By Emily Woodford
In its 150 years of function, representative democracy in Australia has been called everything except perfect. In a system with more than enough flaws, the difficulty that minority groups experience in gaining adequate representation is just one of many. Although all minority groups experience this difficulty it could be argued that none feel its impact more than the traditional custodians of our land. While Indigenous Australians have a deeply vested interest in government decisions they have been continually underrepresented within parliament.
In Australia’s history there have been thousands of federal lower house representatives. Only one of those representative has been Indigenous.
Ken Wyatt, the member for Hasluck, was elected in 2010. He entered parliament as the first Indigenous representative, a mere 109 years after the formation of the federal government. After 5 years in parliament, Wyatt further cemented his place in the history books, becoming the first Indigenous frontbencher and Assistant Minister for Health under the newly rebranded, more inclusive Turnbull government. Wyatt recognised that this was an unbelievable milestone for a man of Nyoongar, Yamatji and Wongi descent, stating “We’re breaking, in a sense, a ceiling that we put there and thought that we would never, ever break through”.
Despite his incredible history of political success, the path that Wyatt has traversed to reach this point has not been an easy one. Wyatt stated that following the 2010 election, at a time when he should have been rejoicing his success, he was subjected to cruel racial taunts and hate filled correspondence. As well as receiving emails from voters claiming that he was only interested in Indigenous issues, Wyatt reported that he was told by individuals from his electorate that they had voted for him, but would not have done so if they were aware of his Aboriginal heritage. The confidence these individuals had in Wyatt’s ability to fulfil his role was shattered solely by his race, with no other contributing factors. Regardless of the difficulties that he has faced, Wyatt has carried on fighting for his constituents and fighting for all Indigenous people, proving those who doubted him based on prejudice wrong.
Resilience and perseverance have been the defining features of Wyatt’s career. Whether it’s been fighting to save the protection of dignity afforded by section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act or fighting for constitutional recognition for Indigenous people, Wyatt’s success can be largely attributed to his “never-give-up” attitude. This is an attitude that he hopes to instil in young Indigenous people. Especially those who want to follow in his footsteps. When asked how he responds to young Indigenous people who ask for his advice in entering politics, he stated that he tells them “We will fail sometimes and it doesn’t matter if we fail… Come back and have another go because that is the important part of the political journey and it’s not straightforward, it’s tough”.
In his current position, Wyatt is presented with two great opportunities. Both of which could define his political career. The first is to leave his mark on health services for Indigenous Australians. This would mean working towards closing the gap that leaves Indigenous Australians expected to live 10 fewer years than their white peers. The second opportunity is to inspire the younger generation to affect a change greater than he alone could manage. Wyatt now has the opportunity to display himself as a role model, to show what perseverance in the face of adversity can accomplish. As a man who has faced great criticism and great prejudice, as a man who has achieved historic feats and marvellous political success, as a man who is proud of his heritage and who aims to instil his resilience in the younger generation, it’s safe to say that Wyatt’s work towards this goal is well underway.
Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP