Sky News

Release Date: 
12 February 2020

Interviewer So minister, only two targets are on track. Some things even going backwards. Some indicators even going backwards. Has this strategy failed?

Ken Wyatt Look, I think the strategy has allowed us to focus on set targets for a decade. Now, we should have made greater progress than what we've done; we've collectively failed. But I'm pleased with the early childhood outcome. Ninety five per cent of indigenous students in the early childhood education area means that they've got a solid foundation that we can build from. The other thing is the year 12 attainment level. Because we do know and the evidence shows that once our students graduate out of Uni, they are on equal par with non-indigenous Australians in acquiring jobs and they are highly successful. So, we've got to see an increase in the number coming through the year 12. So, we see outstanding outcomes. On the workforce one, I was expecting that to be a greater increase, but 0.9 is some increase. But what I'm also saying against that is the number of indigenous businesses. There's something like 2000 plus indigenous businesses, and yesterday in the Great Hall, one hundred and twenty-five were here displaying their business and showing that what they were doing was employing indigenous Australians in their companies. So that's one bright light out of this, knowing that. But that's not reported.

Interviewer But there's a lot of dark as well.

Ken Wyatt Oh, there is. And the dark means that our implementation element of closing the gap has not reached out across the geographic diversity of Australia evenly. And what we have to do is raise the bar of expectation of achievement.

Interviewer The child mortality rate is double that among indigenous as it is among non-indigenous. How can this be in a developed country?

Ken Wyatt Well, it shouldn't be, is the blunt answer. What we should be seeing is improvements in child mortality. That means the range of programs available are having mixed success. One hundred and forty-one per 100000 in a first world country is not acceptable. When I compare that to other countries that are nowhere near the quality of life that we experience.

Interviewer Why are so many indigenous Australians dying from preventable diseases that non-indigenous Australians simply aren't?

Ken Wyatt Well, it's access to services. If you live in a remote and isolated region of Australia and mainstream rural Australia in some of the wheat belt regions of our nation, you don't have access to a GP on a daily basis. What they do is they access services. Most major health facilities are in capital cities or large regional centres. But we are taking steps to improve access through community controlled health organisations. There was a partnership with the Royal College of GPs when I was Minister for Indigenous Health, so GPs were becoming very strong in their level of commitment. But it's also how do we make sure that people are engaging at the early years of life right through? And how do we do outreach programs more effectively than what we do.

Interviewer Your government's been in power for seven years, these failures have occurred on your watch the whole time.

Ken Wyatt Well, it has, but the implementation of many of these programs. If you look at where and who delivers education, it is state and territories. If we look at health, the Commonwealth doesn't have hospitals or health programs. What we do is we facilitate the opportunity for the various sections in all of the target areas to access the resources that the Commonwealth is able to provide. But why we've failed, I think it's fundamentally because we've not engaged the Aboriginal community with us. We've set targets as state and territory and Commonwealth governments. We said that we will achieve this. If you want to change something, you've got to have the people who you are targeting sitting at the table with you. And this time, Prime Minister Morrison has done that. He has 47 peak organisations working with us on the refresh of the targets and the refresher, the approach that we will take.

Interviewer Is it a bit rich to be talking about a refresh when the government has been in power for seven years and has done very little since then, and now this vague idea of refreshing...

Ken Wyatt Well it’s not a vague idea. What we're doing is we've realized that the ten years of failure is problematic for a country like ours. We have to consider why we've gone wrong. Do we have the right data and are we using it to make informed decisions about where services are delivered? Have we tackled the issue of empowering Aboriginal leadership in communities to be part of government processes both at Commonwealth and state and territory level? Are we engaging with communities? And an example of this was a community in the Northern Territory where a 7-year-old boy died on his way to school. They tried to revive him and then discovered he had rheumatic heart disease. That's what he had died from, something that you shouldn't expect in our country. And so what we did is, government responded by working with the Telethon institute and worked on a vaccine. But the community asked for special people with specialized knowledge on rheumatic heart disease to come and talk to them to explain what it was. How did you get it? And they talked to the school and the school produced a video that showed how you end up with pneumococcal in your bloodstream, how it then becomes rheumatic heart disease. The kids are now self-referring for cuts that change their practice of washing hands and washing their face. So, a simple strategy that the community instigated that one and they now own the way they want to move forward. And that's what we have to do across the other targets.

Interviewer So the new targets need to be driven at a local level, grassroots community groups. How exactly does that work in terms of the other targets and what is the community telling you they want to see in the new targets?

Ken Wyatt What the community is saying is education, health, better access to government services. What they also want is to be listened to, in the way in which we deliver and to be engaged. But our peak organizations play a key and pivotal role in the work we're doing. What we all have to do is look at the implementation process. What does implementation look like and how should it be done better than what it is? And to some extent in the last 12 months, we're seeing a shift in the way that ministers for Aboriginal affairs or indigenous Australians are working together. There is a joint council that is co-chaired by myself and Pat Turner. At that council meeting, we have state and territory ministers with responsibility for indigenous Australians sitting with indigenous members and the Commonwealth. And we are jointly working towards what we will achieve over the next decade.

Interviewer Will the new targets be less ambitious than the one set in 2008? And is that a failure in itself?

Ken Wyatt No, no. We should never lower the bar of expectation. If we lower our ambitious targets, then it means that we will see gaps widening. This is about keeping the ambition there. But how effective we are at achieving those in the implementation and delivery becomes the question.

Interviewer So surely then, the answer is more funding to implement a strategy, particularly when it comes to providing those health services in regional and remote areas.

Ken Wyatt Funding is part of the solution. But look, you can put money into a program, but if the program isn't delivering the outcomes, then you have to ask the question of what are we missing from this? Why are we not achieving outcomes? I've seen over my lifetime as an indigenous Australian, programs come and go, funding poured into initiatives under Kevin Rudd, there were the partnership agreements. I co-chaired the indigenous health one. We received 1.5 billion from the Commonwealth for Aboriginal health. Now that was a massive injection, but we still see poor results.

Interviewer A voice to the parliament could inform politicians on where money could be spent. Don't you think?

Ken Wyatt Well, we're focusing on the voice, and that's what I am focusing on. But I'm focusing more on the day to day issues that people come to me with, issues like the impact of violence on women, the impact of violence on children, the issues of substance abuse, issues of access to health services where in the western suburbs of Sydney, people use Liverpool Hospital as a de facto primary health care point of connection. The Commonwealth invested money in a program now that has a better way of engaging with Aboriginal people at the community level so they don't keep coming back to the emergency department for treatment, so we're looking at various models, and where success is, we will build on those successes. Where we fail, we're going to have to ask the question of why is this particular initiative or this target failing in these regions? And we have to seriously look at the geographic diversity of our nation.

Interviewer What form should the Voice to parliament take?

Ken Wyatt I'm going to let that evolve, I have no set view. I have asked all three tiers to look at the way in which people's views can be taken from the community to regional to national. But for this week, particularly for today, we need to turn our minds to the gaps in how we tackle those gaps, because we still have suicides that are unacceptable; mental health issues. We still have challenges around the number of Aboriginal kids in out-of-home care. And so there's some fundamental structural elements to do with families that are critical that we need to focus on. Now the voice and constitutional recognition are two instruments that will change the paradigm of many elements of engagement with government. But we've got to come back to those things that are tangible and real that we have to have levers on to make a difference. And it has to be a commitment from every tier of government.

Interviewer But the tangible and real changes are not being seen in this report.

Ken Wyatt No, because as I said at the beginning, we have failed collectively. It's not just the Commonwealth. We have to look at the points of delivery. We have to look at who's responsible for those deliveries. And we are looking at accountability. And the discussions around accountability have been extremely rich. You'll hear in the prime minister's address some of the points that he will make around the refresh. But the way in which we now have to stop making decisions from Canberra or from capital cities for indigenous Australians, we have to stick with them and work through solutions.

Interviewer I want to talk about constitutional recognition, though. Are you still committed to a referendum before June 2021?

Ken Wyatt I'm committed to a constitutional referendum, but that's a tier of work that I've not commenced actively on because we've had numerous reports since 1999 on constitutional recognition. Aboriginal people have expressed their views in a number of reports, including the last report tabled by Senator Pat Dodson and Julian Leeser. We've had the Uluru statement, then you had other propositions put forward by people. I want to set that to one side, because that's not the focus of today. It's not the focus of the daily work that we are doing.

Interviewer Sure, but there is the potential for the timeline to be pushed back.

Ken Wyatt Look, I don't get into timelines I expressed as any minister does, it's a point of reference to a timeline that's potentially possible. But the reality is, is that constitutional recognition matter is a steady, steady piece of work that requires a lot of engagement, it'll require an engagement not only of ordinary, everyday Australians and our own people, it'll require engagement within my own party with all of my colleagues and we have a process that goes to party room and cabinet at various phases of that work. And we've not done that. We haven't started it because that's not the front end of what I want to do. The front end is making a difference on a daily basis to the lives of indigenous Australians.

Interviewer This was a source of tension in the party room yesterday. How do you convince your colleagues to support this process?

Ken Wyatt Well, I don't talk about party room matters because the party room is supposed to be an area that we have confidence in being able to share and express opinions, and when it leaks it's frustrating. Now, in any party, there will be individuals who will have a different point of view and we're seeing that played out over energy. We see it played out over other matters. So this is not unique in the way in which we as members elected to represent our electorates reflect the views of our electorates. And that's important. What we do have to do is build consensus and reach a point at which people are agreed in the way that we move forward.

Interviewer Are you confident that all your colleagues will reach that point, that they will support a referendum.

Ken Wyatt No, I'm not going to say yes, because what I love about our party is that we are allowed to have the freedom to make choices and to have a view. Section 18C, which is an issue under Tony Abbott, I stood up and said I would cross the floor because I want to protect people from racial vilification. So we have that opportunity and my colleagues will have an opportunity to express their views and I would respect those views, but as long as we go through a process, and at the end point, they have a position, then that's fine with me.

Interviewer But is it damaging then for indigenous Australians who spoke so fervently for this for that to be ignored by elements of the government?

Ken Wyatt We're all part of a broader society and there will be elements within our society who will have that position. So we have to respect their will be and we know from the work of Reconciliation Australia on the barometer 10 per cent were rusted on no, but today is about closing the gap and the way in which we deal with the issues.

Interviewer Are you ultimately worried that the referendum could fail?

Ken Wyatt No, I remain optimistic.

Interviewer And on the high court decision yesterday to share the concerns that preventing indigenous Australians from being deported will create a new category of person under the Citizenship Act?

Ken Wyatt That judgement, I am reading through at the moment. I think the thing that I'm pleased with is the reaffirmation of the tripartite test for indigeneity and that is a high court ruling based on the Mabo decision. Now, in terms of creating a new category, that's debatable. I was listening to a lawyer last night who is telling the audience that no, that doesn't create a new category. Now, I don't have a legal background.

Interviewer That’s Alan Tudge, who's saying it.

Ken Wyatt Well, it doesn't matter who's saying it. It's whether it's a reality. But I think the decision certainly challenges governments in areas that decisions have been made. The High Court is there as an ultimate arbiter of what our parliament does. And if they believe we've done the wrong thing, as we have seen historically, then high courts will pass judgments that cause us to reflect and rethink on any position in which they rule against the governments.

Interviewer Should all cases involving non-citizens with indigenous heritage now be reviewed?

Ken Wyatt Well I'm not sure if there are any others in that category. I think these two have been brought to the fore because of the action taken through the high court. I don't think we can generalise. I don't think that we can make assumptions other than what we know is fact. In this instance, we've got two individuals that are factual, for which the high court has made a ruling.

Interviewer Minister, thank you.

Ken Wyatt No, my pleasure. Thank you.