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.

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Turnbull government says no to Indigenous ‘Voice to Parliament’


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The government has rejected the Referendum Council’s call for a national Indigenous representative assembly to be put into the Constitution, effectively taking the debate about constitutional recognition back to square one.

Malcolm Turnbull, Attorney-General George Brandis and Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion, responding to the council’s report, said: “The government does not believe such an addition to our national representative institutions is either desirable or capable of winning acceptance in a referendum”.

The proposal for the body came late into the debate about recognising Indigenous people in the Constitution. It was driven by prominent Indigenous leader Noel Pearson, and taken up by the May convention of Indigenous people in the Uluru Statement from the Heart, before being put forward by the council.

The cause of getting an Indigenous voice also gained support from some constitutional conservatives who preferred it to adding to the Constitution or rewriting parts of it.

The longer the debate about a constitutional change has gone on, the less chance there has seemed of community consensus. It has become clear that Indigenous people will not countenance a minimalist position, while a more radical proposal would not get the support required in a referendum, which must obtain an overall majority and win in a majority of states.

ALso, many Indigenous people are now more interested in pursuing a treaty than the earlier-canvased options for constitutional change.

The council proposed that the “Voice to Parliament” would have “the right to be consulted on legislation and policies that relate to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples”.

The government’s Thursday statement said: “Our democracy is built on the foundation of all Australian citizens having equal civic rights – all being able to vote for, stand for and serve in either of the two chambers of our national parliament.

“A constitutionally enshrined additional representative assembly which only Indigenous Australians could vote for or serve in is inconsistent with this fundamental principle.

“It would inevitably become seen as a third chamber of parliament. The Referendum Council noted the concerns that the proposed body would have insufficient power if its constitutional function was advisory only.”

The challenge was to find a constitutional amendment that would succeed and which did not undermine the principles of unity, equality and one-person one-vote, the statement said. The government wants consideration to return now to work done over the past decade “largely with bipartisan support”.

The rejection of the Voice to Parliament was backed by Tony Abbott, who as opposition leader and prime minister promoted constitutional recognition of Indigenous people. He favoured a minimalist model and at one stage aimed for a May 2017 referendum, to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the historic 1967 referendum.

Abbott said in a Facebook post on Thursday that recognition should “come in a way that brings all of us together and this proposal, for a further level of indigenous representation, was unlikely to achieve that”.

But Labor’s shadow assistant minister for Indigenous affairs, Pat Dodson, one of several Indigenous members of federal parliament, described the government decision as “a real kick in the guts for the Referendum Council”.

Pearson told the ABC Turnbull had “broken the first nations’ hearts of this country” expressed in the Uluru Statement.

“The prime minister and his cabinet have arrogated to themselves the entire judgement of this fundamental issue of how do we recognise Indigenous Australians,” he said.

“Why not just put it to the Australian people, as we are putting to a plebiscite the question about same-sex marriage at this very moment?”

The Uluru Statement Working Group said it was disappointed at the government’s decision. Its co-chair, Josephine Crawshaw, said Turnbull understood that a minimalist approach would not satisfy many Indigenous people.

The Conversation“Our aspirations are high, but the prime minister appears to believe that the Australian people will not support those aspirations. This is a very unfortunate view for the prime minister to hold, particularly when he has the highest platform to inspire all Australians to achieve great things for this country and for all its people.”

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

With a seat on the UN Human Rights Council, Australia must fix its record on Indigenous rights



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The UN Human Rights Committee challenged the Australian government to produce policy that truly includes Indigenous people.
AAP/Dean Lewins

Anna Cody, UNSW and Maria Nawaz, UNSW

It was a big week for Australia at the United Nations last week. It won a seat on the leading international human rights body, the UN Human Rights Council, for a three-year term. The UN Human Rights Committee also reviewed Australia’s compliance with a key human rights treaty, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

One would assume the Human Rights Council seat means Australia will lead on issues of human rights domestically, including in the area of Indigenous rights (one of the five pillars of Australia’s bid) and self-determination.

However, as the UN Human Rights Committee review showed, Australia is failing to meet basic human rights standards for Indigenous peoples.

Violence against women in Indigenous communities

To its credit, the Australian government delegation was open and frank in its dialogue with the committee. The delegation acknowledged key areas in which the country needs to improve.

One of the pressing issues affecting Indigenous communities is family violence. Indigenous women are 45 times more likely to experience violence than non-Indigenous women. The severity of the violence is also greater, with higher rates of hospitalisation.

The government delegation acknowledged that the rate of violence against Indigenous women was “appalling”. It referred to “A$25 million for Indigenous-specific measures” and a “trauma-informed approach for children affected by violence”. This is just one measure the government is adopting to deal with violence against Indigenous women.

The NGO coalition, led by Kingsford Legal Centre and the Human Rights Law Centre, agreed with the government delegation that an area for hope was the recent appointment of June Oscar as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner at the Human Rights Commission. Oscar has been at the forefront of effective, Aboriginal-led initiatives to deal with family violence in Fitzroy Crossing.

Indeed, the NGO coalition called for the government to include Indigenous women in the monitoring and evaluation of the National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and Their Children. It also called on it to fund Indigenous community-controlled services with expertise in working with victims/survivors of family violence.

Indigenous incarceration rates

An area in which Australia continues to breach international human rights standards is Indigenous incarceration rates. The national imprisonment rate for Indigenous adults is 13 times higher than that for non-Indigenous adults. While Indigenous people are only 2% of the population, they account for 27% of the prison population.

Mandatory sentencing and imprisonment for fine default, as canvassed by the current Australian Law Reform Commission inquiry, are key contributors to these statistics.

The UN Human Rights Committee repeatedly noted its concern about Indigenous incarceration rates and focused on policing of Indigenous communities. A committee member raised the case of Ms Dhu, who died in custody in Western Australia after being arrested for defaulting on fines. He asked why the laws providing for imprisonment for fine default had not yet been “scrapped”.

The committee also raised the recent case of an Aboriginal woman who called WA police for help in a domestic violence situation. She was taken into custody for a fine default, leaving her five children without support.

The Australian government was asked how this represented a “trauma-informed” approach to dealing with family violence.

Self-determination and constitutional reform

One of the key areas of interest for the NGO delegation and the committee was the response to entrenched disadvantage through effective policy. This connected closely with the identification of constitutional reform as advocated by Indigenous delegates at the regional dialogue process that produced the Uluru Statement.

The NGO delegation highlighted the need for Aboriginal-led policy design as articulated in the Redfern Statement and by numerous movements agitating for Indigenous rights since colonisation. The government delegation was keen to focus on constitutional recognition, while the NGO delegation advocated strongly for constitutional reform in accordance with the Uluru Statement.

In fairness to the Australian delegation, it certainly recognised the need for Indigenous-designed policy and implementation. This flies in the face of the government’s actions in cutting funding to Indigenous-controlled organisations, including the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples.

In 2014, funding for Aboriginal services was substantially cut from $2.4 billion to $860 million under the Indigenous Advancement Strategy. And 55% of grants were allocated to non-Indigenous bodies, effectively mainstreaming services.

Where to from here?

The UN Human Rights Committee challenged the Australian government to produce policy that truly includes Indigenous people.

One of the challenges of human rights treaty reviews is to ensure that the government implements the recommendations that the committee makes. Australia has a terrible record in this area, being called out for “chronic non-compliance” by the committee.

The ConversationHopefully, the seat on the Human Rights Council will encourage the government to heed the words of the UN Human Rights Committee and ensure real progress on Indigenous rights.

Anna Cody, Associate Professor and Director, Kingsford Legal Centre, UNSW and Maria Nawaz, Law Reform Solicitor/Clinical Legal Supervisor, Kingsford Legal Centre, UNSW

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Rudd Labor Off and Running … Liberals???


The Kevin Rudd Labor government is off and running, even though the government is yet to be sworn in. In what can only be described as very hopeful and wonderful signs of a pro-active government to come, Kevin Rudd and his newly formed ministry have hit the road running in almost every major policy area. The Rudd Labor government looks set to keep faith with the electorate by implementing each and every promise it made in the election campaign as quickly as possible.

Perhaps of even greater significance is the new government’s determination to meet every issue facing the nation head on, with a very strong emphasis of getting down and dirty with the nation as it seeks to meet the many problems that currently face it, including homelessness and indigenous affairs. Labor MPs are being urged very strongly by Prime Minister elect Kevin Rudd, to become intimately familiar with the problems facing Australia by getting in amongst the issues by visiting the homeless, aged care facilities, etc. These visits are not to be photo ops, but fact finding missions with a view to finding solutions for the problems facing Australia.

The doubters of Kevin Rudd must surely be very impressed with his approach to government thus far and the determination being shown by Labor in government to make a real difference and improvement in Australia for all. Kevin Rudd the man is now standing out for all of Australia to see and we watch with interest to learn more and watch his development as Prime Minister. The test of the man and leader is surely yet to come, as adversity will bring out the true character of Kevin Rudd – but he is certainly of to a great start. 

There is renewed hope for Australia’s future like there hasn’t been for many years – these are very interesting and exciting times to be Australian.

For the Liberal Party however it is more of the same it seems with the new leadership team sounding like the same party that was so soundly turned put of office in the recent national poll. John Howard, Peter Costello and co may all be gone, but the same tired rhetoric and sentiment seems to remain. It would appear that on current form a spell in the political wilderness beckons for the Liberal/National Party opposition, along with many leadership tensions and an inability to move on.