With big shoes to fill after a landslide State election win for his party, new Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Stephen Dawson plans to make his mark by finally locking down WA’s new Cultural Heritage Bill.

No stranger to change, Mr Dawson migrated to Australia from Ireland in 1989 at age 13 after visiting two years earlier on a family holiday for the America’s Cup.

“I was the eldest of four kids, went to a Gaelic-speaking school, so I moved out here to a very different place,” Mr Dawson told the National Indigenous Times.

“Schooling in English, there were challenges, but there were a lot more opportunities over here. We lived in a very working-class area in Ireland, with high rates of suicide and high rates of unemployment.”

A Labor man from the start, Mr Dawson joined the Labor Party on his first day of orientation at Edith Cowan University. While studying to become a teacher he worked his way up to become the Mt Lawley campus president, later became guild president, and then got involved with the National Union of Students.

Later working as a lobbyist, corporate manager, and then a chief of staff in the Carpenter government, Mr Dawson climbed the ladder slowly — unsuccessfully running for election in 2005 and again in 2009.

In 2013, Mr Dawson was elected to WA’s Upper House to represent the Mining and  Pastoral Region. Since then, he has represented several Aboriginal communities and their interests in the seat.

“As a member of the Mining and Pastoral Region, I’ve represented most of the Aboriginal communities in WA, I’ve been their local MP, so I’ve had good relationships with various (Aboriginal) groups,” he said.

As environment minister in the last State Government, he helped roll out the State Aboriginal Ranger program as well as expanding the conservation of State marine parks and national parks.

“It was a collaborative process with leaders of Aboriginal people around the table with me and my team,” he said.

“It was a very good process.”

Now with three portfolios (Aboriginal Affairs, Mental Health and Industrial Relations) after Labor’s unprecedented election victory, Mr Dawson is ready to make moves — starting with the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Bill 2020 left by former Aboriginal Affairs minister Ben Wyatt.

“I’ve got big shoes to fill coming in after Ben, but certainly from my perspective one thing that hasn’t been settled is the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Bill,” Mr Dawson said.

“I want to make sure I have a dialogue with Aboriginal people and the leadership of Aboriginal groups about what they want to see in the Bill.

“The legislation will really place Aboriginal people at the heart of decision-making for their heritage.”

Service delivery is also a big focus point for Mr Dawson, who will go out on to Country and speak to Aboriginal leaders. Travelling through the Pilbara and Kimberley before the  election, he saw many communities’ lack of access to important basic services — even roads.

“Roads are closed because of the rain, people can’t get home. Kids aren’t going to school because they can’t get home,” Mr Dawson said.

“Western Australians shouldn’t be disadvantaged because of their geographic location.”

He also wants to discuss the rollout of low aromatic fuels in communities where petrol-sniffing is becoming endemic, particularly among young people in Fitzroy Crossing.

In December NIT reported there were more than 20 children stealing and siphoning petrol in the community of Bayulu, 10km south of Fitzroy Crossing.

“My new colleague (Kimberley MP) Divina D’Anna, has spoken to (Federal Indigenous Australians Minister) Ken Wyatt about low aromatic fuels already,” Mr Dawson said.

“I have a range of issues I’d like to raise with Ken, one of those is low aromatic fuels.

“With communities that have rolled out these fuels, we’ve seen a drop in sniffing incidents. We’ve got to make sure that every child has an opportunity to thrive.”

Despite his experience in politics, many community leaders are concerned the Aboriginal Affairs portfolio will take the backburner to Mr Dawson’s other portfolios.

Mr Dawson disagrees.

“I’m confident that I can do the portfolios and do them well,” he said.

“There are quite a number of synergies between them.”

He says having Mental Health and Aboriginal Affairs will allow him to address the disproportionately high rate of suicide in the Indigenous population more effectively.

Mental Health Commission figures show suicide was the fifth leading cause of death among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the State in 2019.

“To be able to have the Mental Health portfolio at the same time as Aboriginal Affairs, I  think, will be a good thing,” Mr Dawson said.

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By Hannah Cross