Christopher Pyne: Stop Twisting Wyatt's Words Into A Needless Controversy
The Hon Ken Wyatt MP, Member for Hasluck and Minister for Indigenous Affairs in the Australian Government is probably the most decent chap in the National Parliament.
There are others, to be sure, but Ken is right up there in the first row.
On Wednesday July 10, he gave a speech to the National Press Club outlining his way forward for reconciliation with Indigenous Australians that was thoughtful and intelligent.
He also shared a little bit of himself with his audience. Here’s how he described the moment he discovered he would be the first Indigenous Australian to be the Minister for Indigenous Australians.
“I was hanging up a tablecloth on the Hills Hoist clothes line when the phone rang and the Prime Minister's name came up. I answered the phone with, 'Good morning, Prime Minister.'
"He said, 'I want to thank you for your support for senior Australians, the work in the aged-care sector and indigenous health. I would like to offer you the position of Minister for Indigenous Australians.'
"It took me a full two minutes to answer him. In those two minutes, the emotions of our story, as Indigenous Australians, welled up in me. The Prime Minister said, 'I take it by your silence, you're saying yes?'
"Then I found my voice and said, 'Yes, Prime Minister, I accept.'”
It was a proud moment for Wyatt. But it was also a great moment for the Prime Minister and the Liberal Party which has been responsible for many of the ‘firsts’ when it comes to Indigenous people’s achievements in Australian politics -- first Senator, first Member of the House of Representatives, and first Australian Minister.
“The concept of the Voice in the Uluru Statement from the Heart is not a singular voice. I perceive it as a cry to all tiers of government to stop and listen to the voices of Indigenous Australians at all levels.
"All they want is for governments to hear their issues, stories and their matters associated with their land, their history... It is my intention to work with State and Territory Ministers to develop an approach -- underpinned with existing jurisdictional organisations and advisory structures that they have established to advise State and Territory governments."
It all sounds pretty sensible. Quite uncontroversial.
Wyatt didn’t say he wanted to establish a third chamber in the National Parliament representing Indigenous Australians. He didn’t say that a Voice for Indigenous Australians should be enshrined in the Australian Constitution. He didn’t even leave the door ajar for such far-reaching concepts. It was a measured contribution to the national debate.
So why did this need to be twisted into a needless controversy? There were calls for the Prime Minister to intervene from some within the Government and the media. Intervene in what? There was a manufactured crisis when no crisis existed.
Rather than looking at what Wyatt actually said, there was an assumption made about what Wyatt would do. Why? Because he is Indigenous.
To paraphrase Martin Luther King, rather than look at the colour of his skin, look at the content of his character. Wyatt has never called for constitutional recognition of an Indigenous Voice to Parliament. He has consistently made statements opposing the concept. He has been brave to do so in the face of some criticism from other Indigenous leaders.
The Prime Minister hasn’t ‘intervened’ in the issue. There was no need for him to do so. Wyatt’s speech and subsequent statements are entirely in keeping with the Government’s stated policy during the Turnbull Government and now the Morrison Government.
But the controversy does point to a weakness in our political discourse. Anyone who read Wyatt’s speech would know that it wasn’t a call to arms to establish a Voice to Parliament and back in the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
Yet, the debate that raged around it was like a grass burn-off that gets picked up by the wind and turns into something much worse. It does not bode well for the debate that we need to have in Australia about recognising our Indigenous heritage in our Constitution.