The elevation of Ken Wyatt to assistant health minister has prompted calls for better paths to ensuring greater representation of Indigenous Australians in parliament.
Australia’s first federal Indigenous frontbencher, Ken Wyatt, admits there was a time he never thought an Indigenous Australian would rise to the ministry.
Describing the experience as surreal, he acknowledges the symbolism of his promotion in Malcolm Turnbull’s new Coalition government.
But he says there will be a practical impact, too.
Before entering politics, Mr Wyatt was director of Aboriginal health within both the New South Wales and West Australian health departments.
He has told NITV News he hopes to take that experience of working with and for Indigenous communities to his new role as assistant health minister.
“I found that, when you sat with them and worked through the issues, they had practical solutions and committed to them. I would just like to see more of that being done across the nation. Every single Member should get out into their electorate and meet with Aboriginal communities and organisations and get time to understand what are the gaps within their own electorates. Because, when you understand what a gap is, then you tend to come back and fight for the change, or fight for resources.”
Ken Wyatt’s nephew, West Australian Labor M-P Ben Wyatt, says his uncle’s rise to assistant minister is a significant development.
“Not just is he more than competent to fulfil that role of assistant minister, but he does give, if you like, a broader inspiration to Aboriginal people considering getting into elected politics at whatever level of government. And what Ken has shown is that, regardless of who you are, if you’re competent and persevere, you can, indeed, reach the significant heights of senior people in government. And I’m delighted for Ken.”
Ben Wyatt says the fact it has taken until 2015 to get Australia’s first federal Indigenous frontbencher shows there is much more work to be done.
“I think, ultimately, the mainstream political parties have, for a long time, been unable to attract Aboriginal people into their structures and, therefore, into parliaments and encourage them to pursue frontbench positions. I’d like to think the parties are getting better at it, but we still have very small numbers when you consider the size of the population of Aboriginal people entering the parliament, whether it be state or federal, and that’s the reality.”
The first Indigenous woman elected to the New South Wales parliament says too many Indigenous leaders fail to advance in politics because of the preselection process.
But deputy state Labor leader Linda Burney says she sees hope for change.
“There are, you know, some fabulous Aboriginal people interested in politics who have stood in many seats for all parties, but they were not seats that were winnable for that party. And with the resolution at Labor’s national conference down in Melbourne recently, hopefully that will change for the Labor Party. I mean the Liberals have this sort of idea, particularly when it comes to women — I’m not sure about when it comes to preselecting Aboriginal people — that it all has to be on merit. Well, I agree that merit’s important, but, when there is such a dearth of Aboriginal people across the political spectrum, then special measures need to be put in place. And one of those is making sure that the preselection processes recognise that there is a responsibility on all major parties to preselect Aboriginal people into winnable seats.”
James Cook University doctoral candidate Michelle Deshong has spent four years researching the barriers and enablers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander political participation.
She says the barriers facing Indigenous Australians stretch back through history as voting rights for some came and went over the years.
She says there are number of lessons to be learnt now from Ken Wyatt’s elevation.
“One of the things that was really significant, particularly in the (West Australian) seat of Hasluck, was, when Ken was elected (in 2010), there were actually three Aboriginal people standing at the same time. Therefore, there was probably a higher likelihood of getting an Indigenous Member. But some of that also comes from having a bit of a strategy — obviously, Ken’s position in the party and some of the work that goes on behind the scenes in party politics around preselections, about getting the party’s support. Even things like fundraising and campaigning, I mean, obviously, those are skills and areas that people need to develop in.”
With 226 Members in parliament, and Indigenous Australians accounting for three per cent of the population, proportional representation would mean at least six Indigenous federal MPs.
At the moment, there are three — the Liberal Ken Wyatt, Labor senator Nova Peris and Liberal senator Joanna Lindgren.