Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, has laid bare his top three priorities for Indigenous Affairs in 2020: Closing the Gap, Voice to Parliament, and addressing high suicide rates of Indigenous youth.

The Minister, who last year became the first Aboriginal person to hold the Indigenous Affairs portfolio, has had his hands full this week addressing ongoing issues with the membership of the Senior Advisory Group (SAG).

Speaking to NIT, the Minister said SAG members had already expressed their concerns about Cashman’s actions before coming to the decision to dismiss her.

“I am disappointed. It’s not what we should be doing to each other,” Minister Wyatt said.

The Minister also warned of the danger of an Aboriginal identity register, coming out strong against it after Cashman advocated for the idea.

“We’ve been down that path before … I remember my own childhood, I had two native welfare department files … it wasn’t just restricted to being a register, it contained [detailed] information.

“If you set up a register then you create memories of the past, and I know many Stolen Generations people would be traumatised by the [idea] of going back to a number.”


Closing the Gap and growing the Voice

Minister Wyatt told NIT the Closing the Gap framework was his “first and foremost priority”, as he wants to start making progress on improving the lives of Indigenous Australians.

“We can get that settled, the targets finalised, and then all of the parties signed up. Our communities, the Government – both State and Territory and the Commonwealth.”

The Minister also said in 2020, Indigenous Australians can expect to see continued growth in the Voice to Parliament movement, with an announcement that the referendum could come as early as June 2021.

Proposing a timeline for the referendum, Minister Wyatt has plans for the Senior Advisory Group to release possible models for a Voice to Parliament in June this year.

One thing that’s clear is the Minister’s genuine concern for Aboriginal people on the ground getting their voices to Canberra.

“I had an Elder say to me, ‘How does my voice get to you as the Minister for our people when you’re based in Perth but you work in Canberra, and I live in a remote community in the NT? How do I know that you’ve heard my voice?’”

While the Minister conceded he doesn’t have the answer just yet, he said he’s committed to investigating the best ways to listen to community voices and how the NIAA engages with community members.

Unwavering in his commitment to grassroots voices, Minister Wyatt said voices must come from Country.

“I don’t want the voices to be lobbyists or peak organisations. It has to come from Country.”

The Minister said he is likely to honour requests from some Traditional Owners who said they would prefer models based on cultural regions over other types of models, and that no model will apply to everyone.

“If we are true to what we say, that our culture is important, then we need to build that in as one of the models,” Minister Wyatt said.

“I don’t want one size fits all. That is not the solution … We seriously have to respect the cultural considerations.”

The Minister said once models have been adapted in communities, he wants to encourage federal members to meet with them on the ground to discuss their concerns.

Speaking with pride, Minister Wyatt said some Federal members are already engaging with Indigenous communities in this way.

“The new people that have come into the [Federal] Parliament in the last two intakes, there’s significant involvement by them with Indigenous Australians which has really impressed me as an Indigenous person.”

He said Lucy Wicks in the seat of Robertson, NSW, engages very closely with the Indigenous community, as well as new member Melissa McIntosh.

Minister McIntosh recently hosted a forum with the Indigenous community in her seat of Lindsay, NSW, to discuss the community’s concerns, which Minister Wyatt said she has indeed followed up on.

“We’re starting to see a level of engagement I’ve not seen [before] my time coming into Parliament.”


Talking to our youth

After a spate of Indigenous youth suicides in the Kimberley region in early 2019, Minister Wyatt has not let youth suicide rates drop off his agenda for 2020.

The Minister said it’s more than just Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations (ACCHOs) who must take responsibility in addressing these rates – all Indigenous organisations and communities should be working together.

“All of our organisations across the country have to seriously think about how they engage with our young people. Particularly those who are vulnerable.”

Minister Wyatt said the Federal Government is implementing mental health first aid programs across the country as well as working on identifying vulnerable people.

When asked what the Federal Government was doing to address the shortage of specialist mental health services in remote and regional communities, the Minister was blunt.

“The reality is in rural and remote towns we will never get the level of access to specialised services that people in cities take for granted,” Minister Wyatt said.

Contrary to the Minister’s doubts, initiatives are being implemented to address this gap in particular.

Curtin University has supported a specialised scholarship, the Dr Tracy Westerman Aboriginal Psychology Scholarship Program to support Indigenous Psychology students expressing a desire to return to remote or regional communities to practice.

The program was launched in 2019, with five students receiving the scholarship – all who have plans to return to in-need communities. The scholarship is set to expand in 2020 across Australia.

Meanwhile, Minister Wyatt has said vulnerable communities such as the Kimberley are being fitted out with Community Liaison Officers to help identify and engage with young people who may be at risk.

These Officers can then refer people to the local Aboriginal Medical Service and help them get the higher-level services they may need.

For Minister Wyatt, the work continues on giving Indigenous Australians better opportunities in 2020 and into the future.

By Hannah Cross