On 12 July 2019, The Australian ran two Indigenous related stories on its front page. The most prominent related to the proposal for an Indigenous Voice in the Constitution. The lesser story, which has entirely disappeared from view in the week since, derived from comments made to The Australian by the new Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, and was headlined: ‘Wyatt’s challenge to ‘disconnected’ urban activists’, and the full story on page 6 was headed: ‘Get real, Wyatt tells urban indigenous’. This story (link here behind paywall) is the subject of this post.
The story is interesting for a range of reasons: it reflects the reality that there is a large and growing divergence between the economic and social status of remote and non-remote Indigenous citizens, with remote citizens being amongst the most economically and socially disadvantaged Australians, whereas non-remote Indigenous citizens, while clearly disadvantaged, are much better positioned. The reasons are complex. They include the demographic trends which involve an ongoing and significant increase in the population of non-remote Indigenous citizens (driven in large measure by increases in the numbers of citizens self-identifying as Indigenous citizens); the greater access to a wide array of mainstream services in non-remote Australia; and the less effective delivery of core services and programs in remote Australia.
The story is also interesting because it reports on the breach of an implicit and widely accepted taboo against undermining the ideological unity of fundamental Indigenous interests and aspirations (notwithstanding the widespread recognition that within the Indigenous community there are substantive linguistic, cultural and social differences). The fact that the new Minister made these comments in a highly public forum makes it even more intriguing. And of course, the fact that the Minister’s comments appear to have been met with universal silence from non-remote Indigenous commentators and leaders makes it triply intriguing (I should qualify this last assertion my admitting that as I am not on social media, I may have missed some reactions).
So why did the newly minted Cabinet Minister decide to open up a new front in the Indigenous policy space, one that he had not mentioned the day before in his major speech to the National Press Club? To seek an answer, we have to take a few steps back.
On 10 July 2019, Minister Wyatt fronted the National Press Club for his first major address since his appointment (link here). The speech was notable mainly for the hares which were set running on constitutional recognition and the proposals in the Uluru Statement for a Voice to Parliament.
The Minister began his speech with the following statements:
The concept of the voice in the Uluru Statement from the Heart is not just a singular voice, and what I perceive it is - it is a cry to all tiers of Government to stop and listen to the voices of Indigenous Australians at all levels.
The voice is multilayered and includes voices of individuals, families, communities and Indigenous organisations who want to be heard by those who make the decisions that impact on their lives 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. They're asking the three tiers of government to stop and take the time to listen to their voices.
The development of a local, regional and national voice will be achieved…
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…
…I'll turn to the matters of Treaty and constitutional recognition later.
Much later in the speech, he returned to the issue of constitutional recognition, stating inter alia:
Constitutional recognition - as I mentioned earlier, I will develop and forward a consensus option for constitutional recognition to put to a referendum during the current parliamentary term. …
…I do not want to proceed if we are not going to be successful. I have commenced the process of engaging and seeking the counsel of Indigenous leaders on the best way forward.
We need to design the right model to progress to a point of which the majority of Australians, the majority of states and territories and Indigenous Australians support the model so that it is successful.
The Morrison Government is committed to recognising Indigenous Australians in the constitution and working to achieve this through a process of true co-design. Constitutional recognition is too important…
…I plan to establish a working group of Parliamentary colleagues of all political persuasions to assist me in considering the role of engaging on many levels to bring forward a community model.
The Shadow Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Linda Burney, will be integral to that process.
The constitutional recognition work is unfinished. It will take time. It will need to be measured… [some less relevant text has been omitted from these quotes].
In retrospect, (and notwithstanding the rhetoric about co-design) it is clear that the Minister was drawing a distinction between the proposal for a Voice to Parliament and the proposal for constitutional recognition. However this nuance was not picked up by the media covering his speech (see for example this report from the ABC which reported that the Prime Minister had indicated a week earlier that he was prepared to work with Labor on implementing the Voice proposal).
The following day, Thursday 11 July, the Australian Financial Review ran a story that effectively obliterated the Minister’s distinction and which was prominently headlined ‘Indigenous referendum in three years’ (link not available). Other media commentators similarly, and understandably, missed the distinction (see for example Eddie Synot in The Conversation link here). While the Minister was making a clear distinction between the Voice and constitutional recognition, it is apparent that he was also intent on maintaining a high degree of ambiguity. Unfortunately, this latter aim backfired spectacularly.
On Friday 12 July, The Australian’s front page headline was “PM to veto ‘voice’ in the Constitution’ (link here; see also this link). The story underneath stated ‘that Minister Wyatt had declared in his speech that ‘the government would consider creating a voice to parliament through legislation and left the door open to enshrining it in the Constitution’. The story went on to state ‘senior government sources [ie the Prime Minister’s Office] said yesterday Mr Morrison would not support a constitutionally enshrined Indigenous advisory body’.
This was the very same day that the Minister made his comments regarding ‘disconnected’ urban Indigenous leaders.
It seems to me that there are at least three potential explanations for the Minister’s uncharacteristic and arguably unwise public bluntness directed at his own natural constituency. After all, one of the universal descriptions of him (a perspective that I share) is that he is a thoroughly decent bloke not prone to giving offence.
The first possible explanation is that the Minister is aware of particular Indigenous leaders who are abusing their positions of leadership and failing to represent their broader constituency. According to the article, he did claim to have spoken to some leaders ‘about their connections to the people they represented’. While such unrepresentative leaders may exist, one wonders whether taking this issue into the public domain without sustained backup such as including it in his speech, issuing a media statement, and outlining a strategy to improve governance capabilities, would have much influence on such recalcitrants.
The second possible explanation is that he was in fact sending a coded message to his Cabinet colleagues that he was prepared to be tough on the Indigenous community where necessary, and / or that there are very high levels of need in remote Australia which will need greater investment. Of course, as a former Minister (for Aged Care) in the Government, he will be highly conscious of the Government’s record to date in cutting expenditure outlays in the Indigenous policy sector. See for example the discussion on expenditure in the Parliamentary Library’s recent Briefing Book publication, and in particular the commentary on cessation of National Partnership Agreements (link here). I note in passing that this publication does not include mention of the significant cuts to the National Partnership on Remote Housing (previously discussed in this blog here and here as well as here). The Minister is too experienced not to understand the dire needs across remote Australia, and may well be laying the groundwork for some greater investment in remote communities, perhaps at the expense of non-remote expenditure.
A third possible explanation is that the Minister may have feared that the media would interpret the Prime Minister’s intervention as constituting an implied criticism or an undermining of his authority just weeks into his tenure. Or he may have feared that a consensus would emerge amongst stakeholders that he was irrelevant to the underlying decision-making on the Voice proposal. Some tough talking might have been seen as one way to diffuse any such criticism. In the event, it seems that neither of these eventualities occurred, and the Minister appears to continue to enjoy a honeymoon that insulates him from receiving realistic feedback. Nevertheless, the synchronicity of the two stories suggests that there was likely some linkage.
I don’t propose to attempt to choose between these potential explanations; I am happy for readers to make their own minds up. What is apparent however is the extent to which a complex web of political considerations (and players) infuse and shape what are ostensibly neutral policy pronouncements in the Indigenous Australians portfolio.
There are clearly substantial opportunities for both the nation as a whole, and the Government, in having a respected Indigenous person such as Ken Wyatt in charge of the portfolio. This opportunity is magnified by the fact that the Opposition has two Indigenous shadow ministers in Linda Burney and Patrick Dodson. However, there are also considerable risks, for the nation and for Ken Wyatt himself, that the Government will see the appointment of an Indigenous person as minister as a ticket of leave not to expand the policy envelope, but to continue ‘business as usual’ and perhaps to make further expenditure cuts to Indigenous programs. I hope that this rather cynical interpretation is not the case, but one would have to be naïve to believe that it is not one potential outcome.
Only time will tell whether the opportunities or the risks eventuate. In the meantime, to maximise Minister Wyatt’s leverage and influence within the government and thus his eventual success in the portfolio it will be imperative that he is publicly pushed by key Indigenous peak bodies and by the media and the community at large to deliver tangible policy and program outcomes for Indigenous citizens. In particular, the needs and aspirations of remote Indigenous communities, who comprise the most disadvantaged citizens in the nation, require ongoing advocacy and policy attention. The Minister was absolutely correct in pointing to the importance of policy focussing on remote opportunities and disadvantage.
Also implicit in the Ministers comments is the reality that individual Ministers have finite levels of influence, and power. They rely on the community at large to signal to the Government when policies are inadequate or not hitting the mark. Without this pressure, Governments will take the path of least resistance. In the Indigenous policy space, the political influence of the Indigenous community is severely circumscribed by its low population base. In remote Australia, Indigenous political influence approaches zero (and this is the challenge to which the Minister appeared to be pointing).
The larger issue, not addressed by the Minister, is how to engage the wider community in supporting better policy responses by governments in the Indigenous policy domain. Without a broader support base, Indigenous interests will continue to be marginalised by the Australian political system. All of us, whether Indigenous or not, have a role in keeping the Government up to the mark in advancing good policy for the Indigenous Australians portfolio.