Our most recent ‘Cabinet shuffle’ on May 26 was a historical day, for both the nation and for Ken Wyatt, who was selected as the Federal Government’s first Indigenous Minister for Indigenous Australians.
Clad in a suit and traditional booka (or kangaroo skin) gifted by Noongar elders, Mr Wyatt—a Noongar man himself—was met by ecstatic applause as he became the first Indigenous person to be appointed to the Federal Cabinet, replacing the retiring Nationals senator Nigel Scullion.
“I am committed to honouring our people, our cultures, our shared heritage and all Australians,” said Mr Wyatt in a tweet, shortly after being sworn in.
The Indigenous Affairs portfolio has its origins in the 1967 Referendum, where over 90 per cent of Australians voted to amend Section 51 (xxvi) and Section 127 of the Australian Constitution. This amendment allowed Indigenous Australians to be included in the census and for the Commonwealth to make laws that were inclusive of their people.
The Office of Indigenous Affairs was established under the Holt Government, with Bill Wentworth becoming the first Minister for Aboriginal Affairs in 1968, and was followed by a five-decade history of non-Indigenous Ministers in the role.
Speaking to 2GB’s Chris Smith, Mr Wyatt said he wasn’t surprised it had taken so long to be the first Indigenous person in the position.
“In one sense, it doesn’t [surprise me] because you’ve got to have [Indigenous] people within the parliament to be given the opportunity. We could have done it when Neville Bonner was there, but that was not the case. The next member after Senator Bonner was Aden Ridgeway, and then ultimately, myself and Nova Peris, then we had three other colleagues come and join us,” he said.
Earlier this year, when Mr Wyatt was the Federal Minister for Indigenous Health, Western Australia received $3 million in an effort to reduce the rate of Indigenous youth suicides—five Indigenous youths took their lives in the first nine days of the year. Half of the funds went to the Pilbara and Kimberly regions, which were the hardest hit.
Reports in May showed that sixty two Indigenous Australians had taken their lives since the start of this year, fifteen of whom were children, and half of whom were under the age of twenty five.
On the other hand, the 2017 Uluru Statement called for the “First Nations Voice [to be] enshrined in the constitution”, which is yet to happen.
In May, Mr Wyatt said that the Government committed $7.3 million to consult with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, forming a “comprehensive co-design of models” to make decisions towards constitutional recognition.
If his party had won the May election, Labor Senator Pat Dodson was expected to be the first Indigenous Cabinet Minister. Dodson has been pushing for a bipartisan approach to meet the Uluru Statement’s demands, saying that the Morrison government should form a voice to parliament and hold a referendum for constitutional reform during its first term. Mr Wyatt, on the other hand, hasn’t yet stated a clear timeline for this initiative, saying he doesn’t want to rush.
“It’s too important in the scheme of Australian society, particularly for Indigenous Australians. To lose a referendum because we hadn’t done our work properly would be a major setback for at least 10 or 20 years,” he told Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
Mr Wyatt is currently serving his fourth term as the Federal Member for Hasluck. It looks like his appointment as Minister for Indigenous Australians has been a step in the right direction, let’s hope that this is the start of more great work aimed at achieving better outcomes for Indigenous Australians.