While every Australian must wish Ken Wyatt well in the portfolio of Indigenous Australians, he still must operate in a system which has shown itself unsympathetic to the needs of first Australians. His intention to present a referendum on recognition might be a good one, but he will succeed only if political leadership on the issue is strong. While the Uluru Statement languishes, this seems unlikely.
There is plenty of wisdom spoken by Indigenous elders. One man tells the story of how his mother urged him to listen carefully to what others are saying before attempting to speak. She told him that this is perfectly natural – you have only to look or feel to know that most people are born with two ears, but only one mouth.
When sent out to investigate the best way to achieve constitutional recognition, a committee listened so well to Indigenous people that it gave more importance to community wishes than to the need to fulfil the brief given it by the Coalition Government. Its report, a Statement from the Heart or the Uluru Statement, was broader than the narrow desires of the gubba politicians. It noted the need for a Treaty, for Truth and a Voice.
The Turnbull Government patronisingly stalled and procrastinated and noted the pitfalls it foresaw. Unfortunately these pitfalls were obstacles which it had created in its prejudiced ways. No-one, except Coalition politicians, thought that a ‘voice’ had to mean the creation of a third chamber of federal parliament. No-one, except the same lot, thought that a Treaty had to be implemented by referendum.
One difficulty among the many facing ken Wyatt is that the Uluru Statement is still alive. It can be addressed and should be. All that is lacking is political will. In the context of the patient and well researched suggestions of the Uluru Statement, any demand for further consultation looks very much like a diversion. By all means, let us have a referendum to recognise the first peoples. But surely the elements of the Uluru Statement can be implemented by legislation without a referendum. The problem is that the Coalition lacks the political will to address Indigenous issues with an open mind.
By making Ken Wyatt Minister for Indigenous Australians. The prime minister has attempted to divert attention away from the legitimate demands of the Uluru Statement and towards a diluted, minimalist amendment to the Constitution. This model worked well enough on marriage equality – what it termed same sex marriage – and is meant to shift responsibility away from the government.
All Australians of good will appreciate that the entire country will become stronger when Indigenous Australians are treated justly. They did not cede sovereignty and are the rightful owners of this land and probably the only ones who can save it from physical degradation. It seems extraordinary that we all accept the need for reconciliation and for closing the gap, and yet we tolerate conservative politicians imposing a veto on every suggestion made by Indigenous Australians.
When prime minister Rudd made an apology to the stolen generations a priority for his government, all Australians had the opportunity to associate themselves proudly with the event. I was very grateful to my local council for hosting a viewing of the apology in its chambers and supplying a book for signing. I remain mortified by the fact that not all coalition MPs supported the apology and that this prejudiced stance still has a prominent voice in the Morrison Government.
Ken Wyatt is clearly between a rock and a hard place. The statement emerging from Uluru is merely a difficult situation for an Indigenous man who is Minister for Indigenous Australians. The rock is the solid, dead, unmoving stance of his coalition colleagues. Under these circumstances it is understandable that he wants to avoid being crushed. So he must dismantle the Uluru Statement and satisfy the racist forces which placed him in his role. In his campaign on their behalf, he is failing to hear the calls for Treaty, truth and voice and breaking hearts across Australia.
Dr Tony Smith is a former political science academic with interests in parliament, elections and political ethics. He resides in Wiradjuri country.