The view from Billinudgel

Where to for Indigenous recognition from here?
All eyes are on Ken Wyatt in Scott Morrison’s otherwise underwhelming ministry

Ken Wyatt, Minister for Indigenous Australians. Source: Twitter

There was little to enthuse about in Scott Morrison’s second ministry. The first one wasn’t too flash either, but with the exodus of Christopher Pyne, Kelly O’Dwyer and Mitch Fifield, the collective IQ has fallen further still. Bringing back Arthur Sinodinos would have helped, but he preferred a comfortable posting to the other side of the world.

Our miraculous leader is manfully focusing on what he perceives to be the plusses, mainly the number of women now warming his front bench. The competence and ability of some of those appointed may be in question, but they are undoubtedly female – no woman problems there.

More media attention, however, has been concentrated on Ken Wyatt, Australia’s first Indigenous cabinet minister and, what is perhaps more newsworthy, the first Indigenous minister for Indigenous Australians. 

Unlike the late senator Neville Bonner, who was the first Indigenous Australian to sit in federal parliament and who was never a contender for a place in the ministry of the McMahon or Fraser governments, Wyatt actively lobbied for the portfolio, so good luck to him.

But it will not be easy, being a member of a ministry that has long resisted any change beyond paternalistic, “practical” reconciliation – the nuts and bolts of improving the lamentable standards of health, housing, education, employment, and law and order.

These are issues for all Australians, and worthy ones too – the basic tools of closing the gap. Bringing material standards up to at least the basic level enjoyed by most citizens is a long overdue priority.

But first Australians know that more is needed. There are deep wounds that must be healed to advance genuine understanding, and they have said so, politely but forcefully, in the Uluru Statement from the Heart. The plea for Voice, Treaty and Truth was dismissed summarily by Malcolm Turnbull, and initially Morrison echoed the rejection.

Now he seems prepared to revisit the idea, but not with any urgency. More consultation, more inquiries, more procrastination. And, unhappily, Wyatt appears ready to kick the can further down the road.

The new minister says he will not hurry the process; Bill Shorten’s plan for a referendum in the current term of parliament has not been echoed. Wyatt views it as a long-term project.

His problem, of course, is the resistance within the Coalition in which he serves – a great many Liberals and Nationals are not merely uninterested but actively hostile to the idea of Aboriginal recognition, let alone empowerment.

They regard it as divisive, providing benefits to one group of Australians denied to others. Ironically, some of these refuseniks are the most zealous in demanding that religious groups be exempt from laws that govern the rest of us. Illogical – hypocritical, even – but this is the reality of the joint party room.

And Wyatt appears to have buckled in advance. Not a good start – perhaps he should consult with his fellow Western Australian Pat Dodson. Dodson will no longer grace Labor’s shadow ministry, but he remains its staunchest advocate for the cause – the father of reconciliation.

And since any real hope of progress must include bipartisanship, an informal alliance between the two would be a good start.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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Editor’s Note June 2019