” Ken Wyatt is no stranger to making history, but this time it comes with great expectations and even greater challenges.
In 2010 he became the first Indigenous person elected to the House of Representatives, and then the first to become a minister in 2016. Now, Mr Wyatt adds another first to his credentials, taking on the role of Indigenous Affairs Minister — and also the first time an Indigenous person has been in Cabinet.
The appointment of Mr Wyatt, who will be sworn in today as part of Scott Morrison’s new ministry, marks an important change that’s as symbolic as it is potentially game changing.”
” The leader of one of the most influential Aboriginal organisations, the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation’s Pat Turner, believes Mr Wyatt will achieve great things.
Together they will lead the Closing the Gap policy reforms, which sets targets that aim to improve key outcomes for Indigenous Australians — it’s been under review since 2017 after years of slow progress.
The new framework will carry hefty expectations to deliver better results, and will need support from all state governments and key Indigenous groups.
“He did some good work [as Indigenous Health Minister] … the expectations on him as a Cabinet minister will be much higher,” Ms Turner said.
The son of a Stolen Generations member, Mr Wyatt inherits some tough portfolio legacies, fraught policies and complex behind-the-scenes bureaucracy.
He will need to progress constitutional reforms, finalise new Closing the Gap policy targets, and manage a new Indigenous agency — just some of the pressing issues.
Not to mention respond to an increasingly serious Indigenous youth suicide crisis, playing out around the country but especially in his home state of Western Australia.
All the while, trying to please both his people and the party that promoted him.
One possible sticking point, for example: the Coalition’s controversial Work for the Dole program. For years, Indigenous organisations have pushed for reforms, but his party has staunchly stood behind it.
‘A reminder about how far the country has shifted’
Mr Wyatt has worn his culture proudly throughout his time in Parliament, a move which has at times put him at odds with his mostly-white Coalition colleagues.
In his maiden speech he wore a traditional kangaroo-hide cloak of the Noongar people, and paid tribute to his mother, who died before the National Apology to the Stolen Generations.
Some of his Liberal colleagues fought against that apology, and even left the chamber while it was read out, but he has worked alongside them throughout his nine years in office.
Labor MP and Wiradjuri woman Linda Burney considers Mr Wyatt a friend, but believes he will face “enormous challenges” in the role.
“I am very pleased for him, I think it’s a very good thing to have an Aboriginal person, in the position, finally, in the Indigenous Affairs portfolio,” she said.
“I think Ken is a very steady hand and he has the respect of the Aboriginal community, let’s just hope he has the respect of his party as well,” Ms Burney said.
Ms Burney notes that Mr Wyatt often discusses important issues with herself and fellow Aboriginal parliamentarians: Labor Senators Patrick Dodson and Malarndirri McCarthy.
“I expect the bi-partisan discussions to continue; whether they’ll be formalised or not is another thing,” she said.
His cousin, the Treasurer and Aboriginal Affairs Minister for WA’s Labor Government, Ben Wyatt, said he also hoped the appointment would herald a new era of co-operation between the parties.
“I hope that the engagement we have with the Commonwealth Government on Indigenous Affairs, particularly remote Aboriginal housing, will be more productive now.”
The appointment is monumental, according to Fred Chaney, the former Aboriginal affairs minister under the Howard government.
“We’ve now got in Western Australia an Aboriginal man who is the Minister for Indigenous Affairs at the state level and at the Federal level,” Mr Chaney said.
“At times we are gloomy about the huge amount that remains to be done, but this a reminder about how far the country has shifted.”
Wyatt’s biggest challenge
Perhaps the biggest balancing act he faces to please both his party and his people will be around progressing the voice to Parliament.
It’s almost two years to the day since hundreds of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander delegates met at the foot of Uluru and called for the establishment of an enshrined voice to Parliament.
The Coalition has been indecisive on the issue: it was first rejected by the Turnbull government but now has tentative support under Mr Morrison, dependent on the outcome of a future inquiry.
Mr Wyatt will need to guide that inquiry, which will aim to design how an enshrined advisory body would work, and he could ultimately determine the life or death of the vision.
‘Now we don’t have to ask people to feel‘
For the past six years, former Northern Territory senator Nigel Scullion has been in charge of the portfolio, appointed by Tony Abbott.
Mr Abbott made major reforms to the portfolio, making the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet responsible for its administration and the majority of its funding, a somewhat divisive move at the time.
This arrangement will be inherited by Mr Wyatt, who has not spoken publicly since his new role was announced, as well as a new agency that Prime Minister Scott Morrison said will “help streamline service delivery,” but few other details are known.
The role will still require him to work with other big portfolios like health and education, but Mr Wyatt is an experienced bureaucrat having worked in senior government positions before entering Parliament.
He also brings ministerial experience, working in the outer cabinet as Minister for Indigenous Health and Minister for Aged Care since 2016.
His community in Western Australia has high hopes for what he will achieve, said Reconciliation WA co-chair, Carol Innes said.
“Ken has been affected by what happened to Aboriginal people. Now we don’t have to ask people to feel.”
Ms Innes said she and Mr Wyatt’s mothers grew up together at an Aboriginal mission in regional Western Australia.
“It is a big job but he won’t be alone, we will all stand with him and work together,” she said.