The Hon Ken Wyatt AM, MP
Minister for Indigenous Australians
Member for Hasluck
Transcript – National Press Club Address
‘Walking in Partnership to Effect Change’
10 July 2019
Sabra Lane: Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen and welcome to the National Press Club of Australia and today’s Westpac address. My name is Sabra Lane. I am the Club’s President. It is my pleasure in NAIDOC Week to announce that the first Aboriginal Minister, and the new Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, has decided to make his first major speech for the portfolio here at the National Press Club.
If you’re following the conversation online you can do so. Our Twitter user handle is @PressClubAust and you can use the hashtag NPC.
Everybody, please join me in welcoming Ken Wyatt.
Ken Wyatt: I want to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we are meeting today, the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples and pay my respects to elders past and present. I also acknowledge other Aboriginal and Torres Islander people here today and all of you who have joined us and those who are watching at home. I also acknowledge Sabra Lane and the National Press Club for inviting me to speak today.
Our cultural heritage is the essence of who we are. It shapes our thinking, our customs, our social interactions and how we see ourselves as a specific group. Our bloodlines and our ancient song lines have provided the continuity of connections as individuals, families and communities throughout the passage of time. This is also evident in multicultural Australia where we see the pride of various cultural societies reflected in their festivals and cultural events that they celebrate.
NAIDOC Week celebrates over 60,000 years of history, culture and achievements of Indigenous Australians. It commences on the first Sunday in July until the following Sunday each year. The origin of NAIDOC arose from a letter Mr William Cooper wrote on behalf of the Australian Aborigines Progressive Association, an umbrella group for a number of Aboriginal justice movements, to Aboriginal communities and churches. Each year NAIDOC is themed to give prominence to a matter of substance, to create awareness and celebrate successes and is an acknowledgement of further work that has to be completed.
Some of the past themes have included, in 2018, Because of Her - We Can. In 2006, Respect the Past - Believe in the Future. The theme for 2019 is Voice, Treaty, Truth. The concept of the Voice in the Uluru Statement from the Heart is not just a singular voice, and what I perceive it is, it is a cry to all tiers of government to stop and listen to the voices of Indigenous Australians at all levels. The voice is multi-layered and includes voices of individuals, families, communities and Indigenous organisations who want to be heard by those who make the decisions that impact on their lives. All they want is for governments to hear their issues, stories and their matters associated with their land, their history. They are asking the three tiers of government to stop and take the time to listen to their voices. The development of a local, regional and national voice will be achieved.
It is my intention to work with State and Territory Ministers to develop an approach underpinned with existing jurisdictional Indigenous organisations and advisory structures that they have established to advise State and Territory Governments. But, importantly, Indigenous Australian people and leaders are integral to the process and will be equally involved. The national interest requires a new relationship with Indigenous Australians based on their participation and establishing entrenched partnerships at the community and regional levels. My regional managers of the new agency will be required to make this happen.
I will turn to the matters of treaty and constitutional recognition later. In the address to Welcome to Country Ceremony at the opening of the 46th Parliament the Prime Minister made the following comments, which I’ve used selectively to highlight the changing attitude of our nation.
And I cite –
“Here 65,000 years of Aboriginal culture meets mere centuries of Westminster tradition which the Leader of the Opposition and I represent and bring here together. In my major speech to parliament I said that a strong country is at peace with its past. This is a work in progress, being at peace with our past, being at one with our past while we reflect on how far we have to go, consider how far we’ve come.
This year my government appointed Ken Wyatt as the first ever Aboriginal person to hold the position of Minister for Indigenous Australians and as a Member of Cabinet”.
But prior to that, the Sunday following the election was National Sorry Day. My wife, Anna, read a Facebook post that the honourable Ben Wyatt, WA Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, had posted about his father, Cedric. His father spent a large part of his life in Sister Kates and after being born at Moore River, our native settlement, he moved there. I reflected on my mother and her siblings who had spent their earlier years of life in missions separated from each other but they remained optimistic that the future would yield better outcomes for us, their children. My thoughts were interrupted with Anna saying, can you hang out the washing and don’t forget to take your phone with you in case the Prime Minister rings you and offers you a job.
I was hanging up a tablecloth on the Hills hoist clothesline when the phone rang and the Prime Minister’s name came up. I answered the phone with, “Good morning Prime Minister”. I thought that he was offering my previous portfolio. Instead he said, “I want to thank you for your support for senior Australians, the work in the aged care sector and Indigenous health. I would like to offer you the position of Minister for Indigenous Australians”. His statement absolutely stunned me. Not Minister for Aboriginal Affairs but the Minister for Indigenous Australians.
Two thoughts ran through my mind. The Prime Minister has focused on Indigenous Australians which gives a personal and human value to our people and, secondly, an increased scope of work, combined with his expectations of what he wants to achieve as leader of our government. I admit that I choked with emotion at the honour and the magnitude of expectation that would come with being Minister for Indigenous Australians. It took me a full two minutes to answer him. In those two minutes the emotions of our story as Indigenous Australians welled up in me. It’s hard to express what I actually felt and what it meant to me at the time.
The Prime Minister said, “I take it by your silence you’re saying yes?” then I found my voice and said, “Yes, Prime Minister, I accept”.
Anna had heard the phone ring and saw the expression on my face and she had assumed that I had been advised of a death in the family so she came closer to hear whose voice it was. She could hear the Prime Minister’s voice and then she understood that he had offered me the position of Minister for Indigenous Australians. We both knew from that moment the enormity of the job but equally the importance of the symbolism for Australia. We must never forget the significance of symbolism but it must be balanced with pragmatism that results in change for Indigenous Australians and I want to acknowledge the Prime Minister’s leadership in establishing the National Indigenous Australians Agency.
With the establishment of the agency on 1 July we began a new era for government to work in partnership with Indigenous Australians. It will provide opportunities for growth and advancement in education, employment, suicide prevention, community safety, health and constitutional recognition. There is still more to do to find local solutions to make a difference at the community level.
Historically, Indigenous Australians have been told what they’re going to get, what’s going to happen whether they liked it or not. The agency will play a critical role in supporting me to meet the changing needs of Indigenous Australians. I will work in partnership with State and Territory Ministers of Indigenous Affairs to progress work on the Closing the Gap targets and identify good practice and to share and celebrate successful programs and jurisdictional achievements. As ministers, collectively, we have an incredible opportunity to make a difference as leaders of the nation if we work together on targeted priorities, such as the high incarceration rates.
As I have said, the most important thing that I and the agency will do, is to listen with our ears and our eyes. I intend to have genuine conversations, not only with Indigenous leaders and peak bodies but with families, individuals and community organisations so I can hear their voices and work together to agree to a way forward for a better future for our children. To me a child in a remote community is just as important as a state or a national leader. I want to encourage ministers, assistant ministers and as many members of the Australian Parliament to become familiar with Indigenous organisations, communities and families to identify the issues that governments need to become aware of and ultimately work towards finding solutions.
Outside government I want to work with the corporate sector of Australia. I’m asking them to sit down with me around board tables and around camp fires and discuss how they can contribute to the future for the next generation. A week after I was sworn in I received a letter from Jennifer Westacott assuring me that the Business Council stood ready to work with me to make sure Australia’s first peoples share in the same economic and social opportunities as every other Australian. She invited me to sit down with them at Garma this year to talk about how the business sector can best work with government to build prosperity in Indigenous communities. That’s a great start to a working relationship that can really drive change.
It’s not my intention to develop policy out of my office, but to implement a co-designed process with my ministerial and parliamentary colleagues, relevant departments and Indigenous communities, organisations and leaders. I am charged with developing enhanced local and regional decision making through expanding empowered communities and other regional governance models. I want to see our elders, as well as our young people, being informed and investing in decision making about what is important in their lives. Without that local and regional engagement, our efforts won’t succeed and opportunities to make a difference will be lost.
I will be expecting my agency to implement a co-design approach whereby we will become partners in the design process and helping reform. That should realise better outcomes. The model for the way in which I want to work to affect change is premised on Mick Copes’ The Definitive Guide to the Consultation Process. That is, client to understand the community and the problem. Clarify to find out what is really going on. Change to make it happen and sustain that change. Confirm to make sure that what we put in place has continuity, to continue to make that change stick. Close the engagement but maintain the relationship. I want to deal with unanticipated consequences and keep the momentum for the changes that we’re putting into place. We often walk away too soon.
I invite all sides of politics to work with me to ensure that we provide the best support and services needed to affect change and change can be as simple as an incident in Alice Springs when I announced a reading glasses program to people in remote communities. The ABC asked me to sit with an elder and film the announcement and they saw a pair of spare glasses in my pocket and they asked if I could put them on her face so it would have the visual affect. When I put them on her face and she looked through the glasses there was an incredible smile on her face and she said, “I can see. I can see a cameraman, I can see a woman standing with a microphone”. And then she said to me, “I can now see the tracks of the lizards that I love”. That had a profound impact in terms of something simple making an incredible difference in the life of a woman. She then went away to read a letter that she didn’t want read to her.
I’ll work to improve mental health and wellbeing outcomes for young Indigenous people and implement a targeted plan towards zero youth suicides in remote communities. We’ve all be shocked and grieved by the numbers of Aboriginal people, especially youth, committing suicide. The fact that Aboriginal people are committing suicide at twice the rate of non-Indigenous Australians is one of the gravest and most heartbreaking challenges we face. Precious lives that should be full of promise instead filled with despair and disconnection. We need to address the influence of social and cultural factors if we are to see significant change. More importantly, we need to listen to young people.
The Prime Minister has announced the appointment of Christine Morgan as our new National Suicide Prevention Advisor to support this priority. Ms Morgan will work with the Prime Minister’s Department and with the Minister for Health to drive a whole of government approach to suicide prevention while ensuring prevention services reach Australians that need them and communities are supported. The allocation of 500 million for Youth Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Plan also includes 34 million for Indigenous Youth Suicide Prevention.
We need to get the service right, to the right people through Outreach and frontline services with tools like mental health first-aid kits. Young people in the Kimberly have made it clear that suicides don’t happen between nine and five but often when the services are not accessible. They suggest that organisations funded for mental health and suicide services consider after hours services to enable youth to access support when they need it in times of crisis, not a telephone line.
Constitutional recognition. As I mentioned earlier, I will develop and bring forward a consensus option for constitutional recognition to put to a referendum during the current parliamentary term and that means working through until we reach a point in which there is consensus across all the relevant groups that have a stake in this. I do not want to proceed if we are not going to be successful. I have commenced the process of engaging and seeking the counsel of Indigenous leaders on the best way forward. We need to design the right model to progress to a point at which the majority of Australians, the majority of States and Territories and Indigenous Australians support the model so that is successful. The Morrison Government is committed to recognising Indigenous Australians in the Constitution and working to achieve this through a process of true co-design.
Constitutional recognition is too important and I don’t want to rush it because when I consider the successful 1967 referendum, it was the result of tireless advocacy and an extraordinary nationwide momentum for change. If we want to see that kind of national consensus again, we need to be thorough and we need to take time to get it right.
We have allocated 7.3 million for a co-design process to improve local and regional decision making and an additional 160 million has been set aside for a future referendum once the model has been determined. I plan to establish a working group of parliamentary colleagues of all political persuasions to assist me in considering the role of engaging on the many levels to bring forward a community model. The Shadow Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Linda Burney, will be integral to that process. The constitutional recognition work is unfinished. It will take time, it will need to be measured and I would certainly ask the media to play its part in influencing conversations that we need to have around kitchen tables and at barbeques.
In truth-telling I will work on approaches to progressing how we address truth-telling. Without the truth of the past there can be no agreement on where or who we are in the present, how we arrived here and where we want to go in the future. A truth-telling process that allows all Australians to reflect on the place of First Nation’s People and our shared past has to happen at the national, state and local levels right across this country.
History is generally written from a dominant society’s point of view and not that of the suppressed and therefore true history is brushed aside, masked, dismissed and, in some instances, destroyed. In recent years we have seen more open acknowledgement as more evidence emerges of the brutal realities of the past. We need to know what happened to the children raised on missions and in foster homes and their parents to see the lasting effect on the way people move through the world decades later.
It’s now 22 years since the Bringing Them Home Report opened the records of child removals and showed people, for the first time, what happened to Aboriginal families in this country.
We need to hear of the lies that were told, the casual cruelty of the fates they were dealt and the unthinkable loss in their hearts. Opening those records was painful for all of us but it was necessary. It opened hearts and minds. It opened up space in our collective life for understanding, healing and forgiveness. That’s what truth does, it sets you free. Only when we tell the truth and we are willing to listen to the truth can we find common ground to walk on. Only then can we begin to trust each other and to walk together side by side.
Treaty. With respect to treaty, it’s important that States and Territory jurisdictions take the lead. When you consider the Constitution, they are better placed to undertake that work. The West Australian Noongar Land Agreement implemented by the Barnett Government is a treaty in the true sense. Treaty models are now evolving with work being undertaken by the Victorian and Northern Territory Governments which address the aspirations of Indigenous Australians in those jurisdictions and it’s important that it resides and sits there.
Closing the Gap. The Prime Minister has charged me with delivering a revised Closing the Gap’s target that drive improved outcomes for Indigenous Australians through the Closing the Gap refresh process and arrangements. In December 2018 COAG agreed to build its relationship with Indigenous Australians and the coalition has overseen the first ever formal agreement between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people organisations, the Federal Government and States and Territories. This will have profound impacts as we move to the implementation of the Council of Australian Government’s Closing the Gap Partnership Agreement.
We will continue to work on closing the gap, the gap between the outcomes in health, the mortality and the life expectancy. We will focus on education, jobs and economic security and other aspects of wellbeing. A diverse and disparate geography shapes effective service delivery as government providers and businesses navigate the diversity of the urban, regional and more than 2,000 remote communities and towns and I want to share with you a phone call that was made to someone I know who was asked to fly to the Ngaanyatjarra lands, had their plane land at the airport, call a taxi and do a surprise visit on an aged care facility. Now any of you who know the Ngaanyatjarra lands know there is no telephone, you have to buzz over the community with a small flight and then land and wait for someone to come and pick you up. So there’s no element of surprise.
But the point I’m making is our geographic diversity is a challenge and there is much that we will need to seriously consider as we do this. In this setting we are committed to expanding regional models that give Indigenous Australians a real say on issues that affect them and drive local solutions for improved outcomes. First Australians regularly state that Indigenous organisations deliver stronger outcomes for their people through cultural competence, engagement and community confidence but, equally, we need to ensure Indigenous Australians who choose to use other services, including mainstream services, are a priority of our government.
Since March this year the Community Development Program, affectionately known as CDP, has been reformed to ensure that communities have a say in the way the program is run through the establishment of Community Advisory Boards. The CDP is delivered by Indigenous organisations with a focus on Indigenous people and communities. I’ll work closely with those organisations and local communities to consider the way in which the program can be enhanced. That is, to deliver skills and competencies that can translate and are tangible for future employment where opportunities exist. Around 60% of the Indigenous Advancement Strategy and Aboriginal Boards Benefit Account grant’s funding is provided to Indigenous organisations, a significant increase from 35% before the introduction of the Indigenous Advancement Strategy. We have committed an additional 10 million to support the revival and maintenance of Australian Aboriginal languages.
This will support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders sharing their stories, languages and cultures through national institutions such as the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander studies and the National Museum of Australia. We are also helping our nation to heal with funding to deliver the support that is needed for surviving members of the Stolen Generation and we will provide funding to the Healing Foundation to support their work, including a comprehensive needs analysis to better understand the demography of surviving members of the Stolen Generation.
The Morrison Government is committed to expanding the very successful Indigenous Procurement Policy, which includes targets based on the value of contracts awarded, not just the number of contracts granted. There are 1,951 Indigenous registered and certified businesses registered with Supply Nation. At the recent IBA breakfast last week we heard that there were over 2,000 Indigenous women who are part of the Strong Women Strong Business platform. What was interesting, many of them had been knocked back by the IBA for start-up funding but despite the no, they persisted and their businesses have grown. Since 2015 more than 1,530 Indigenous businesses have won over 12,600 contracts totalling more than 2.1 billion.
Evaluation is a critical piece of work. It needs to be done to ascertain what works effectively. The IAS evaluation framework is systematically strengthening reporting, monitoring and evaluation at a contract, program and outcome level. This is a principal task that I know will be undertaken by Romlie Mokak, the first Indigenous Productivity Commissioner appointed to review and report back to government. We are implementing a framework to ensure high quality, ethical and inclusive evaluations that can be used to inform for more effective policy and decision making for ongoing improvements of services to ensure that we are making a difference.
But even the most well-intentioned modern policies and programs have still tended to take a top down command and control approach as if Aboriginal people didn’t know what they needed or wanted, as if proud members of one of the world’s longest lived civilisations have nothing to say, no wisdom to offer about what would help their families thrive and their communities flourish. Fred Chaney, former Minister for Aboriginal Affairs in the Fraser Government, put it this way, “They were first and they survived, we should listen”.
I made this commitment on my first day that I will listen and that I will walk with Aboriginal people as they find their own paths to health, happiness and success. In finding those paths we are not looking out on a trackless landscape. There are tracks and song lines to follow created by people who have gone before seeking better lives within their families and communities. We’re starting from strengths and aspirations already there. If you think about the fact that 65% of all Indigenous Australians are under 30 years of age, you’ll realise what an enormous difference we can make by investing in their futures. I have never met an Aboriginal parent who did not want their child to succeed, to be healthy and happy and to have a rich life and a better life than we, the earlier generations, had.
There are heroes in every community who every day touch the lives of another person. The mothers and grandmothers, fathers and grandfathers, uncles and aunties who inspire the little ones around them to become like them. Elders of dignity and pride and grace, armed with confidence in their culture, they are custodians of hope.
I would like to share a story with you of one of my heroes. Last Saturday the first statue of an Indigenous AFL footballer was unveiled at the 50th Western Derby between West Coast Eagles and the Fremantle Dockers at Optus Stadium. The bronze statue pays tribute to Neil Elvis, Nicky Winmar, a Noongar man known for his career with St Kilda and the Western Bulldogs in the AFL as well as South Fremantle in the WAFL, but also for one of the most famous moments in Australian sport. After the final siren in round four, the Saints win over Collingwood at Victoria Park on the 17th April 1993, Nicky lifted his St Kilda jumper and pointed to his stomach, his skin. The moment Nicky lifted his jumper, the image captured by the photographer portrayed the strong sense of pride for all Indigenous Australians of their culture, historical links to country and that the colour of one’s skin should not be a barrier. By doing this, he made a stand against racism in sport starting the conversation that racism in sport needed to be tackled and was unacceptable. Nicky’s actions epitomised an important point in time and I am so proud that his statue has taken pride and place outside of WA’s home of football.
We also have non-Indigenous heroes too. Fiona Stanley and Fred Hollows in health. Nugget Coombs and Sir Paul Hasluck in public policy. There are many more who work with us and alongside us including, but not exclusively, our teachers, police officers, nurses, corporate leaders and community workers. Our own people. I value their contributions immensely.
I want to move to a conclusion in which I refer to Neville Bonner, who was the first Indigenous person in the Australian Parliament. Neville and I became friends in later years. I’ll never forget being shown around the Museum of Australian Democracy at the Old Parliament House and seeing his pillow on display. The curator explained that his family had donated his pillow and his diary. In the diary he wrote that in Canberra he was never invited to a function or to dinner. He was never invited for a coffee and a chat. He went home every night to his pillow, his only friend. It’s like the child who is never invited to a birthday party. What a picture of loneliness. It’s so much harder to walk the path of progress when you are alone.
I take great comfort in knowing I am not alone, indeed, I couldn’t do this alone. I know the expectations on me are high, I know I won’t live up to all of them but I’ll do my best in our leadership role and our communities will need to walk with me leaving our footprints for others to follow. All of us leave footprints in the sand as we take each step in life as we achieve our aspirations and dreams. They mark the way. They show the past. The distance we have travelled over the years but, more importantly, if we walked alone or whether there were footprints of friendship and support. As I walk this way I hope the footprints I leave and the tracks I create will allow others to walk the same way and find it easier than I did.
I am sure many of you in this room will remember the day almost twenty years ago now when 300,000 Australians marched across the Sydney Harbour Bridge for reconciliation. It was a breathtaking moment of solidarity when Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians walked arm-in-arm across that iconic bridge declaring their will to walk arm-in-arm in our national life as well. That’s the image I carry with me. That’s what I want to see when I look for partners and fellow travellers on this journey. When I look back along the paths we’ve walked and the progresses we made, I can see faces in that crowd and it will be easier because it won’t be one set of footprints but many. It will be hundreds and thousands of footprints of all sizes walking in the same direction side by side working and sharing ideas to make a difference. The sands of this nation bear indelible footprints of the oldest living culture in the world. Those who come after them must leave their own tracks. It’s up to us to choose where we make them and where they may lead. The challenges are many and I invite you to share your generosity of humanity to work and walk with me for a better outcome and future for Indigenous Australians.
Sabra Lane: Thank you Ken and I implore my colleagues, please, there’s a long list of journalists today. We will begin with David Crowe.
David Crowe: Thank you Sabra. David Crowe from The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. Thanks very much for your speech Mr Wyatt.
You mentioned that you don’t walk alone on this path. I want to ask you about the coalition party room which you’ll need the support of. It’s less than two years since the Turnbull Government looked at the voice to parliament idea and said, look, that won’t fly. They rejected it. They said that it could be a third chamber of parliament. I’m interested in your comments on that and on how you think, or on whether you think, some of your coalition party room colleagues still believe that criticism of the voice to parliament that was made two years ago and how you think you can change their minds?
Ken Wyatt: Look, thank you for the question. What we’ve done is, we’ve moved on substantially since that period of time. We have a new opportunity and it will require me to bring along colleagues. There are colleagues who do have … are reticent but what’s important in one of the comments made to me is, we don’t need a special group mentioned in the Constitution but when I look at the Constitution, Section 127 which was deleted in the referendum talked about us specifically. 5126 still mentions Indigenous Australians so they do have a special place. What it is, is about how they’re recognised in the Constitution. Their journey is not going to be easy and that’s why I’ve asked people to walk with me, to share their thoughts so that we can allay their fears. This is not going to be done in a way that creates division in this nation. We have to remain cohesive as a society but complement the cultures of two significant groups that make up an incredible nation like ours.
Sabra Lane: Just on the characterisation of the voice to parliament third chamber as some of your colleagues did. Was that a failure to grasp the concept or was it a deliberate mischaracterisation?
Ken Wyatt: I think it was an understanding that what was said in the voice, the Statement of the Heart from Uluru, was when you read that contextually and textually and look at it in the context of some of the phrasing, I could understand some individuals would develop that perception but it’s not the reality when you read it. Read what the underlying message is and it’s a powerful message of generations have impacted to the way in which you wanted to move forward and it gave us an opportunity, and it still gives us an opportunity, to move forward but I want to do it in a way that brings everybody with us and not have the division.
Sabra Lane: Amy Remeikis.
Amy Remeikis: Thank you minister for your speech. Amy Remeikis from the The Guardian.
Just building on that and what you’re talking about, division. Not twelve hours ago possibly the whitest person in Australia, Pauline Hansson, claimed that she was Indigenous because she was born in Australia. The debate has the capacity to get quite toxic, we know that from other debates that this nation has had. How do you call out those frankly outrageous and ridiculous and offensive statements and also keep the debate on track?
Ken Wyatt: What’s great about Australia is our democratic process allows us to have diverse and very strong views. I’ve had meetings with Pauline and I will continue to have meetings with Pauline on what is emerging and how we’re thinking and people will react if they don’t know the detail. That’s why I want to co-design so all of us know what the detail is because often when we’re uncertain and we’re not sure, then we take a stance that is quite strong and often ill-informed in not listening to the total context. I admire Pauline for what she does and I have good meetings with her. We don’t always see eye-to-eye on things but I will certainly be involving Pauline in discussions that I have as we move forward into the near future.
Sabra Lane: David Spears.
David Speers: David Spears from Sky News minister. Congratulations on your appointment and congratulations on your speech here today.
I just want to go to what you said about the Voice and perhaps invite you to flesh it out a little bit more as to how you see it working. But also reading here from the Uluru Statement of the Heart, it is quite clear. “We call for the establishment of a First Nation’s voice enshrined in the Constitution”. Are you saying today that’s not going to happen, it’s not going to be in the Constitution? Is that, in your personal view, the best way to go?
Ken Wyatt: Now I want to separate both. The Voice has many layers, as I indicated. It is possible and likely that there will be a legislative structure as we work through the co-design process but there is also a call for a set of words within the Constitution. Now I want to be cautious with the words that we put into the Constitution because once we entrench it then further down the track decisions can be made that is detrimental to society on a broader context.
Now, people say that Constitution, you can put the set of words in and my response was we never thought that we would have that concept of terra nullius ever set aside, not in my lifetime. And Eddy Mabo took a stance and the High Court ruled in an incredible landmark decision that changed the relationship between first Australians and the rest of our country. Now when courts look at decisions they consider our Constitution but they also consider other legal precedents out of a number of other countries and of the parallels. What I’m on is recognition that strengthens this nation, that places us on the birth certificate of our country because we do have a future, we do have a past and we do live and walk together and we share in many of the relationships that we build, including marriages that across because love has no skin barrier or colour barrier.
Sabra Lane: Andrew Tillett.
Andrew Tillett: Andrew Tillett from the Financial Review. Thanks for your speech today minister.
Can I go to a mechanical question about how the referendum might work? Casting my mind back to 2013 when we had a debate in parliament about local government constitutional recognition and there was a bit of argy bargy on your side of politics about public funding the case. You said today there is $160 million for a referendum if we go down that path. Will that include equal funding for a no case to be mounted?
Ken Wyatt: Historically that’s occurred. The issue for the debate has to be how we consider the yes and no cases of any referendum and I would rather see rigorous debate occurring now that creates an understanding of what Indigenous Australians are seeking. But, equally, what it means and then for people to open their minds to the possibilities that could exist.
See, when we made changes over a period of time through various governments, the Whitlam Government in particular and then the Fraser government building on programs and initiatives for Indigenous Australians, I recall some of the backlash about special funding. But that funding has led to many of the Indigenous people in this room at my age being about to contribute to Australian society both in public debate, the economy and across of raft of corporate and industry and public service provision. So it does have an impact and we’ve got to think of translating into the future as opposed to living on the poison of welfare.
Sabra Lane: Greg Brown.
Greg Brown: Greg Brown from The Australian. Thank you for your speech Mr Wyatt.
I just wanted to follow up on David’s question about the Voice and constitutional recognition. Obviously, you are approaching separately, but could it be the case that you will create the Voice independently without a reference to the need for one in the Constitution or would you be considering at least putting in the Constitution that there should be a statutory body such as the Voice available that will represent Indigenous Australians?
Ken Wyatt: We could do all the things you suggested but I want to focus on co-designing so I get the best possible model and the best possible set of words for the Constitution that makes that long-lasting difference. If we pre-empt what everybody has in their minds then there becomes that mindset that government have got a position. So I want to continue to build on the work of Senator Patrick Dodson and Julian Leeser in respect to their report and the recommendations we’ve accepted and then work from there. So the plate is an oyster in terms of options that we have to seriously consider and we’ll consider them based on a framework that is important for this nation but also against a context of a legal framework that the Constitution will require.
Sabra Lane: Dan Conifer.
Dan Conifer: Minister, Dan Conifer from the ABC. Firstly, congratulations on your history-making appointment to the role.
You touched on the Community Development Program in your speech, the remote Work for the Dole Program that costs the budget nearly $300 million every year. Do you see some changes to that scheme being possible? If so, what areas will you be looking at and will that be as part of any formal review process?
Ken Wyatt: Actually, I think one of the things I have to look at Dan is the opportunity of jobs because if you look geographically, at the geographic diversity of this nation, there are some communities where there are not the types of jobs that are provided anywhere in a country town or a capital city. In those instances what I want to do is look at the possibility of CDP roles being identified as having what skills that individual acquired during that program and what competencies. So if they choose to go into a formal TAFE vet pathway then they should be recognised prior learning. I want to look at those options and then where there are towns, encourage our people to look at some of the choices they can make.
I like the Cape York model a few years ago where they brought young people down to do fruit picking. It was a great model and all of a sudden young men had money to buy the things they wanted and some have remained in South Australia.
Sabra Lane: Lanai Scarr
Lanai Scarr: Lanai Scarf from the West Australian.
Would you like to see more Indigenous Australians elected to parliament? Is that going to be a priority for you and how will you help to see that occur?
Ken Wyatt: Lanai, the question is a good one because what I like is, at the last Federal Election there were twenty Indigenous Australians who put their hands up and they stood in the Federal Election but, because of the parties they chose, they weren’t elected. But ultimately both the major parties are avenues for more of our people to come into the Chamber. When I started there was just me and then Nova Peris was appointed to the Senate and now we have five of us. So I think numbers based on Australians electing us will increase but we need to go through the structures that are there and that’s part of the challenge, because it’s daunting. You have to sell yourself, you have to open up your life to public scrutiny on all matters but you’ve also got to have a tough skin in politics. It’s not for those who have feelings that can be hurt very easily. It is a tough life, not just from people outside of politics but people inside of politics. If you stumble and make a mistake it becomes a joyous occasion for some.
I would continue to encourage young people and there’s about twenty that I know now who I talk to frequently who will make the decision at some point to take that journey.
Sabra Lane: By just saying that you’ve got to be tough and you’ve got to withstand all of this and open up your life. Are we missing something then by excluding those people from a public life?
Ken Wyatt: No. We’ve got to teach them to be resilient because that’s the thing you have to do. You’ve got to teach people to be resilient. Face Michelle Grattan and have Michelle scrutinise you. It’s not easy because she goes to very salient points and I remember as a child listening to radio broadcasts that said Michelle Grattan reporting from Canberra and she’s still here and she still asks me the hard questions.
Sabra Lane: Don’t worry, she’s probably got one lined up for later. Marnie Banger.
Marnie Banger: Thanks so much for your words today minister. Marnie Banger from Australian Associated Press.
We’ve seen calls in the past few weeks for the government to bring forward some infrastructure spending to help stimulate the economy. As you know have responsibility for the Indigenous Advancement Strategy through which the government funds some projects for Indigenous Australians, I wondered if you thought there might be any sort of programs in this space that could be brought forward or initiated quickly to both provide a better future for Indigenous Australians and give the economy that sugar hit soon?
Ken Wyatt: We’re doing that. There’s a number of submissions that were signed off that will create those economic opportunities. What we have to remember is that in the CDP programs when people have spending capacity they spend within their communities, which adds to the supply chain in providing goods and services. The income tax cuts now are going to make an incredible difference across the nation and our record levels of infrastructure spending is going to make an incredible difference. Just in my seat of Hasluck there’s five significant projects and in the last round when they built the gateway around the airport I know one grader driver who was from my electorate that was appointed on contract did exceptionally well because it gives some of the local businesses an opportunity.
So we’ve got to look at all of the ways that we can boost our economy but boost the opportunities for Australians to spend their money as they choose as well.
Sabra Lane: Shalailah Medhora.
Shalailah Medhora: Shalailah Medhora from Triple J. Thank you minister for your speech. In it you mentioned that you are tasked with basically looking at Close the Gap targets and potentially reviving or revising them. Do you envisage space for mental health and suicide prevention targets in, potentially, a re-jigged Close the Gap targets? And, in your opinion, how important are things like respect, representation, reconciliation, in what is basically stemming the flow of a national crisis?
Ken Wyatt: Actually, what we’re doing with the mental health work I had the incredible opportunity of working with Minister Greg Hunt and we were reshaping and designing the Mental Health Service that we needed across the nation, including 100 million in new funding for senior Australians, particularly those in residential aged care, but men over the age of 70, where the suicide rates are high. So we’ve taken that approach but the Prime Minister also is very keen to work with us and is leading work and hence the appointment of a senior advisor for suicide in general. But what I want to do in all of those is carve out the niche that’s important for Indigenous Australians. But I think the most critical thing is, we’ve got to operate some of those services out of hours. At the moment, as the young people said, they’re all nine to five. That’s not when they need that desperate help or that voice they can talk to.
There’s a couple of other ideas I have floating in my mind but I won’t share them at the moment because I want to work them through.
Sabra Lane: The rates of people taking their lives in remote communities is shocking but also in the broader community as well figures are heading in the wrong direction. Do you have any thoughts as to why that might be so?
Ken Wyatt: When I read the coronial report for the Kimberly Suicide Report, what struck me more than anything else is a lot of those suicides happened during school holidays so it shows and demonstrates that teaches and schools are a strong point of connectivity. The local police officer in charge of the Kimberly also provides a level of intervention but we’re not going to capture everybody, we’ve got to do some work around local solutions and certainly in the Kimberly they’re now looking at local approaches and adults are becoming involved. But the young people are saying, listen to us and hear where the deficits are.
The Kimberly youth talked about culture and identity needing to be valued and being important. They wanted school, they wanted sporting programs. But they also said they wanted mentors, people that would be mentors for them in times of crisis. I’m turning my mind to a couple of solutions to reduce that and White Mountain Apache is a model in the United States where they halved the suicide rates in their nation so I want to look at exemplary models from overseas as well. But we do need a community approach with support from the mental health and relevant health structures that exist there at the moment.
Sabra Lane: Nakari Thorpe.
Nakari Thorpe: Minister thanks for your address. Nakari Thorpe from SBS.
You have pledged to hold a referendum within three years in this term of government. How do you plan on winning over the people of Australia knowing the history of referendums in this country and if we don’t get this right this time around, do you think there’s going to be another opportunity?
Ken Wyatt: Thank you for your question. What I said is, I don’t want to proceed if we don’t have the right question. We will work towards having a referendum in the term of this government and I’m committed to it but I’m also going to use judicial and wise judgement as to whether we will fail, along with other colleagues, along with my cabinet colleagues and the Prime Minister and Indigenous leadership because if it doesn’t look as though it’s going to be accepted, then we should not proceed because, like the republic referendum, that failed. That’s now gathered dust of a substantial nature and I don’t want that to happen in terms of any form of recognition in the Constitution so it’s important we do this carefully and we have the debates so those who oppose it can understand their position but equally understand the position of Indigenous Australians wanting to be recognised on the birth certificate of our nation because we weren’t there when it was written but we were ensconced in it in the two sections, 5126 and Section 127.
Sabra Lane: Adelaide Advertiser.
Jade Gailberger: Jade Gailberger from the Adelaide Advertiser.
The cashless debit card scheme has been extended until June 2020. Do you support the trial in its current form considering a lot of Indigenous Australians believe it unfairly targets them?
Ken Wyatt: The expansion of the program to non-Indigenous Australians has seen benefits that have been realised in a number of locations across this nation and in talking with two particular sites, the benefits of children being fed, a reduction in violence, a reduction in expenditure on gambling or alcohol, have been a successful outcome. But there is an opt out component too for those who are ready to opt out but the community people that I’ve been talking to, with the exception of a couple of locations, say that it’s the best thing that’s happened to them but they just don’t like the title, cashless debit card. They would like just a debit card.
So we’ve got to consider always the benefits against the deficits and at the moment I’ve seen incredible reductions and, in fact, the health systems have reported the diminishing use of ED departments.
Sabra Lane: Genevieve Jacobs.
Genevieve Jacobs: Minister Hello and I speak to you today with my hat on as Co-Chair of the ACT’s Reconciliation Council with my colleague, Dr Chris Bourke. As you’d be aware, the ACT is the only jurisdiction that has a declared public holiday marking reconciliation. Perhaps a template. I’d argue we’ve showed national leadership in the kind of conversation you will need to have the referendum passed. But look, my question is, you briefly mentioned the coalition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peak organisations that direct voice from the people that now sits alongside ministers of the joint council on Closing the Gap. I’m wondering how important you think the ongoing role is for that coalition of peaks with the joint council and whether it’s involvement will perhaps change the way that the government thinks about the next stage of Closing the Gap, of the kind of targets that are set, of the practical flow-on effects of the discussion we’re having today.
Ken Wyatt: I wouldn’t want to diminish that partnership now because it’s evolved and it’s a healthy partnership. There’s rigorous debate and state ministers being involved has meant that they have listened to the people around the table, as did the Australian Health Ministers in Alice Springs. We had a round table and I was invited as the Minister for Indigenous Health and the Indigenous leadership there spoke about priorities and the COAG Health Ministers then took on five key initiatives that would be priorities for COAG Health Ministers. They had an impact and an influence and I wouldn’t want to diminish that.
What I do want to do though is capitalise on some of the state structures, the New South Wales land councils for example, an entity that is quite strong and provides good rigorous voice. So I wouldn’t want to diminish their input into the shaping of directions and I single them out not as the exclusive. There are many in every State and Territory and in my discussions with State and Territory Ministers I’ve said that I want to work with them and I also hope that we as nine significant leaders combine and take a common direction in addressing, not only Closing the Gap, but other key areas such as incarceration rates and some of the matters that are outside of the COAG refresh targets so that we can make a difference but also to share the things that work that we might try in other areas.
Sabra Lane: Michelle Grattan.
Michelle Grattan: Michelle Grattan from The Conversation.
Mr Wyatt, although you don’t have a model yet, it’s fair enough to think that the Coalition Government would only support a referendum that had a minimalist model and yet a number of Indigenous leaders would want something that was very robust. How do you envisage bridging that gap?
Ken Wyatt: I’ve got to find the common ground that we bring each other to and there are diverse views. It’s how do we bring the majority to a common ground that is acceptable, that we could win a referendum with. That’s the challenge but I’m up to that and I’m prepared to walk with people on all sides of politics, all sides of our community, to hear their views and reach a point at which we can agree. Sometimes we can aspire to an optimum outcome but we also have to accept that there is a pragmatic element to constitutional referendum and I would rather us, in the psyche of this nation, have a win on a referendum than to have a loss.
Sabra Lane: Mark Kenny.
Mark Kenny: Mark Kenny from Australian National University and from the Press Club Board Minister, thank you for your address and can I also endorse your comments about that fantastic statue of Nicky Winmar at that stadium. I saw it and it is truly magnificent.
I noticed in response to the question from Amy about Pauline Hanson that you were very respectful of Pauline Hanson and indeed you were saying you did respect her and you look forward to further conversations. You also talked earlier on about how far we’ve moved on even since the summary of rejection of the Voice when it first came up a couple of years ago. She obviously hasn’t moved on and in fact she is essentially delegitimising the whole cause by saying that anyone born here is Indigenous, I guess singling out anyone who isn’t born here as being some form of lesser Australian as well. So, I mean, you talked about truth-telling, isn’t the truth that there are some people here who represent a minority and they need to be called out for that, a minority view, and they need to be called out for that.
Ken Wyatt: We as Australians have to call them out. Collectively, we need to think about the future we want and those who have a different view, we should respect that different view and have the discussions with them. It’s always interesting in economics or when you have merges and takeovers, whilst there’s this tension in mergers often people will have detailed discussions to try and influence those who have a different view or a different position, whether it’s a finite element or whether it’s a much broader context. And over the years when I look at some of the key areas of progress we’ve made, it’s been based on discussion, it’s been based on frank and open debate and this one requires the same rigor and those who have an opposing view, they will have them regardless. There are some people we will never convince and we have to accept that.
On the barometer that Reconciliation Australia had, there was about a 10% rusted on figure that no would be their answer regardless of what the wording or a body or whatever looked like. We have to respect that. It is the majority who we need to talk to and have straight discussions because it’s only that way that we will convince fellow Australians that we have a unique opportunity to push our nation into a pathway in which further healing will occur.
Kevin Rudd’s apology was incredible. It didn’t solve every social and economic issue we faced but it was an acknowledgement of a truth of the past and that acknowledgement of a truth of the past had that profound impact of where tears flowed by Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians and we journey together in so many instances in a way that we never did before.
Sabra Lane: Everybody, please join me in thanking Ken Wyatt.
Media contact: Jo Hocking, Senior Media Adviser 0438 231 687
Authorized by Ken Wyatt AM, MP, Member for Hasluck.