GEOFF HUTCHISON: Ken Wyatt was outside hanging out the washing when he received a phone call from Scott Morrison inviting him to become Australia's first Indigenous Minister for Indigenous Australians. He told the National Press Club that he was choked with both the honour and the magnitude of expectation that would come with saying yes. And he says it took him nearly two full minutes to do so. No task for Ken Wyatt is going to be more challenging than the proposal to recognise Indigenous people in the constitution and a promise that the issue will be put to a referendum within three years. Ken Wyatt is my guest this afternoon. Good afternoon to you.
KEN WYATT: Good afternoon, Geoff. It's big. It's good to be with you.
GEOFF HUTCHISON: Hanging up the tablecloth no doubt. Unable to put out the rest of the washing once the phone call came.
KEN WYATT: I know it was the last item. Thankfully. I probably wouldn't have done the rest.
GEOFF HUTCHISON: I want to begin with an exchange from the Garma Festival last weekend as described by The Guardian, Dr Yunupingu parked his wheelchair directly in front of the Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister and issued a warning into his hand-held microphone. His people had had enough of the Australian Government's failure to recognise Indigenous people in the nation's constitution and if they didn't resolve it this time, he would throw the founding document into the Arafura Sea. What was it like to be told that?
KEN WYATT: Well I was looking directly at him when he was talking and I know that what he was saying was a metaphoric frustration for him, that the constitutional recognition started under John Howard and you had every prime minister following John Howard promised the same thing. And the point he was making, is if we're going to do it, stop talking and get the right words go to a referendum and let's hope it's successful.
GEOFF HUTCHISON: What is your understanding of what Indigenous Australians are asking?
KEN WYATT: Well it depends where you are. If I'm talking to some of the leadership they want the voice as described in the statement of the heart. But when I talk to people at the community level, they say we want our voices to be heard to address the matters that are important to us better schooling access to better housing and a whole raft of everyday issues, Geoff, that they want resolved.
GEOFF HUTCHISON: Is there going to be confusion about this? Is this something that is very important when it comes to drafting a referendum question? What does it really mean?
KEN WYATT: Well I think there's a couple of elements in this. We have to consider the constitutional referendum question as being separate to everything else that we're talking about. The truth telling, I want to look at a model that does that locally. So that shared history is shared between Indigenous Australians, and Australians. Because it's there that you gain the understanding of what's impacting on a community of people, within a region.
GEOFF HUTCHISON: Explain to me more about truth telling.
KEN WYATT: The truth telling is about the true history of Australia. Now we've tried to embed it in school curriculum, but some of the massacres, for example, that we now are very familiar with, was part of the truth telling. That people were slaughtered in sites we had Pinjarra we had one in the Kimberley as well, as recently as the early nineteen, I think about 1929. So there's some recency around a couple of those massacres. But what's incredible is the way in which those communities have forgiven but have not forgotten and all they want people to understand is, this happened. It happened because of a set of circumstances, taking of sheep or cattle and the reprisals, but the reprisals were much more heavy handed. But it's really about sharing what is true, in terms of what we need to know about both sides. And yet when this has been discussed before and in the 1990s, John Howard described this kind of public discussion at the time as the black armband of history and there are certain historians who are very much of that view too. Are we more able - have we evolved as a people and a place, to say this actually is what happened? I'm not holding you personally responsible. But before we move on we have to know that this is what happened. But if we take the Stolen Generation report, the work that was done in the inquiry and then the handing down of that report. What was interesting was people who said this didn't happen. And yet when documentation was provided there was an acceptance, that there was this practice and that some of the evidence given to the Royal Commission at the time Sir Ronald Wilson was gut wrenching. But he made the point that we needed to acknowledge that happened and I was interviewed by a rival station who said that when I'm in the studio. The first question I was asked is, why should I apologise to you? I said, No I'm not asking you to apologise. I'm not asking you to be guilty. What I want you to do is acknowledge that this happened; it was government policy. And it's a fact. So the challenge then is how do we bring people along the journey. Because even the history of early settlers, we read about the horrific punishments the convicts experienced and yet there are generations born of those convicts that now make up the face of Australia as a nation of people.
GEOFF HUTCHISON: On drive this afternoon. My guest is the Federal Minister for Indigenous Australians, the Member for Hasluck, Ken, has rung in to say - Why should we hold a referendum? Why not just do what needs to be done and Ken supports significant change? Why does it why does the constitution need to acknowledge something that it has not previously acknowledged?
KEN WYATT: Well the Constitution did have two sections in 51 (26) which prevails. Now most the Commonwealth legislation made under 51 (26), has related specifically to Indigenous Australians, and for my knowledge it's never been applied to any other race of people. Now section 127 which was struck out in the ‘67 referendum, made it very clear that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people or the natives, were not to be included in the census partly because Western Australia would have been advantaged along, with possibly New South Wales and the in the NT wasn't a state then, but certainly those two jurisdictions would have gained beneficially in the arrangement, because when you count people in the population then the proportion of funding would have been apportioned to states and territories would have been affected by those figures.
GEOFF HUTCHISON: That's the value we place them on a life in history at that time. You said last weekend that every constitutional referendum when the question has failed, has been sent into permanent retirement and it is too critical to fail, and we know I think what eight of 44 referenda have been passed. How then and I'm not asking you to be certain here, but how then might the referendum question be posed?
KEN WYATT: I think it'll be posed in a very simplistic form. It cannot be complex. There's a couple of reasons for this Geoff, if we look at Section 44 of the Constitution when that was written on the surface it seemed an innocent set of words but over the last three years, what happened was an interpretation by the high court that saw a number of members struck out at the parliament having had what was deemed dual citizenship and hence they had to go back to buy elections. Sometimes the most innocuous set of words can be used in high court decisions that have unintended consequences. And that's why in this case we have to get the wording right.
GEOFF HUTCHISON: We certainly do. Now a couple of years ago when we talk about what might stand in the way of this happening, a couple of years ago Barnaby Joyce declared that this voice, was a push for a third chamber in the Australian Parliament and that the idea quote just wouldn't fly and he retracted that last month. Sorry he then retracted by playing that -
BARNABY JOYCE (Recording): I think anything in politics if you think like anything in life if you think you got it wrong, you're human you're allowed to make mistakes. If you think you got a wrong and you find out about it you've got to acknowledge that you are wrong and correct the record. I apologise, unreservedly. What I do say is if we've got to get something we've got to take this debate forward. We're going to take the debate forward in a form that succeeds.
GEOFF HUTCHISON: Okay so there was an apology there but it's been said that unless you have strong support from the prime minister this push is going to really battle to survive because there is some hostility inside Coalition ranks. Do you believe there is?
KEN WYATT: Look, I think what we'll find is there are members who will have set positions; it doesn't matter whether it's Coalition, Labor or Liberal, because when you're not sure of what the wording is or what the outcome is. Because of the conservative nature of Australia and it’s hence the reason for so many referenda failing. We have to be very precise, very clear about what the words mean and then what are the outcomes associated with that change.
GEOFF HUTCHISON: What is there to fear and one of our texters - quite apart from people saying, you are an inspirational and we are glad that you are here - one of our texters says, Isn't it ironic that the only people that Ken Wyatt will really need to convince are within his own party? And doesn't he find that stupid? I would say do you find it challenging?
KEN WYATT: Look, it's challenging but it's not only just in the Coalition, because I have had discussions with other parliamentary colleagues of a different political persuasion, who said there is some entrenched views within their party and there are lay members within their parties.
GEOFF HUTCHISON: Are we talking primarily one nation here?
KEN WYATT: No no no.
GEOFF HUTCHISON: Australian Labor Party as well.
KEN WYATT: The Greens as well. It's across the spectrum. This is this notion of I don't know what it is. I don't know whether I should support something that might advantage a race of people, but race is an obscure construct to describe another set of human beings who are different to us.
GEOFF HUTCHISON: So could we. I'll pose the question, I don't know if you can answer it. What is it that people think is to be feared with this constitutional recognition, with this voice?
KEN WYATT: I think it's a combination, Geoff.
GEOFF HUTCHISON: What frightens Pauline Hanson?
KEN WYATT: Actually i've had some good discussions with Pauline, to her credit she's made some comments about her positioning and I said to her let's continue to have the discussions, Pauline, so that I can allay your fears. This is not about advantaging Aboriginal or Torres Islander people, it's about putting them on the birth certificate. The Constitution is the birth certificate of our nation. Now during the eighteen hundreds, particularly the ‘80s ‘90s, Indigenous Australians weren't at the table nor were women, and because of those conventions there were some very strong views about the issue of race hence Section 25, 51 (26), And in 127 of the Constitution. So obviously race had been an element of discussion in those early conventions. Otherwise those three sections of the Constitution wouldn't have been included. But I think Australia's come out extremely long way from the ‘50s when I grew up.
GEOFF HUTCHISON: Do you have confidence then, that this will go to a referendum, and that this acknowledgement will occur? Because there are interesting questions here. With a referendum you have to give equal amounts of money to both sides? Is there going to be a no side? Does the Australian Government have to stump up tens of millions of dollars so people can say I don't want this to happen?
KEN WYATT: In a democracy, we tend to do that. We allow both sides of the debate to prevail. But I think the other challenge is the way in which those who oppose it, argue it. Because we're leading up to a period in which we're going to be acknowledging Captain Cook, and there'll be the circumnavigation of the Endeavor around Australia, to celebrate the British heritage of our nation. Now what we have to remember is that Indigenous Australians have been here in many parts for 65,000 years plus so they were the original settlers. And held the country for that period of time. There was no significant warfare in the early days of the colony but certainly after that there were, what have been described as the frontier wars. Now we've moved on through reconciliation through working together and walking together, and the nation is very different. So I think there is an acceptance, as there was with same sex marriage. Now at one stage, I know people who are campaigning who said, this is going to be tough. But when we had a plebiscite, and Australians were allowed to make the decision. And their votes were recorded in supporting same sex marriage. It was a very different outcome, when the politicians of our Parliament debated the bills. I suspect if we had a plebiscite to go to a referendum, I think we'd find the majority of Australians who say yes do it. Don't wait. You've spent 10 to 12 years talking about this issue. And there were members who had very strong positions of not supporting same sex relationships. Yet when it came to the crunch, they voted for it because their electorates said We want you there.
GEOFF HUTCHISON: On drive this afternoon my guest is the Federal Minister for Indigenous Australians, I appreciate Minister your time is short. I've just got a couple other things for you -
KEN WYATT: That's fine Geoff, lets go through to five thirty.
GEOFF HUTCHISON: You've said, historically Indigenous Australians have been told what they're going to get and what's going to happen. And you told the National Press Club, that a child in a remote community is just as important as a state and national leader. And on the weekend, the world got to see this beautiful little kid dancing in the sand. How important is constitutional recognition going to be for Joevhan Burrarrwanga. The great grandson of Dr Yunupingu.
KEN WYATT: As equally as important as it is to every other Australian because, when he gets to mature age like, Dr Yunupingu, his grandson Michael who spoke. They spoke about wanting to be recognized within the Constitution, because they were people. They were part of Australia. But historically, we're here many generations before and couldn't see why as a nation, we couldn't have both sets acknowledged. Now as Noel Pearson said, he made the comment about our heritage, British settlement but in a multicultural society, because we've invited so many others to join us and that's the beauty of this country, is the blend of all of us.
GEOFF HUTCHISON: Ken Wyatt, No one would doubt your determination to have these conversations. Let me read this tweet. Ken Wyatt you're an inspiration we may not have directly been responsible for the stolen generation but it is in all of our DNA as if our ancestors lived in Australia during that time. Other people acknowledging you for what you do and no one doubts your determination to have these important conversations. Do you think you've got the strength of voice to convince those who reject this recognition, do you think you're tough enough to win this? Because you kinda have to don't you?
KEN WYATT: You do, you've got to be tough in this and take a tough stand. But the other thing that I've done is, I've invited people to walk with me, to become the multitude of voices who when they see it around a barbecue, the kitchen table, or in their workplace. If somebody says no, I can't support that. Ask them why, ask them why can't they consider their fellow Australian being recognised, because we have the duality of two significant cultures. Australia has always been fair minded. Now the tough direction and stance will mean that I either achieve the outcome or I fall on my sword. The reality is I won't change because we can't keep having these discussions every 10 years about closing the gap to levels of disparity. Now one thing that frustrates me Geoff, is every time I get a call from overseas the first question I get asked is, What is it like being an Aboriginal member in a racist nation. And I refute those comments. It's the perception too of how the world sees us. And I hate the way that we are sometimes described as a racist nation, when we're not. I look at the friendships I look at the way in which our indigenous sports men and women excel and represent this nation. But the way in which families have intermarried I think if the truth be known many of the early convicts had Aboriginal wives and the generations that have come afterwards if they could trace them back would demonstrate and show that we had married into families.
GEOFF HUTCHISON: Does this feel like a privilege, burden or a bit of both?
KEN WYATT: Excitement.
GEOFF HUTCHISON: Excitement?
KEN WYATT: But I'm excited by the fact that we're having the discussion again and the possibility that if we pull together through that fair go and fair construct debates and arguments and discussions that we can achieve this.
GEOFF HUTCHISON: And I got one more question. And I feel sorry for you, and I feel sorry for Matt Keogh, are you going to be the Member for Hasluck? Is he going to be the Member for Burt, next time around?
KEN WYATT: We don't know yet. Matt and I had a discussion, I said mate, one of us will probably go. Let's see who it is and we might have to contest against each other.
GEOFF HUTCHISON: Minister, thank you for coming in.
KEN WYATT: My pleasure.
GEOFF HUTCHISON: Ken Wyatt is the Federal Minister for Indigenous Australians. He is the Member for Hasluck.