The WA State election is just around the corner. With the State’s Aboriginal Affairs Minister Ben Wyatt leaving politics, the door is wide open for a transformation of the Aboriginal Affairs portfolio.
While it’s traditionally palmed off and slipped in alongside ‘more important’ portfolios (in Mr Wyatt’s case it sat alongside Treasury, Finance, and Lands), the Aboriginal Affairs portfolio needs to be managed as a major portfolio by someone who will give it the attention and care it deserves.
We believe it could be handled as a standalone portfolio. It’s not without precedent and in the current McGowan Cabinet both Michelle Roberts and Sue Ellery essentially look after Police and Education respectively.
After the new decade kicked off with a global pandemic, a surge in support for Black Lives Matter and the planning of a Federal Voice to Parliament, there is no better time to reinvigorate and refocus the portfolio to really cater to some of the State’s most vulnerable people.
With WA’s homelessness crisis coming to a head as seen in the construction and dismantling of Fremantle’s Tent City, it’s important to note that at the 2016 Census about 29 per cent of WA’s homeless population identified as Indigenous despite making up just 3.7 per cent of the State.
The Mental Health Commission tells us that from 2016-19, WA had the highest age-standardised rate of suicide among First Nations people.
And the Australian Bureau of Statistics tells us that, as of November 2020, WA still had the highest imprisonment rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the country at 3,842 per 100,000 — much higher than the national rate of 2,282 per 100,000.
It is clear that as a portfolio Aboriginal Affairs needs serious attention. Having it as a standalone portfolio would allow its minister to focus. Their only remit would be to advocate for WA’s Firs Nations populations and better their outcomes across the State.
The McGowan Government, which is on track for a landslide victory, must give the Aboriginal Affairs portfolio the significance it deserves.
The question then becomes, who is going to step up to the plate?
By Hannah Cross