that you can talk to quite bluntly and not be rebuked, makes a difference. And there’ll be a high level of engagement and connectivity with leadership. But more importantly, I'm about sitting down with the community and also having a discussion with the community about what works and what doesn't work because I also need to hear from that level - policy won't be made out of my office. It'll be made in conjunction with Indigenous Australians.

Hamish Macdonald: But that optimism, obviously is coupled with a great deal of expectation. Do you think those relationships that you are describing, that frankness will actually result in better policy because that after all is the purpose of this?


Ken Wyatt:        It is and look, all of us, when we develop an idea or a concept, it doesn't matter what role we're in, we tend to engage others in our thinking to sound them out to see what their thoughts are because in that dialogue you end up reaching a point that you develop a programme of work that is shared, jointly owned and makes it easier to implement, and that's the way in which I prefer to work. And as I indicated, in Indigenous health I had five roadmaps on key issue: renal disease, rheumatic heart disease, avoidable blindness, deafness and workforce, that I took to the Australian Health Ministers and had them agree to continuing to focus on those roadmaps and find better solutions and outcomes for Indigenous Australians, having experiences of those health related issues.


Hamish Macdonald: You said at the start of this conversation that there is a power that comes with having a seat at the table in Cabinet. We know that in this Cabinet there are many different people with many different views on things like reconciliation, on things like the Stolen Generations. Your colleague Peter Dutton famously took a very particular position on the apology. Have you ever sat down and talked to him about that? Understood where he was coming from, tried to change his mind even perhaps?

Ken Wyatt:        No, actually I've had many a conversations with Peter Dutton and I get on well with Peter and it's by sitting down, having the conversations that you start to allow people to develop an understanding of what it is that the whole reconciliation, Stolen Generation issue was and how it impacted on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. And when I first went into Parliament, I had a number of colleagues who would ring me and say - can we have a coffee down at Aussies (*)? And you'd sit down with them and they'd say – look, I know I'm going to be politically, probably incorrect, but can I just seek clarification or can I seek your counsel? And I did that several times in my first term and so that enabled me to build up relationships not only with backbench colleagues, but also with relevant ministers in portfolios. So we've been able to progress activity in a way that is far better than trying to do it from the outside.

Hamish Macdonald: Do you think you are changing minds? Is that what you're saying?


Ken Wyatt:        Well the Coalition, I have seen an incredible change. My opposition to the removal of Section 18C, whilst it causes angst, I gave logical and sound reasoning and Tony Abbott pulled that whole concept of amending 18C because he saw me answer a question to a young Aboriginal male who was in a high school in the Northern Territory at Garma when I was on Q&A. And the next morning Tony and I had a brief discussion and then he said he would be withdrawing the amendment.

Hamish Macdonald: Let's talk about some of the specific issues at hand. You've said a cautious approach is needed to constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians. What is your view about the way forward? Should there be a timeline? What needs to happen?

Ken Wyatt:        Well what worries me with a timeline, if we make it to short, is we will have what happened with the republic referendum where people thought that they had convinced all Australians about the way forward. And what we saw there was the defeat of that referendum and it's never ever come back to the table and that was some 20 years ago. Now in order to take forward a question that the Australian people will support, has to be well thought out. And have both the consensual agreement of Australians and Indigenous Australians. If we go in with something that we think is the right set of wording and we lose it, then it probably is relegated back to the past for another 30, 40 years.

Hamish Macdonald: So how do we get to that point then? What takes that process forward from where we're at now because, you know, the recommendations have been made?


Ken Wyatt:        Well it's a series of recommendations because there’s four reports on the same matter. And all of them have credence, including the whole, driven emphasis around the Statement of the Heart from Uluru. The intent of all of those was to come forward with a solution. But we also have to be pragmatic in a legal construct of thinking about the wording that you put in because High Court judges in the future will rule on that set of wording. It may bring about unintended consequences that are detrimental to Aboriginal people as well. And we've seen legal decisions in the past to alter the course and destiny of this nation - the Mabo decision - I never thought we'd get up, but when the High Court handed down that decision it was a momentous drawing of a line in the sand that had an impact right across the whole Indigenous nation. And individuals saying - there goes the whole backyard safety and it was never intended that way. So that’s why I want to start the conversations on constitutional recognition with our key leadership, but also with all the key stakeholders and I will be going back to the report that was done by Senator Dodson and Julian Leeser.


Hamish Macdonald: Just so our listeners can be clear about this, given that you say you're reluctant to entertain the idea of a time line, do you think it is unrealistic to say that this is something that might be dealt with in this term of government?

Ken Wyatt:        Well anything is possible. It's surprising how sometimes on an issue, when you think it is intractable, elements start to be defined clearly and you can sometimes move forward fairly rapidly on a particular matter. The ‘67 referendum, the lead up to that was substantial. I went back and read the history of all the work that had been done with Menzies and Holt and that took some substantial time. But the whole tenet of that was around finding a set of words that Australians would agree to and which elements of the Constitution you would strike at as being the most successful constitutional question ever put.


Hamish Macdonald: It is 12 minutes to eight, I'm talking to Ken Wyatt, Australia's new Minister for Indigenous Australians. Crucial to the- well restatement, Ken Wyatt, was the proposal for a voice to Parliament. We know what Malcolm Turnbull thought of it - he was very clear about that. Is it your view that it would be a third chamber of parliament?

Ken Wyatt:        Look, it’d depend on what form that voice took. I don't think it's as defined as people assume. There is much more work to be done on it. What I do know is that we used to have a number of national bodies that had Indigenous and- Indigenous Australians on those bodies providing advice to relevant ministers and their departments in particular portfolios. Now we abolished a lot of those and we abolished ATSIC. Now in hindsight, I would have preferred to have seen a different model for ATSIC, but it had the desired outcome of local communities providing input into government policies that did impact and there were programs and services that were amended to better meet the needs of Aboriginal people, and that's what people are asking for.

Hamish Macdonald: So Pat Dodson has raised this idea, among others, of regional bodies as a way of giving Indigenous Australians a voice. Is that a model that might work in the context you were describing there? Some kind of voice in the process of making policy that's not necessarily a voice to Parliament in the way it's been described?

Ken Wyatt:        And look, I have a great deal of understanding of what Pat is talking about because it's also referred in the report that he and Julian tabled in the House of Representatives, and Patrick spoke to in the Senate. Because communities are saying it's fine for the leadership to raise issues, but you don't listen to us at the community level. And this is one of the elements that I saw come through when I chaired the parliamentary joint committee on this same issue.


Communities were saying: it's fine setting up these bodies, but how do you listen to us? And this is the basis of what they would have heard as they travelled around Australia. The same thing: regional structures give us an opportunity to reflect needs by community and needs by region.


Hamish Macdonald:          So if we are talking about a voice to Parliament, it sounds like you’re saying that it must have some capacity to hear from communities at a ground level rather than just being a sort of national body that speaks to Parliament.


Ken Wyatt:       Yes. And see, what we tend to do is we go to the same leadership all the time. What I find is when I go into a community, I'll talk to an organisation and I get permission from the elders to walk around and meet people, and what I see sometimes is very different to what I've been told. Somebody is saying that they meet their KPIs. When I talk with families - and one sticks out very clearly: I met three people who'd been waiting two years for cataracts. I saw the levels of otitis media, or the pussy ears and the candles from the nose, which are both mucus and pus, being far too prevalent and not being treated.


So, we have to look at the reality of what's being achieved and how we impact on families at the community level. So, I wanted to see better educational outcomes because it's the pathway to a better future, better choices, and a better quality of life.


Hamish Macdonald:          It is clear that one of the things that you will have to deal with in this role is the scourge of suicide that is hitting young Indigenous Australians. Earlier this year, $3 million was committed by the federal government to tackle Indigenous suicide. The federal Budget was criticised for allocating only $5 million over four years towards Indigenous suicide prevention. Do you think more money needs to be allocated in the Budget? I mean, we're looking now at a Budget being back in surplus. Could the Government afford to spend more on resolving this, given the scale of the problem?


Ken Wyatt:       Well, just on the figures, there's $88 million that's been committed to Indigenous suicide; $20 million has gone to a group that is headed by Adele Cox, and they're working very closely at the community level, both in preventative but reactive support to families in those circumstances. But it takes a whole health system and society-


Hamish Macdonald:          [Interrupts] Can you just be clear: do you think the money that is allocated currently is enough?


Ken Wyatt:       Look, there is never enough money, but we can put money into projects, but what we have to do is go and look at the causal factors and the underlying issues.


Now, in the Kimberley, when I was chairing the roundtable and also in Darwin, the young people made some very strong comments about needing mentors, needing people that they can access. One of them referred to them as nocturnal worker -  they want a nocturnal worker who, if they're feeling like that, they can call them and then they sit with them and work through the issue. The impulsivity, in some cases, is challenging because unless somebody talks, then you don't have an understanding of their intent and then their thinking.


But we also need to bring other major organisations into a cultural understanding context so they can also play a critical role. I'm talking about SANE, the work that Patrick McGorry does, beyondblue, et cetera, headspace. I hear from young Aboriginal people that these services don't understand their context. What they hate is this notion of saying: I understand you, when in fact they don't understand.


Hamish Macdonald:          Some of the Closing the Gap measures are on track – early education, Year 12 attainment, for example. Some, though, are wildly off track – life expectancy, child mortality rates. How are you going to fix this?


Ken Wyatt:       It’ll require going back to the foundational years. Kerry Arabena, with the First 1000 Days, focuses on establishing a solid foundation of life, social and emotional and health wellbeing; and if we develop the foundation in a very strong and constructive way, then it is about building on that. It's also accessing good primary healthcare. It is about maternal child health being a priority within the way in which we ensure mothers have a good, healthy birth and delivery and then child raising. So, it's a multiple number of factors.


With childhood mortality, when I came into the Parliament, I drilled down on what were the factors that contributed to that. Now, some of them are health-related, but there are drownings, accidents, car accidents. There are falls, and of course there are murders; and these are beyond the control of government. But we should have looked at what are the underlying issues that may have caused infant mortality, that should have prevented the loss of a life. So, it's extremely complex, but I will work with whoever I need to to find better ways of progressing this, and I intend establishing a circle of trusted elders that I can confer with and seek their wisdom and counsel in my role as a Minister.


Hamish Macdonald:          Ken Wyatt, we wish you all the best in this role. Congratulations and thank you for your time this morning.


Ken Wyatt:       Thank you, Hamish.