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Why Ken Wyatt's appointment is not a victory for Indigenous Australians

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Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt is the first Indigenous ministerial appointment to this role (Screenshot bia YouTube)

Many hope an Indigenous person in the Ministry for Indigenous Australians will be an advocate, but the opposite may be true, writes Celeste Liddle.

I BELIEVE we were in for a change of government until about two weeks before we went to the booths. Then I found myself doubting it. I had seen so many working hard to change the Government but when it came to the general public, I just didn't sense the will to change. Retaining a mediocre and discriminatory Government somehow became the safer bet in a race where no one was particularly inspiring.

And this has been a mediocre and discriminatory Government, not least for its efforts when it has come to Indigenous affairs. It introduced the ironically-named Community Development Program (CDP) forcing unemployed, mainly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living in regional and remote areas to work in unpaid placements 25 hours per week, year-round, to receive their unemployment benefits — a percentage of which may be quarantined.

The many reports that have been released assessing the program highlight the damage it has done to communities, and call into question the significantly higher rates of penalisation for non-compliance that CDP participants face compared to other people receiving unemployment benefits.

This Government has mainly ignored the findings of the Royal Commission into the Northern Territory's youth justice system, too, as shown by the fact that no charges were laid with regards to the tortures enacted at Don Dale. The place remains open and 100 per cent of the kids in youth detention in the NT are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kids.

I admit to being critical of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, but when it was delivered, and the Referendum Council endorsed what was ultimately a conservative ask – an Indigenous voice to parliament – this was outright dismissed by then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Regardless of the form said voice would take, the Government seemingly is simply not interested in engaging in discussions with Indigenous people with regards to the policies it enacts upon us. Collaboration and consultation just are not going to happen. The Government prefers, instead, to continue taking punitive measures against us.

So when the new Government appointed the first ever Aboriginal person, Ken Wyatt, to the portfolio of Indigenous Affairs, I was underwhelmed. Indeed, it spoke volumes that the Government chose to rename this portfolio the "Minister for Indigenous Australians", perhaps as a warning to all the sovereignty activists shutting down the cities each Australia Day to remember our place.

As a staunch member of the Left, it's long been a fascination of mine that it tends to be the conservative side of politics that has delivered many of our Indigenous political firsts — from the first Aboriginal politician Neville Bonner, to the 1967 Referendum, and now to the first Aboriginal Minister to head up our portfolio. Perhaps this apparent progression happens on the conservative side first mainly because Indigenous conservatives are, by virtue of their politics, no real threat to the status quo.

It's interesting, for example, to take a look over Minister Ken Wyatt's Parliamentary voting record in the time that he has been the Member for Hasluck. As I saw numerous Aboriginal people point out on social media following Wyatt's appointment, the Minister has always toed his party line. Wyatt did, for example, vote against same sex marriage. He voted against increasing scrutiny of current asylum seeker policies, detention centres and practices.

He additionally voted against increased land rights for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people — specifically, a bill which bypassed a Federal Court requirement for an Indigenous Land Use Agreement to be registered only when all traditional owner groups affected were in agreement. In short, there are no guarantees that Wyatt will advocate for the rights of Indigenous people, or indeed other marginalised peoples, any stronger than previous non-Indigenous ministers have.

The Labor Party had also flagged that it would have put an Indigenous person into this ministerial portfolio should it have won the election. In Opposition, Labor has selected former NSW Deputy Leader of the Opposition and Wiradjuri woman Linda Burney to take on this portfolio.

While it is overdue indeed that both the Minister and Shadow Minister for Indigenous Australians are Indigenous people, Burney attracted community criticism herself when, as NSW Minister for Youth and then, Community Services, the rates of removal of Aboriginal children from families climbed to the highest levels seen, eclipsing the rates during the Stolen Generations.

When the Labor Party was responsible for extending and expanding the Northern Territory Intervention policies, not to mention the extension of welfare quarantining measures despite their cost and negligible benefit, it's clear that there is a need within the party to ask some tough questions regarding its approaches to Indigenous affairs. Yet Burney's voting record in Federal Parliament shows that like Wyatt, she has never voted against her party.

A lot of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people hope that with an Indigenous person in this Ministry, we will gain an advocate. The reality, however, may end up being the opposite, as the pressures of the party mash with the pressures of the position. If our rights to land end up further diminished, our communities further incarcerated and our labour further exploited, can we trust that an Indigenous Minister will take a stand against this and endeavour to work in our interests, despite their party's views? Time will tell.

Celeste Liddle is an Arrernte woman, trade unionist and a freelance opinion writer and social commentator. Read more from Celeste on her blog Rantings of an Aboriginal Feminist or follow her on Twitter @UtopianaThis article was originally published on Eureka Street and is republished with permission. 

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