The Western Australian government has scrapped its Aboriginal Affairs Department in a move cautiously welcomed by some sectors of the state’s Aboriginal community.
The axing of the department came as part of a public sector shake-up announced by new WA Labor Premier Mark McGowan late last week.
Under Labor, which deposed the Barnett Liberal Government in the March state election, the number of government departments will be slashed from 41 to 25.
Forty percent of them will be amalgamated or abolished to create what the new government says will be a more efficient public sector.
From 1 July, the Department of Premier and Cabinet will now assume responsibility for all policies related to Aboriginal affairs.
“We are absolutely committed to achieving better outcomes for Aboriginal West Australians,” Mr McGowan said.
“We are not convinced that the existing arrangements are the best way to manage Aboriginal affairs in this state.
“Delivering better services to Aboriginal people is the responsibility of all departments, but we believe development of whole-of-government policy on Aboriginal matters should be transferred to the Department of Premier and Cabinet.
“Our changes will deliver better services to the community and create a more efficient and effective public sector.”
Mr McGowan said Ben Wyatt, Australia’s first Indigenous treasurer, would remain Aboriginal Affairs Minister.
Some Aboriginal leaders said the former Aboriginal Affairs Department had failings that warranted a fresh system.
Kimberley Land Council deputy CEO Tyronne Garstone said it was a chance to shape a new agenda for Aboriginal affairs in the state.
“We are keen to work with the Government to look at how we can fix the clear failings of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, particularly in regards to Aboriginal Heritage and Aboriginal Lands Trust matters,” Mr Garstone said.
“What we don’t want is this departmental shake-up being used as an opportunity to diminish the importance of Indigenous affairs in WA.
“Our people remain some of the most marginalised in the state. Protection of culture and land is key to addressing this disadvantage and must be treated with the highest regard by politicians and bureaucrats.
“The new Labor Government now has the chance to finally address these issues. The KLC welcomes the opportunity to be part of shaping a new agenda for Aboriginal affairs in this state.”
Wayne Bergmann, the chief executive officer of KRED Enterprises and an owner of the National Indigenous Times, said he welcomed the new government’s enthusiasm for Indigenous reform.
Mr Bergmann said the government had an opportunity to get Indigenous reforms right and to achieve a proper realignment with the realities of native title.
“The Department of Aboriginal Affairs was slow, cumbersome and represented a ball and chain around the advancement of Aboriginal groups,” he said.
“It was also ineffective in fulfilling its statutory obligations under the Aboriginal Heritage Act and the Aboriginal Lands Trust.”
Mr Bergmann called on Ben Wyatt to engage with Aboriginal leaders to create a new model for Indigenous affairs.
“I propose the development of an independent statutory body to set the policy and service agenda, one which has been elected by traditional owners around the state,” Mr Bergmann said.
“We need an independent body that’s adept at handling the new realities of native title, including the recognition of native title as a property right.
“The WA Government has a unique opportunity here to set the standard for state Indigenous affairs across Australia.”
A spokesperson for the South West Aboriginal Land and Sea Council said the council would need to see the detail of what was being proposed and how it would be implemented before it could have a view on whether the changes would deliver better outcomes for Aboriginal people.
By Wendy Caccetta