Dicey Topics: Ken Wyatt talks money, religion and bodies
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Dicey Topics: Ken Wyatt talks money, religion and bodies

Ken Wyatt, Minister for Aged Care and Indigenous Health.

Ken Wyatt, Minister for Aged Care and Indigenous Health.Credit:Tony McDonough

Each week, Benjamin Law asks public figures to discuss the subjects we're told to keep private by getting them to roll a die. The numbers they land on are the topics they're given.

This week, he talks to Ken Wyatt. Wyatt, 66, is the federal Liberal MP for Hasluck in WA and Minister for Aged Care and Indigenous Health. He made history in 2010 when he became the first Aboriginal member of the House of Representatives.

MONEY

You were born in Bunbury, south of Perth, to a father with Yamatji and Irish heritage, and a Wongi-Noongar mother. Did you grow up with money?

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No, we lived in poverty. My father worked on the railways and when I received my first pay packet as a teacher, it was more than what he was earning at the end of his career. It staggered me. He raised 10 of us with a lot less than I got in my first year of teaching.

Meanwhile, your mother, a member of the stolen generations, also struggled. To buy personal items – clothes, shoes – she had to apply for welfare.

I've seen letters that Mum wrote to the welfare department saying she needed a new dress or even underwear. I know what it's like to struggle week to week. I saw my parents do it. I used to trap rabbits and sell them to the butcher. We'd eat what we needed, and the money would go to the family pot. Damper was more common than bread.

Do you consider yourself wealthy now?

I consider myself to be comfortable.

How much money does a federal MP make?

Actually … I don't look at my salary! I'm assuming it's about $260,000 or $280,000. [The base salary for parliamentarians is $203,020 per annum; the average annual salary for a cabinet minister is $350,209.]

Does that feel like too little, too much or just right?

I've thought about this, and I think we don't pay our politicians enough. You want people who are going to go in and look after the interests of all Australians. I earned more as a public servant [as director, Aboriginal Health, for WA's Department of Health] than as a backbencher. I look at the corporate sector and can't see how you justify salaries of $18 million, especially when I see people in my electorate battle from week to week.

BODIES

To what extent were you conscious – or self-conscious – of being Aboriginal growing up?

Extremely. When you think of the 1950s and '60s, people were very blunt. You got used to accepting terms like "nigger", "boong", "coon" and "blacks". Even later in life, people have made a derogatory comment about Aborigines before looking at you, then saying, "Oh no, you're different, you've become civilised." I had a neighbour who said to me, "We really like you and your wife, but I don't like Aboriginal people." Gee, where do you even begin with a comment like that? In most cases, you say, "Tell me what you mean." Once you start talking them through it, all of a sudden you pick up their sense of embarrassment. They never say it again.

Why does the mix of federal parliamentarians not reflect our multicultural community?

Part of the challenge we will continue to have are party structures. Selection processes have always favoured sons and daughters who people want in the seat, even though other candidates might be outstanding. One day Australia's parliament will evolve to a point where it reflects the community, though. It's changing.

What do you like about getting older?

In our community, grey hair and grey beards represent the getting of wisdom and statesmanship. I'm reaching that stage. If I grew out my beard now, it'd probably be white and I'd pass off as Father Christmas. The only downside is your body ages and you become frail.

I can't imagine being an MP is conducive to staying on top of physical health.

I do a lot of walking, but I'm laid up at the moment because I've had a knee joint replacement. The other problem is that you go to a whole range of functions and someone will say, "We've cooked these scones for you" or "We've made this chocolate thing." So you have a very thin slice of cake or one scone. The trouble is, you do that five times a day!

So this is a huge occupational hazard.

[Laughs.] It is! But the beauty is, when I go to a Country Women's Association event, the scones are superb. I end up having a couple with strawberry or plum jam, and nice thickened cream with a hint of vanilla through it.

RELIGION

In 2015, Western Australia's Liberal government wanted to deregister hundreds of Aboriginal heritage sites. For those sites to qualify for protection as "sacred", the government required religious activity to occur on them. You said at the time, "The Dreaming is a religion."

If you read Genesis – which talks about the Creation – then read the beginning of the Dreaming, the parallels are blatant. I made that point about the Dreaming being a religion to put it into a contemporary context. Our Dreaming is no less than the Catholic or Anglican religion, or Buddhism.

Do you consider yourself religious, spiritual, both or neither?

I consider myself spiritual more than religious. I do read scripture, and I do follow a particular faith.

What denomination?

I go to a Catholic church in Victoria Park in Perth. I like the priest. He doesn't preach at you; he talks about the importance of the message and how it may relate or not relate to you. It's not the old fire and brimstone from when we were young kids. I take out of it what I want, but that doesn't change what I am, or the essence of me as a Noongar man with Yamatji and Wongi heritage.

diceytopics@fairfaxmedia.com.au

To read more from Good Weekend magazine, visit our page at The Sydney Morning Herald or The Age.

Writer, author of The Family Law and Gaysia.

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