Grattan on Friday: When it comes to Indigenous recognition, Ken Wyatt will have to close multiple gaps


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

If the Morrison government manages to get a referendum passed to give Australia’s Indigenous people constitutional recognition, it will be truly remarkable.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has previously taken little interest in this area, at least publicly. And he would have done something that proved beyond Tony Abbott, for whom it was a cause.

Morrison and his minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, would have stared down conservative colleagues, cut a deal with Labor, and persuaded enough Indigenous leaders to get on board.

Finally, the government would have overcome the public’s inherent negativity towards referendums.

It would, one might say, be another miracle.

But miracles are rare and on present indications this one will be extraordinarily hard to land.

We are yet to see how seriously committed Morrison will be to the recognition push. For a chance of success, he’ll need to put his back into it.




Read more:
The Morrison government proposes an Indigenous recognition referendum this term


His appointment of Wyatt, a man of Noongar, Wongi, and Yamatji heritage, was a statement in itself. The nomination of recognition for early attention was a surprise – and another indication that we have yet to get a grasp on Morrison as prime minister (as distinct from campaigner).

There has been much talk about his lack of an agenda, but the unveiling of a couple of significant priorities – industrial relations and now Indigenous recognition – suggests there might be more there than we suspected.

It’s important to be clear about what Wyatt – who outlined his proposals in a speech on Wednesday – is saying.

The government’s ambit hope is to put a referendum for recognition during this parliamentary term. But this will only happen if two conditions are met: it can get consensus on the content of what would go into the constitution, and there’s a high probability of a favourable outcome. The latter means winning not just the overall vote but the vote in four of the six states. Both content and potential support will present major problems.

What of the timetable? If the government really wants to give constitutional change a red hot go, there is a case for pushing it hard and quickly. Support doesn’t necessary build as time passes; beyond a certain point, it can erode.

But judging whether and when there would be sufficient likely public backing for a Yes vote would be tricky. Post May 18, everyone has become rather chary of polls. And things could quickly change in the final countdown.

History shows the voters’ penchant to say No. Despite the triumph of the 1967 referendum to give the federal government power to make laws for Aboriginal people and count them in the census (carried overwhelmingly in every state), referendums generally fail. Only eight have been passed – the last in 1977.




Read more:
Listening with ‘our ears and our eyes’: Ken Wyatt’s big promises on Indigenous affairs


Formulating the question will be an extremely challenging hurdle to climb over.

A constitutional change that acknowledged Australia’s First Peoples but didn’t go much beyond that would be easiest to get through government ranks and the popular vote.

It is hard to see either Indigenous leaders or Labor accepting just that.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders in their 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart called for “the establishment of a First Nations voice enshrined in the constitution”.

But the indications are a voice would not be part of the government’s constitutional model. Wyatt does want a voice at the national level, but he is vague about its form, and the official line is that Morrison has “no plans” for the voice.

Labor was committed at the election to putting into the constitution a voice – which would be an input to the political process, not any sort of third chamber of Parliament – and the ALP would come under attack from Indigenous leaders if it walked away from this.

Writing for the Sydney Morning Herald on Thursday, Labor’s Pat Dodson, shadow assistant minister for reconciliation and constitutional recognition (and an Indigenous man dubbed “the father of reconciliation”) declared:

We either deliver the Uluru Statement from the Heart in full or continue down the failed path of soft reconciliation measures.

The shadow minister for Indigenous Australians, Linda Burney (also Indigenous), who is working closely with Wyatt and will do some travelling with him, may be more flexible than Dodson. Nevertheless she said after Wyatt’s speech:

We are at a point in our development, in our history where a voice to the parliament absolutely has to be entrenched in the Australian Constitution.

Morrison has had talks with Anthony Albanese to pursue bipartisanship on Indigenous issues and the Labor leader was optimistic on Thursday that a successful recognition referendum in the next three years was “absolutely realistic and doable”.




Read more:
Constitutional reform made easy: how to achieve the Uluru statement and a First Nations voice


But former Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson, a member of the review panel Abbott set up to examine possible pathways to constitutional recognition, says that while he’s sympathetic to what Wyatt is undertaking,

finding the necessary national unity to avoid hurt and disappointment will be far from easy.

One huge problem, Anderson believes, will be getting Aboriginal people to come together on an agreed model.

Those in the Coalition party room and in the right wing commentariat who are critical of the move for recognition will use the spectre of the voice as a scare tactic.

The recognition issue will be one test of whether the right, though tamed since Malcolm Turnbull’s overthrow, will seriously arc up within the Liberal party in this term.

But Wyatt has attracted enthusiasm from some colleagues. NSW Liberal John Alexander was quick to declare

I’m with Ken on this, he has my full support for the process he has initiated and I hope it can conclude with a successful referendum vote and form of voice we can all be proud of.

Of particular importance, many big corporations, including mining companies, now have progressive positions on Indigenous affairs and will swing in behind the move. Wyatt has indicated he would be looking to them to help carry the debate, particularly in his home state of Western Australia, where a referendum would potentially be a hard sell.

He’d be encouraged by sentiments such as from Woodside, which said the company was

proud to give our support to this process as we continue to walk together with courage towards a reconciled Australia.




Read more:
Politics with Michelle Grattan: Ken Wyatt on constitutional recognition for Indigenous Australians


As with same-sex marriage, indeed probably more so, the corporate world is talking up an important social issue and prodding the politicians to act.

If Morrison has to retreat on Indigenous recognition, it is unlikely to make a great amount of difference to him. It won’t affect the outcome of the next election.

For Wyatt the issue has quite another dimension. This is a fight for his people. The stakes are personal, and must feel frightening high.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Listening with ‘our ears and our eyes’: Ken Wyatt’s big promises on Indigenous affairs



In his first major policy address, Ken Wyatt noted how previous governments have failed Indigenous Australians with a ‘top-down, command and control approach.’
Rohan Thomson/AAP

Eddie Synot, Griffith University

Recently, I wrote that Ken Wyatt’s appointment as the minister for Indigenous Australians was a momentous occasion in Australian history. The appointment showed the government is committed to doing things differently when it comes to its responsibilities and obligations to Indigenous Australians.

It is still incredibly early days, but Wyatt has delivered his first major speech at a significant time – in the middle of National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC) week.

For Indigenous communities, the speech held much promise and provided key details on what the Morrison government’s approach to Indigenous affairs will look like over the next three years. This is major turning point that could result in real change after years of little progress.

New language on Indigenous affairs

Perhaps most significant was the rhetoric Wyatt used – it mirrored the language long used by many Indigenous Australians, but notably lacking in previous government addresses on these issues. Wyatt noted how previous governments have failed Indigenous Australians, acknowledging how even the

most well-intentioned modern policies and programs have still tended to take a top-down, command and control approach.

Wyatt echoed legitimate concerns with the way the government approached its Indigenous policies in the past, noting that it had been as

if Aboriginal people didn’t know what they needed or wanted.

He further noted that dominant attitudes toward Indigenous affairs had ignored “proud members of one of the world’s longest-lived civilisations,” pretending as if they

had nothing to say, no wisdom to offer, about what would help their families thrive and their communities flourish.

The significance of a cabinet minister, especially one responsible for Indigenous affairs, highlighting these aspects of Australian history and society is massive. The change in comparison to earlier ministers who ignored or dismissed these truths is remarkable.

The Constitution remains key

Another major shift for the Coalition government: there is no longer a disregard for the Uluru Statement from the Heart and a First Nations voice being entrenched in the Constitution.

While Wyatt demurred on specific details, emphasising a “consensus option,” he did otherwise commit to a referendum within three years. This is another significant step toward implementing the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

It is important to note that the final report of the Referendum Council, as well as the bi-partisan, parliamentary Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition, both affirmed that a First Nations voice as called for by the Uluru Statement was the most sensible and widely supported option for reform.

Also supporting the conclusions of the Referendum Council and the Joint Select Committee, Wyatt emphasised that “the constitution remains key.” Both found that current representative mechanisms for Indigenous peoples were not working. And both agreed that only a First Nations voice would provide the type of representation required to empower Indigenous peoples and communities.

The Referendum Council advised Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to hold a referendum on establishing a voice to parliament in 2017, but Turnbull rejected the recommendation.
Paul Miller/AAP

A move away from top-down policy

Wyatt touched on many other issues that are important to Indigenous communities and are aimed at bringing more local input to policy-making.

On the issue of truth telling, he poignantly recognised that without truth

there can be no agreement on where and who we are in the present, how we arrived here and where we want to go in the future.

More details were also provided on the role of the new coordinating agency called the National Indigenous Australians Agency (NIAA). The NIAA aims to coordinate efforts across all levels of government and Indigenous communities to allow Indigenous peoples to empower themselves.

Wyatt specifically indicated that he doesn’t intend policy to come from the NIAA or his office. Rather, policy actions are to be supported by all levels of community and the state and territory governments to enable communities to own their own policy actions.

This is continued movement away from what Wyatt described as the history of
“a top-down, command and control approach” that has failed Indigenous Australians.

Wyatt emphasised this by saying that his intention is “to have genuine conversations, not only with Indigenous leaders and peak bodies, but with families, individuals and community organisations so that I can hear their voices.”

This addresses the long history of Indigenous peoples not being listened to and rather being told what will happen. Wyatt noted again that

the most important thing that I and the agency will do is to listen – with our ears and with our eyes.

One area of concern

The speech also raised the priority issues of youth suicide, the revival and maintenance of Indigenous languages (with a pledged A$10 million), and the expansion of programs aimed at supporting Indigenous businesses, such as the Indigenous Procurement Policy, which provides incentives for Indigenous businesses to grow.

Wyatt also reemphasised the creation of the new position of a national suicide prevention adviser to coordinate and advise on already announced funding and increased support service delivery.

It is still early and only time will tell whether these actions will help, but at least one area of the speech raises concern: Wyatt’s commitment to revamp the the Community Development Program aimed at employment, training and development for Indigenous communities. By creating community advisory boards, Wyatt claimed that the

CDP has been reformed to ensure communities have a say in the way the programme is run.

The problem, however, hasn’t just been how the program is run. Many have been advocating for the abolishment of the CDP, rather than its reform.

Too many Indigenous people in the program work significant hours for less than minimum wage and face punitive punishments for non-compliance with regulatory requirements. This includes being fined for failing to show for work, which impacts the participants’ ability to purchase life necessities.

In attempting to force participants into work, the CDP fails to understand the challenges of remote communities and, as such, unfairly discriminates against Indigenous people. The CDP is effectively a “work-for-the-dole” program that punishes poverty rather than empowering communities.

Overall, Wyatt’s speech continued to build on the early optimism surrounding his appointment. His notable change in rhetoric from previous governments and his commitment for early action to build on reforms, such as the Council of Australian Governments’ partnership agreement with peak Indigenous organisations to close the gap in health, education and employment opportunities and the Indigenous Advancement Strategy Evaluation Framework, are welcome.

Most importantly, Wyatt’s recommitment to constitutional reform moves the nation one step closer to achieving those important reforms of voice, treaty and truth from the Uluru Statement from the Heart. As Wyatt noted, this is

too important to get wrong, and too important to rush.

But the crucial thing to remember is how far we have come since the Turnbull government’s response to the Uluru Statement from the Heart, just two short years ago.The Conversation

Eddie Synot, Senior Research Assistant, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The Morrison government proposes an Indigenous recognition referendum this term


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The Morrison government plans to hold a referendum in the next three years on whether to enshrine constitutional recognition of Australia’s Indigenous people.

Announcing the proposal on Wednesday, the minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, said he would:

develop and bring forward a consensus option for constitutional recognition to be put to a referendum during the current parliamentary term.

He said he had begun seeking the counsel of Indigenous leaders on the best way forward. But Wyatt made it clear that the final decision on whether the referendum goes ahead this term will depend on achieving a high degree of consensus and the prospect of it having a very strong chance of success.

Constitutional recognition is too important to get wrong, and too important to rush.

Wyatt stressed the importance of bipartisanship, and will establish a cross-party parliamentary working group to assist with engagement to develop a “community model” for the referendum.

Labor’s shadow minister for Indigenous affairs, Linda Burney “will be integral to this process”, Wyatt told the National Press Club in a major speech outlining the Morrison government’s approach to Indigenous affairs. Both Wyatt and Burney are Indigenous.




Read more:
Ken Wyatt faces challenges – and opportunities – as minister for Indigenous Australians


Wyatt did not indicate how he envisioned changing the constitution, which has been highly controversial in the last few years.

The May 2017 “Uluru Statement from the Heart” called for “the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the constitution”.

The Referendum Council proposed a national Indigenous representative assembly be added to the constitution, but this was rejected by the Turnbull government.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has recently shifted course and begun speaking with Labor leader Anthony Albanese about a bipartisan approach to constitutional recognition. Without bipartisanship, any referendum is doomed to failure; passage is difficult enough even with agreement of the major parties. The last successful referendum of any sort was in 1977.

Changing the constitution through a referendum requires an overall majority of votes and a majority in a majority of states. When Prime Minister Tony Abbott wanted to hold a referendum on Indigenous recognition, the plan slipped away amid arguments over its content and doubts about getting the necessary support.




Read more:
Listening but not hearing: process has trumped substance in Indigenous affairs


Wyatt also promised the development of “a local, regional and national voice”. He did not spell out the detail of a national “voice”.

He said the concept of the “voice” in the Uluru Statement from the Heart “is not a singular voice”.

It is a cry to all tiers of government to stop and listen to the voices of Indigenous Australians at all levels.

All they want is for governments to hear their issues, stories of their land and their local history.

He said Indigenous communities are asking the three tiers of government to stop and take the time to listen to their voices.

The national interest requires a new relationship with Indigenous Australians based on their participation and establishing entrenched partnerships at the community and regional levels.

Wyatt also said he would work on “progressing how we address truth telling.

Without the truth of the past, there can be no agreement on where and who we are in the present, how we arrived here and where we want to go in the future.




Read more:
Treaty talk is only one problem for Indigenous recognition referendum


On the treaty issue, he said it was important for states and territories to take the lead.

Wyatt said the significance of symbolism must never be forgotten but “it must be balanced with pragmatism that results in change for Indigenous Australians”. He highlighted the new National Indigenous Australians Agency, which was set up by Morrison to oversee Indigenous affairs policy.

With the establishment of the agency on 1 July, we began a new era for the 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.

The most important thing that I and the agency will do is to listen – with our ears and with our eyes.

I intend to have genuine conversations, not only with Indigenous leaders and peak bodies, but with families, individuals and community organisations so that I can hear their voices and work together to agree to a way forward for a better future for our children.

He also wanted businesses “to sit with me around boardroom tables – and around campfires – and discuss how they can contribute”.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Ken Wyatt faces challenges – and opportunities – as minister for Indigenous Australians



The appointment of Ken Wyatt as the first Indigenous minister for Indigenous Australians is a significant moment in the nation’s history.
AAP/Lukas Coch

Eddie Synot, Griffith University

Ken Wyatt is the first Indigenous cabinet minister in the history of the Commonwealth government. That he was also the first Indigenous member of the House of Representatives when elected in 2010 as the member for Hasluck, WA, and is now the first Indigenous person to be minister for Indigenous Australians, makes his appointment especially significant.

Wearing his Noongar kangaroo skin booka, the significance of this appointment should not be understated. The short history of Indigenous participation in Australia’s political community is one of exclusion. But that exclusion was never the result of a lack of Indigenous persistence and ability.

Australian society was structured on the exclusion, or limited inclusion, of Indigenous people. Laws targeted Indigenous people for special treatment based on biological and sociological beliefs in their racial inferiority. These attitudes permeated Australian society throughout the protection and assimilation eras. These laws set effective limits on the participation of Indigenous peoples in Australian society.




Read more:
Constitutional reform made easy: how to achieve the Uluru statement and a First Nations voice


Australian society has come a long way since the days of oppressive exclusion. But we still bear the heavy burden of a history of torment and powerlessness. Perhaps more than any other member of cabinet, Ken Wyatt will feel the weight of history, hope and expectation as he faces the challenge of Indigenous affairs.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison seems aware of the significance of this appointment. An example of this awareness is the name change from Minister for Indigenous Affairs to Minister for Indigenous Australians. This fits the narrative of social cohesion that Morrison has deployed to emphasise Australian unity in response to calls for Indigenous constitutional recognition. This rhetoric has persisted despite many emphasising that Indigenous constitutional recognition would unify and enhance Australian democracy rather than challenge it.

The Indigenous affairs portfolio has had a long and troubled history. Nigel Scullion’s tenure as minister was plagued by significant issues and dissatisfaction from within the Indigenous community. Multiple reports have been scathing of the Commonwealth’s policies, especially its flagship Indigenous Advancement Strategy (IAS) and Closing the Gap (CTG).

The 2017 review of the IAS by the Australian National Audit Office was particularly scathing. The report found a culture of arbitrary decision-making, a lack of transparency, poor record-keeping, a lack of oversight and accountability, no access to review of decisions, and a significant number of submissions having been lost.

The reviews of CTG were also scathing. Reports emphasised a continued failure to make significant inroads in targeted outcomes, despite over a decade of policy action.

Most striking, though, has been the clear frustration of the Indigenous community with a government that has ignored Indigenous peoples and worked according to dated and paternalistic practices.

This frustration resulted in the formation of a coalition of peak Indigenous bodies. This coalition in turn was able to obtain a negotiated partnership with the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) announced in December 2018.

COAG acknowledged a need for actions to:

align with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ and communities’ priorities and ambition as a basis for developing action plans.

This is important recognition of the desire of Indigenous peoples to control their own affairs through community-controlled delivery of service programs. COAG also recognised that “to effect real change, governments must work collaboratively and in genuine, formal partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as they are the essential agents of change”.

These policy concerns are part of the broader place and understanding of Indigenous peoples within Australia. This foundational issue informed the Uluru Statement from the Heart and its sequenced priorities of voice, treaty and truth. Fully aware of the difficult history and challenges ahead, the Uluru Statement from the Heart asked all Australians “to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future”.

The second anniversary of the Uluru statement has coincided with Wyatt’s appointment, National Sorry Day and Reconciliation Week. This timing has provided a unique opportunity to reflect on the importance of Wyatt’s appointment, successes to date, challenges ahead, and the acceptance of that invitation from the Uluru statement.




Read more:
The Indigenous community deserves a voice in the constitution. Will the nation finally listen?


Wyatt faces a significant challenge. That cannot be denied. Any increased expectations on him because he is Indigenous should be tempered.

The challenge is bigger than the Indigenous affairs portfolio, as recent reports into Indigenous affairs have addressed. Solutions require partnerships across government, ministerial portfolios and the community to be successful. The challenges are not simply those of Indigenous peoples and the minister for Indigenous Australians. This is the responsibility of all Australians.

It is hard to say what Wyatt’s first priority as minister should be, as there are so many issues demanding attention. Indigenous youth suicide and the much maligned Community Development Program stand out. But the relationship between Indigenous peoples and other Australians, including the respect and recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, remains front and centre of the work ahead.

Wyatt brings a notable difference to the Indigenous affairs portfolio. He is experienced, having served as a senior public servant and as an MP since 2010. He has been minister for aged care and Indigenous health. He has also been involved in and is supportive of major reform agendas being called for in Indigenous affairs – implementing the Uluru Statement from the Heart and achieving meaningful partnerships with Indigenous Australians.The Conversation

Eddie Synot, Senior Research Assistant, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.