Aboriginal Ministers maintain the status quo

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I believed 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.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison shakes hands with Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt at Government House in Canberra on 29 May 2019. (Photo by Tracey Nearmy/Getty Images)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 is not going to happen. Government prefers, instead, to continue taking punitive measures against us.

So when the new government appointed the first ever Aboriginal person 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.

 

"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."

 

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 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 LiddleCeleste Liddle is a trade unionist, a freelance opinion writer and social commentator. She blogs at Rantings of an Aboriginal Feminist.

Main image: Prime Minister Scott Morrison shakes hands with Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt at Government House in Canberra on 29 May 2019. (Photo by Tracey Nearmy/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Celeste Liddle, Ken Wyatt, Aboriginal Australians, Torres Strait Islanders, Linda Burney

 

 

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It seems that in the parliamentary arena indigenous leaders can be no more effective agents of change than can female leaders within the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, though for different reasons. (For example, the fact that there are no females within the hierarchy of the Catholic Church). Maybe that’s a characteristic of the way all groups handle change - make the increments small enough so that no one tiny change is enough to rock the boat significantly. Given the shortness of our lives and the urgency of the need to ‘do it differently’, it’s all too easy to feel we’re stuck for ever in the status quo. But maybe the place of the prophet will never be at the seat of institutional power, whether that’s the Vatican or the Australian Parliament. Prophets nag and scream and rant at the edges until there’s no need for them - indigenous or female participation has become mainstream! I won’t live to see this in either arena, but you may well do so, Celeste. Ken Wyatt isn’t a prophet, but you are. Don’t stop ranting, and don’t enter parliament yourself. It’s not a place where prophecy can flourish and be effective.
Joan Seymour | 20 June 2019


Supporting the status quo against class or ethnic group interests is indeed paradoxical. In the UK working class voters probably bought themselves illusory respectability by voting Tory. Now many of these vote for buffoons... Marcia Langton is a strange figure: pro mining as it pays good wages to a few, while ignoring the bigger picture ie destroying ancient land and sacred sites. A Chinese mining company was on the national radio news 20 June after illegally clearing a sacred site. The detention/watch house scandal goes on, proving that Royal Commissions do nothing; will the new Minister say or do anything? Is he just an Uncle Tom? Does power dissolve principles?
Karis | 20 June 2019


Thank you Celeste for this very revealing coverage of our MP's and their voting practices. It certainly cleared up some of the issues for me. I was aware of the issues that surfaced in the offices of Minister Ken Wyatt during the precious term and they were somewhat concerning. There is a tendency, at least with me, to consider aboriginal MPs on the side of all aboriginies. This does not have to be the case and in fact can be otherwise.
Tom Kingston | 20 June 2019


Thanks, Celeste, for speaking up and out.
Alex Nelson | 20 June 2019


The perpetuation of the status quo you refer to is far more nuanced than just govt policy - something needs to shift in Aboriginal Australia. For 40 years we've had self determination - the structural obstacles William Barak faced are all gone. Why are we still stuck? Please...some new narratives and real vision.
Matthew Davis | 20 June 2019


Thank you Celeste for reminding us again how conservative Australian parliamentary politics actually are. I think it was obvious that Malcolm Turnbull would strongly resist the Uluru Statement from the Heart's demand for a national Aboriginal consultative council, His argument that such a political body would be tantamount to giving indigenous people an extra decision making parliamentary wing and unfairly favour them is fallacious. He did not want such a body because he knew that it would be far more likely to make demands that most Aboriginal people want and that he and fellow conservative politicians do not want to hear. They know that by insisting that Aboriginal people are limited to having a voice through indigenous representatives in parliaments that what they demand can be very much controlled. And we would be kidding ourselves if we think that the ALP would be better in this regard. It was in 1974 that Robert Catley and Bruce McFarlane released their book "From tweedledum to tweedledee the new Labor government in Australia, a critique of its social model" which shows that its policies were little different to the LNP Coalition then and have become more so since.I agree that many progressive and humanitarian changes have occurred in Australia like the 1967 referendum to recognise Aboriginal people as citizens and there were many others eg the end of the White Australia Policy, ceasing Australia's involvement in the US war in Indochina, the support for the INTERFET peacekeeping force into East Timor to stop the Indonesian genocide there and others. Progressive and humanitarian Australians must still exert their political pressure to force our governments to show a greater commitment to equality, social justice and human rights.
Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 20 June 2019


The status quo in Aboriginal affairs...what is that really? After 40 years of self determination the problems that must be addressed can't all be attributed to government inaction. The post referendum welfare / services economy that has emerged seems capable of defeating all attempts at reformation. Like it or not it's become the culture of today and plenty of folk don't want to let go of it
Matthew Davis | 21 June 2019


I also was underwhelmed by this appointment. As a Minister in a Conservative government, apart from his lack of support for Indigenous people, he was an uninspiring and "missing in action" Minister for the Aged. He did little to address concerns about the Aged Care industry so revealed in the Royal Commission. He does not seem to be a person who will take any risks or initiatives. Thank you Celeste for your incisive commentary.
Eric nowball | 21 June 2019


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