Our mobile phone has become our new companion and I often say or hear the phrase at our place ‘take your phone with you.’
No more did the phrase ‘take your phone with you’ stand out for me when I heard the Honourable Ken Wyatt AM, from herein referred to as Ken (with due respect), Minister for Indigenous Australians. He gave an address during NAIDOC (National Aboriginal and Islanders Day Observance Committee) week at the National Press Club. The NAIDOC theme for 2019 is Voice. Treaty. Truth.
Not long into his talk Ken mentions that the Sunday following the recent Federal election was National Sorry Day. Later that day, when at home, Ken tells us his wife Anna read him a Facebook post which caused him to reminisce about his mother and her siblings. They had spent their early lives in missions separated from each other. Despite this he tells his audience that they ‘remained optimistic that the future would yield better outcomes for us, their children.’
Suddenly, his thoughts were interrupted by Anna saying, ‘Can you hang out the washing and don’t forget to take your phone with you in case the Prime Minister [phones] and offers you a job.’ Ken then goes on to tell us what he was doing – ‘I was hanging up a tablecloth on the Hill Hoist clothes line when the phone rang, and the Prime Minister’s name came up. I answered the phone with, Good morning, Prime Minister.’
In his speech he was unable to describe his emotions when the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, offered him the Indigenous Australians portfolio. He had to catch his breath. At first, he was silent and then the Prime Minister said, ‘I take it by your silence, you’re saying yes?’ Ken then tells the audience he found his voice and accepted the position. He was overwhelmed and it is not surprising why.
Ken Wyatt’s mother grew up in a mission without her siblings. Now Ken is on a mission, a very important mission, to change the cultural, social and political landscape for Indigenous Australians. He wants to ‘close the gap.’ There is still much work to do to eliminate the gaps, first bought to the attention of the government and all Australians in the Closing the Gap Report, 2008. The aim was to deliver better outcomes with health, education and employment for Indigenous peoples.
Ken Wyatt is motivated to walk in solidarity with others, to listen with ears and eyes. From what I hear from Ken he will also be listening with his heart and he will encourage others to listen also. Speaking of truth-telling Ken raises the issue that ‘Without the truth of the past there can be no agreement on where or who we are in the present, how we arrived here and where we want to go in the future.’ As an Australian, non-indigenous, I believe we all need to engage in truth-telling. I find it difficult to understand how Indigenous Australians have carried the burden of sorrow for so long. Sorrow for the wrong deeds perpetrated against them in the past. There are many unseen wounds that still need healing. Today we would call what happened back two hundred years ago to Indigenous Australians as cultural genocide. But today, we stay away from such strong words, we stay away from the truth, from images and stories that evoke loss, pain and sorrow experienced by others.
It is twenty-two years since the Bringing Them Home Report, about the stolen generation. I was working for the Queensland State Government when the report came out in 1997. I still have a copy on my bookshelf and now writing this article for my blog just held it in my hands. The report draws attention to the forcible removal of Indigenous children as a gross violation of their human rights. It was referred to as an act of genocide contrary to the Convention on Genocide ratified by Australia in 1949. There remain many grounds for reparation. Breaking news in the last few days was that the Queensland Government settled a class action with $190 million for reparation with wages stolen from Indigenous Australians in the period 1939-1972.
Ken told a powerful story about Neville Bonner, the first Indigenous person in the Australian Parliament. In the 1990s Neville Bonner had an office in Charlotte Street, Brisbane. On occasions I would see him, and he always had a smile and would say a cheery G’day. By 1998 a new building in Brisbane at 75 William Street was named the Neville Bonner Building. It was demolished in 2017 as part of the Queen’s Wharf development. A bridge, yet to be erected, from Queen’s Wharf to Southbank will be named the Neville Bonner Bridge.
Ken told the truth-telling story about Neville, as recorded in his parliamentary diary, that he was never invited to a function or to dinner when in Canberra. He was never invited for a coffee or a chat. He went home every night to his pillow – his only friend! Neville Bonner’s pillow is on display in the museum at Old Parliament House. It is a stark reminder of how we treat one another; as a nation we can do much better. Much has to change, and I am hopeful that Ken Wyatt is the man to take this country forward to a place where we all get a ‘fair go’ regardless of race or colour.
As Ken said ‘I take great comfort in knowing I’m not alone – indeed, I couldn’t do this alone. I know the expectations on me are high. I know I won’t live up to all of them. But I will do my best. Our leadership role and our communities will need to walk with me, leaving our footprints for others to follow.’ Later he says, ‘And it will be easier, because it won’t be one set of footprints, but many. It will be hundreds and thousands of footprints of all sizes walking in the same direction, side by side, working and sharing ideas to make a difference.’
Ken makes the commitment to walk with Indigenous peoples as they find their own path, their own track to health, happiness and success. I believe he is well-equipped to take the lead to bring about change. As a nation there is much to do to improve the lives of Indigenous Australians. I congratulate him on his appointment – the first Minister for Indigenous Australians.
Now, as Minister for Indigenous Australians, he invites all of us to share our generosity of humanity to work and walk with him for a better outcome and future for Indigenous Australians. I am on board, what about you?