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Federal shadow minister Julian Leeser shares views on critical Indigenous Affairs issues

Giovanni Torre -

The new Federal Indigenous affairs shadow minister says the Coalition has an "open mind" about the Voice to Parliament, and needs to listen to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities before releasing new policies.

Julian Leeser took responsibility for the portfolio after former Indigenous Australians Minister Ken Wyatt lost his seat at the Federal election in May.

"I have spent that time going around trying to listen to people, we are not coming out with policy statements, they will be produced before the next election," Mr Leeser said.

"My task now is listening to people, particularly Indigenous Australians.

"I have been in central Australia and South Australia speaking with Indigenous colleagues Jacinta Price and Kerrynne Liddle, looking at the issues that are key to them and seeing what life is like on the ground in the communities."

Mr Wyatt recently said there would be more progress on the Uluru Statement from the Heart under the new Labor government than there would have been if the Morrison government were re-elected.

Mr Leeser said Mr Wyatt had been "a bit harsh" in that assessment.

"I think Ken Wyatt did a magnificent job as Minister for Indigenous Australians," he said.

"It is wonderful to have his support... I just need to pick up the phone to speak with him, not only as an Indigenous politician and former minister but as an Indigenous Elder and someone with a great amount of experience in and with government.

"That report I did with Pat Dodson... made clear the next step in response to the Uluru Statement was the co-design process to look at what the Voice model would look like at all of the levels, national, state and territory, local."

He said the subsequent report from Tom Calma and Marcia Langton on co-designing established broad principles for the process.

"One other thing I would say is our policy on the Voice is we have an open mind about it. The government policy is to have a referendum and a national body and we are waiting to see more detail on that before we respond," he said.

Former Prime Minister Scott Morrison claimed in early 2021 there was "no mainstream support" for an Indigenous Voice to Parliament to be recognised in the constitution, and in 2019 current Opposition Leader Peter Dutton said he opposed the Voice.

Earlier this month it was revealed the Morrison government pushed to change the teaching of history in Australian schools, including an attempt to eliminate the use of the word invasion to describe the foreign arrival to Australia.

Previous Liberal prime ministers John Howard and Tony Abbott promoted and praised the work of writer Keith Windschuttle, who has been slammed by historians for drastically understating the extent to which Aboriginal people have suffered colonial violence, and Peter Dutton boycotted the 2008 apology to the Stolen Generations.

National Indigenous Times asked Mr Leeser what message this sent to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

He said Mr Dutton had "reflected on that" and made a statement on it in his first media conference, and said it was best to let his statement speak for itself.

"I had made a mistake in relation to the apology, largely due to my background and experience," Mr Dutton said in May.

"At the time, I had believed that the apology should be given when the problems were resolved and the problems are not resolved. I understand the symbolism and I made a mistake."

Mr Leeser did not comment directly on the Morrison government's attempts to change the history curriculum.

"I have always understood (Truth-telling) as people's desire to have a greater knowledge of Indigenous history, culture and tradition, there is also a great interest in knowing more about contact between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, both good and bad," he said.

"I have always had an interest in Indigenous history, it is part of the reason I am keen to go around and talk to Indigenous people and listen to them.

"As the new shadow minister, I want to get a richer appreciation of the culture and the history, and of the challenges Indigenous people face in Australia today."

Mr Leeser said 2022 would be a critical year in making progress on closing the gap.

"The refresh Ken Wyatt did as minister, the most significant thing since Closing The Gap started, will be implemented this year," he said.

"For the first time you will not just have the federal government who will have a Closing The Gap report, there will be a Closing The Gap report from the Coalition of Peaks and from the state and territory governments as well.

"Although the Commonwealth has the power to legislate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, it doesn't provide most of the services, most of the services are provided by the states and the territories and by Indigenous-controlled community organisations as well."

Mr Leeser said it was too early to comment on strengthening federal heritage laws, but noted that the Joint Standing Committee on Northern Australia chaired by Warren Enstch produced a "very strong bipartisan report" in response to the destruction of Juukan Gorge.

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