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Wyatt the ‘pathfinder’ treading a fine line

Ken Wyatt. Illustration: Joe Benke

Ken Wyatt. Illustration: Joe BenkeCredit:

Growing up he heard the stories his mother and her brothers and sisters shared about life on the missions as children without their parents. In his first speech in Parliament he described putting together the missing pieces of his parents’ lives, the experience locked away and not spoken of, through field officers’ reports in his mother’s native welfare department file.

He started his working life as a teacher and once told Parliament he earned more in his first job out of college than his father just before retirement.

After a career in the public service, where he ran Aboriginal health in both NSW and WA, Wyatt snatched the WA marginal seat of Hasluck from Labor in 2010 and became the first Aboriginal person to be elected to the Australian House of Representatives.

What does he do?

Wyatt was promoted to Cabinet as Minister for Indigenous Australians after the 2019 election. After his elevation, he would tell stakeholders he had been given the task by Prime Minister Scott Morrison with ”delivering” for Australia’s Indigenous people.

He is leading the effort to give Indigenous Australians a new mechanism for community input into government decision-making, which he said would put them “at the centre” of decisions that affect them.

In his maiden speech in September 29, 2010, Wyatt described himself as a “pathfinder”.

“As leaders … we need to be pathfinders so that we can accelerate the change needed to improve outcomes for our future generations,” he said.

“To me, pathfinders are leaders who shape the future, which is fast, fragile, fashionable and ever-changing.

“As pathfinders, we forge the way forward and we draw the maps and pathways for the future generations of Australians. As pathfinders, we have to commit to, and fight for, change.”

What did he do this week?

As Black Lives Matter protests swept the globe, including in Australia, Wyatt revealed the next incremental step in setting up an Indigenous Voice, with the government’s plan to be revealed for public consultation in July.

“We’re confident that the Australian people will be able to have their say on an Indigenous Voice this year,” he said.

“We’re progressing work and every Australian who wants to have a say will be able to have a say.”

But Wyatt was still facing criticism for postponing the most contentious part of the plan by pushing back a referendum to enshrine the Voice in the constitution. Wyatt has said it was “too important to fail” if done in a rush.

Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt embraces Linda Burney after the Prime Minister's Closing the Gap statement to the House of Representatives on February 12.

Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt embraces Linda Burney after the Prime Minister’s Closing the Gap statement to the House of Representatives on February 12.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

In Parliament this week, Wyatt addressed spiralling rates of imprisonment for Australia’s Indigenous peoples and said he would be working with the states and territories to set targets to reduce the rate.

This comes after the latest ABS statistics revealed Indigenous people are locked up at 10 times the rate of the general population. WA, Wyatt’s home state, imprisons Aboriginal people at a higher rate than any other state or territory, with 4.1 per cent of its population behind bars. They make up almost 40 per cent of all the people in full-time custody.

But none of this satisfied some Aboriginal leaders around the country.

Former co-chair of Reconciliation Australia Tom Calma slammed political leaders – including Wyatt – for taking years to reach a national agreement on incarceration rates and Indigenous justice. He said Black Lives Matter protests showed the cost of inaction.

Protesters outside Rio Tinto’s Perth headquarters this week called for Wyatt’s resignation over the destruction of 46,000-year-old rock shelters in the WA’s Pilbara iron ore region to make way for a mine expansion.

They said he and his cousin Ben Wyatt, who is WA’s Aboriginal affairs minister, could have done more to stop the blast at Juukan Gorge.

Why is this important?

The Black Lives Matter movement has swept the globe, with its protests and controversies putting a blowtorch to the belly of governments over their handling of historical and present-day racism.

The path Wyatt has tried to find is midway between the conservatism of a number of his colleagues and the demands put upon him by protesters and professional activists.

As the lone Indigenous voice speaking out inside the Morrison government, Wyatt will have to resist the pressure from both sides to deliver for Australia’s first people.

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