Australia’s new Minister for Indigenous Health and Aged Care, Ken Wyatt, hopes his legacy will be a health system where everyone is treated equally and Indigenous people are better represented in roles from doctors and nurses to psychiatrists and psychologists.
Mr Wyatt, the first Indigenous Australian to enter the House of Representatives, made history again last Wednesday when he became the nation’s first Indigenous federal minister after being sworn into the portfolios in the Turnbull cabinet.
In an interview with the National Indigenous Times, Mr Wyatt, who has an extensive background in Indigenous health, said ensuring Indigenous children got a healthy start in life would be a priority, as would tackling suicide rates and mental health issues among young people.
Late this week Mr Wyatt was travelling to WA’s Kimberley with federal Aboriginal Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion for the second round of suicide prevention talks in a region where the rate at which people die by their own hand is among the world’s worst.
“In the health system, what I want to see is everybody owning and being responsible for the health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people on a basis equal to that of any other Australian who goes into any health facility for support, help or a service,” Mr Wyatt said.
“And I want to see a universal focus on the early years of life and then targeted initiatives around our youth so we start to tackle suicide rates, the underlying mental health issues and encourage our young people to walk whatever pathway they want with confidence.”
Mr Wyatt said he also wanted governments to start working with communities rather than just implementing strategies and expecting them to follow.
“I want to break that cycle,” he said.
“The parallel for me is when we talk to local government, we don’t tell them what they have to have; we talk to them about what they need, how it needs to be done and then we work together as Commonwealth, state and local government to deliver what’s needed within that local government area,” he said.
“I want to see the same process for our communities.”
Mr Wyatt said his appointment as minister and also to a cabinet subcommittee on Indigenous Affairs, in which he and ministerial colleagues will discuss issues that impact on Indigenous people, gave Indigenous Australians a voice in government.
He said as Minister he had set up a cross-portfolio working group to look at the social determinants and racism within the health system and how that influenced moves to close the gap on life expectancies between Indigenous and white Australia.
Mr Wyatt said mothers and children aged from birth to eight years would also be targeted in health initiatives.
“I believe if mothers are key to the foundation years and the males are supporting them, so the mothers and fathers are key, then we will see in the long-term health attitudes shaped by parents who want to make sure their children live long, healthy lives,” he said.
Mr Wyatt said he also wanted to encourage more Indigenous people to enter the health system.
“I want to see the numbers of Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islander people working across every key area of the health system and not just as Aboriginal health workers and at the lower end,” he said.
“To some extent we’ve been highly successful as a country in seeing the number of Indigenous doctors grow over the last decade.
“The number of Indigenous nurses and midwives, there’s been an incredible explosion of numbers that have gone into these two key areas, but I want to see more because the health sector and health services are going to be key areas of growth over the next two to three decades.
“To have our people involved in there, within the professions, does two things. One, it has people working in key positions where they are part of the debate around the health needs of Indigenous Australians, but secondly it sends back a message into families through brothers, sisters, uncles, aunties, who work in health, how they need to look after their health. So they become educators of improved health, primary health, that ultimately should see then a better outcome in the long term for our people.
“Our other challenge is we focus on doctors and nurses and midwives, but I know that there are a handful of numbers in some of the other key areas, allied health – we need more people. I’d love to see more Indigenous Australians as psychiatrists, psychologists or in the mental health services helping with some of the social and emotional challenges that our families face.
“The other thing I’d love to see is in hospitals when I am having blood taken for a test, there’s an Indigenous Australian doing it. So we end up with a phlebotomist taking blood and being part of the natural workforce.”
Mr Wyatt said pharmacists also played an important role in the health system, while Aboriginal health workers were the “frontline, primary health care providers” because they were in among the families.
He said he planned to meet with community members, not just organisations.
“I want to talk to people who receive services and I want to know if something that is being provided by the Commonwealth isn’t working,” he said.
He also planned to meet with Aboriginal community-controlled health organisations to talk about developing health awareness programs.
Mr Wyatt, the member for Hasluck in WA, is a former director of Aboriginal Health in both the New South Wales and WA Health Departments. He said growing up as a “skinny-ankled Noongar kid” in WA, he didn’t think it was possible for him to reach the position that he has.
He said he was first asked if he was interested in contesting the seat of Hasluck in 2003 but didn’t think an Indigenous candidate would be elected and had already committed to a job in NSW.
He was approached again in 2007.
“I was at a mental health launch in Fremantle when I got cornered by Liza Harvey, the Deputy Premier in WA, Helen Morton, who was a minister at the time and Lizzie Behjat who then said to me ‘Why don’t you get a real job’,” he said.
“I said I’ve got a job in Aboriginal Health with the WA Health department. They said ‘No, no, a job where you can make a difference’. I said ‘What are you talking about?’ They said the seat of Hasluck hasn’t been finalised – why don’t you nominate?
“So ultimately I did and when I went out and doorknocked the first time I was nervous. I was scared. Because I didn’t know what reaction I would get. But the more doors I knocked on the more confident I became.
“We’re not used to saying ‘I’; we always say ‘we’ because we talk about our collective communities , but now I had to say ‘I am the Liberal candidate for Hasluck’ and then I had to spell out why they should vote for me.
“Anyone who thinks that’s easy, it’s tough, but it was worth doing because I was ultimately elected by I think about 948 votes, but it didn’t matter how much I won by. I became an equal on the floor of the House of Representatives in the Australian Parliament.”
Mr Wyatt said he hoped his success would inspire young people to consider entering politics.
“I think one legacy that is already showing itself is the number of young Aboriginal people who have said to me ‘Uncle, how do I get to be a Member of Parliament? What do I have to do?’ And I’ve had plenty of young people ask that.
“The other is for the Noongar people, a sense of pride, from the Noongar people’s perspective. The first member of the House of Reps came from our nation.”