Despite overwhelming public support for the Uluru Statement from the Heart, new Indigenous Affairs Minister Ken Wyatt has neither endorsed nor rejected the Statement as the next step toward constitutionally enshrining a Voice to Parliament.

Met with a standing ovation before delivering a speech at last Friday’s Reconciliation WA Breakfast, Minister Wyatt reflected on how far we have come as a nation.

The Minister said genuine partnerships based on mutual respect are the key to walking together, echoing Reconciliation Week’s theme of ‘Grounded in Truth: Walk Together with Courage.’

He said policy will not be created in his office, but on the ground and in the dirt in partnership with Indigenous Australians.

“We can’t continue to have failures. I want to celebrate every success.”
– Indigenous Affairs Minister Ken Wyatt

With a record 1,350 guests attending the breakfast at Perth’s Crown Towers Grand Ballroom, there were some notable absences.

State Premier Mark McGowan sent WA Minister Simone McGurk (Child Protection; Women’s Interests; Community Services; Prevention of Family and Domestic Violence) as his representative to announce $1 million in funding for Reconciliation WA over a period of four years.

WA Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Ben Wyatt was also absent.

A spokesperson for Minister Wyatt said the Minister was overseas on a WA treasury trip in North Asia.

Although WA’s Aboriginal Affairs Minister was away on business, the Premier Mark McGowan was in Perth. A no-show at the breakfast, the Premier did, however, attend the Western Australian of the Year Awards Gala Dinner later that evening at the same location.

Reconciliation optics
The event saw its sponsors brandish their reconciliation successes and Indigenous engagement.

Rio Tinto’s Vice President of Health, Safety and Environment Zara Fisher trumpeted the company’s 13.5% Indigenous residential workforce in iron ore.

West Coast Eagles Chair Russell Gibbs decried racism in sport and showcased a video that resembled the Australian Human Rights Commission’s 2014 campaign against racism featuring Adam Goodes: ‘Racism. It stops with me.’

The video comes after the club showed weak support back in 2015 when Goodes was racially vilified and booed for months in his last season of football before retirement.

Only after prominent Eagles player Matthew Priddis condemned booing spectators at the Eagles-Swans game of 2015 did the club release a statement saying they were “extremely disappointed and dismayed” by the behaviour of “some sections of the crowd.”

Questions are emerging as to whether the club is taking early steps to bolster its stance on racism before The Final Quarter, a documentary recounting the bitter end to Adam Goodes’ career, airs this Friday at Sydney Film Festival and is distributed to mainstream television later this year.

As Kimberley Land Council CEO Nolan Hunter addressed guests during the breakfast, he commended the high number of attendees, saying it showed him Australians are taking reconciliation seriously.

Mr Hunter also served a sobering reminder of how far Australia has to go in closing the gap, highlighting the extremely high rate of Indigenous youth suicide in the Kimberley as a result of past and current institutions, systems and legislative frameworks.

He added that processes like native title claims are taking too long to be achieved, often taking more than a decade to come to fruition and extending trauma for longer than necessary.

Although some of the event’s sponsors made attempts to upstage each other at who is better at reconciliation, all sponsors vehemently endorsed the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

Keeping reconciliation off the dusty shelf
Acknowledging past failures of the Close the Gap framework, Minister Wyatt said steps to remodel the framework are well underway.

“What we’re hoping to see is that the direction we take will deliver the outcomes that Tom Calma and the group that commenced the Closing the Gap concept [envisioned] …”

“We can’t continue to have failures. I want to celebrate every success.”

The Minister said constitutional recognition is in his top three priorities as Indigenous Affairs Minister and that he would consider “all options,” adding he has recently been in discussions with a group involved with work around the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

“As a minister, all of your options, on any matter, you keep open,” Minister Wyatt said.

“It’s how you resolve the opportunities, how you reach solutions to pick up the intent that has an outcome for the benefit of all Indigenous Australians.”

Although he acknowledged the “tremendous” level of support of the Statement from Australia’s body corporates at the Reconciliation WA Breakfast, Minister Wyatt was adamant all lines of inquiry must be explored before a final model is settled on.

The Minister also said the right model for this Voice is still unknown as proper deliberation has not yet been undertaken.

“We’ve still got to have some further discussions,” Minister Wyatt said.

“When you put a proposition on the table you have to consider every element on merit.”

Minister Wyatt also stressed the importance of taking the time to do this right, so a Voice to Parliament doesn’t end up on a “dusty shelf” alongside the 1999 Republic referendum.

“I’d rather be methodical, thorough, and have the support of our nation, collectively, for the words that will go into the constitution,” Minister Wyatt said.

“We are committed as a government to constitutional recognition.”

While a Voice to Parliament was mentioned in the Coalition’s 2019-20 Federal Budget, the government is yet to formally endorse the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

By Hannah Cross