Our cultural heritage is the essence of who we, Indigenous Australians, are. It it shapes our thinking, our customs, our social interactions and how we see ourselves as a specific group. Our bloodlines and our ancient songlines have provided the continuity of connections as individuals, families and communities.
We are marking NAIDOC Week, which celebrates over 60,000 years of history, culture and achievements of Indigenous Australians, and the theme this year is "Voice Treaty Truth".
The concept of the Voice in the Uluru Statement from the Heart is not a singular voice. I perceive it as a cry to all tiers of government to stop and listen to the voices of Indigenous Australians at all levels, who want to be heard by those who make the decisions that impact on their lives.
The development of a local, regional and national voice will be achieved. It is my intention to work with the state and territory ministers to develop an approach - underpinned with existing jurisdictional Indigenous organisations and advisory structures.
The national interest requires a new relationship with Indigenous Australians. My regional managers will be required to make this happen.
At the opening of the 46th Parliament, the Prime Minister said: "Here, 65,000 thousand years of Aboriginal culture meets mere centuries of Westminster tradition ... In my maiden speech to Parliament, I said that "a strong country is at peace with its past". This is a work in progress ... This year, my government appointed Ken Wyatt as the first ever Aboriginal person to hold the position of Minister for Indigenous Australians - and as a member of cabinet."
The Sunday following the federal election was National Sorry Day. I reflected on my mother and her siblings who had spent their early years of life in missions, separated from each other, but they all remained optimistic that the future would yield better outcomes for us - their children.
My thoughts were interrupted with Anna saying "can you hang out the washing and don't forget totake your phone with you in case the Prime Minister rings you and offers you a job".
I was hanging up a tablecloth on the Hills Hoist clothes line when the phone rang and the Prime Minister's name came up. I answered the phone with, "Good morning, Prime Minister. I thought hemight offer me my previous portfolio. Instead he said, "I would like to offer you the position of the Minister for Indigenous Australians."
His statement absolutely stunned me. Not Minister for Indigenous Affairs but Minister forIndigenous Australians. The Prime Minister's focus gives a personal and human value to our people. I choked with emotion at the honour. It took me a full two minutes to answer him.
In those two minutes, the emotions of our story as Indigenous Australians welled up in me. It's hardto express what I actually felt and what it meant to me. The Prime Minister said: "I take it your silence means 'yes'?" Then I found my voice, and said: 'Yes, Prime Minister, I accept."
I want to acknowledge the Prime Minister's leadership in establishing the National IndigenousAustralians Agency. With its establishment on July 1, we began a new era for the government to work in partnership with Indigenous Australians. It will provide opportunities for growth and advancement in education, employment, suicide prevention, community safety, health and constitutional recognition.
Historically, Indigenous Australians have been told what they're going to get, and what's going to happen to them, whether they like it or not. The agency will play a critical role in supporting me to meet the changing needs of Indigenous Australians.
The most important thing that I and the agency will do is to listen - with our ears and with our eyes. To me, a child in a remote community is just as important as a state or national leader. I want to encourage ministers, assistant ministers and as many members of the Australian Parliament to become familiar with Indigenous organisations, communities and families to identify the issues that government needs to become aware of and work towards finding solutions.
Outside government, I want to work with corporate Australia. I am asking them to sit with me around boardroom tables - and around campfires - and discuss how they can contribute.
A week after I was sworn in, I received a letter from Jennifer Westacott assuring me the Business Council stood ready to work with me to make sure "Australia's First People's share in the same economic and social opportunities as every other Australian".
I want to see Indigenous elders, as well as young people, being informed and investing in decision-making about what is important in their lives. Without that local and regional engagement our efforts won't succeed and opportunities to make a difference will be lost.
I invite all sides of politics to work with me to ensure we provide the best support and services needed to effect change.
We've all been shocked and grieved by the numbers of Aboriginal people, especially youth, committing suicide. The fact that Aboriginal people are committing suicide at twice the rate of non-Indigenous Australians is one of the gravest and most heartbreaking challenges we face.
The Prime Minister announced the appointment of Christine Morgan as our new national suicide prevention adviser to support this priority. The allocation of $500 million for Youth Mental Health and a Suicide Prevention Plan include $34 million for Indigenous youth suicide prevention.
Young people in the Kimberley have made it clear that suicides don't happen between nine and five but often after when they are not accessible. They suggested organisations funded for mental health and suicide services consider after-hours services to enable youth to access support when they need it. Not a telephone line.
I will develop and bring forward a consensus option for constitutional recognition to be put to a referendum during the current parliamentary term. I have commenced the process of engaging and seeking the counsel of Indigenous leaders.
We need to design the right model to progress to a point at which the majority of Australians, the majority of states and territories and Indigenous Australians support the model so that it is successful.
The Morrison government is committed to recognising Indigenous Australians in the constitution, and working to achieve this through a process of true co-design. Constitutional recognition is too important to get wrong, and too important to rush. The successful 1967 referendum was the result of tireless advocacy and an extraordinary nationwide momentum for change. If we want to see that kind of national consensus again, we need to be thorough and take the time to get it right.
We have allocated $7.3 million for a co-design process to improve local and regional decision-making and $160 million has been set aside for a future referendum once the model has beendetermined.
I plan to establish a working group of parliamentary colleagues of all political persuasions to assist me in considering the role of engaging on many levels to bring forward a community model. The shadow minister for Aboriginal affairs, Linda Burney, will be integral to this process.
I will work on approaches to progressing how we address truth telling. Without the truth of the past,there can be no agreement on where and who we are in the present, how we arrived here and wherewe want to go in the future.
A truth-telling process that allows all Australians to reflect on the place of First Nations people and our shared past has to happen at the national, state and local levels right across our country. History is generally written from a dominant society's point of view and not that of the suppressed and therefore true history is brushed aside, masked, dismissed or destroyed.
In recent years we have seen more open acknowledgement as more evidence emerges of the brutal realities of the past. We need to know what happened to the children raised on the missions and in foster homes and their parents. To see their lasting effect on the way people move through the world decades later.
It's now 22 years since the Bringing Them Home Report opened the records of child removals and showed people, some for the first time, what happened to Aboriginal families in this country. We need to hear of the lies they were told, the casual cruelty of the fates they were dealt and theunthinkable loss in their hearts.
Opening those records was painful for all of us, but it was necessary. It opened hearts and minds. It opened up space in our collective life for understanding, healing and forgiveness.
That's what truth does. It sets you free. Only when we tell the truth, and when we are willing to listen to the truth, can we find common ground to walk on. Only then can we begin to trust each other and to walk together, side by side.
With respect to a treaty, it is important that state and territory jurisdiction's take the lead. The Western Australian Noongar Land Agreement implemented by the Barnett government is a treaty in the true sense. Treaty models are evolving, with work being undertaken by the Victorian and Northern Territory governments which will address the aspirations of the Indigenous Australians in those jurisdictions.
I am charged with delivering a revised Closing the Gap targets in health and mortality and life expectancy, in education, jobs and economic security, and other aspects of wellbeing. In December 2018, the Council of Australian Governments agreed to build its relationship with Indigenous Australians, and the Coalition has overseen the first-ever formal partnership agreement between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peak organisations, the federal government, and states and territories. This will have profound impacts.
Since March this year the Community Development Program has been reformed to ensure that communities have a say in the way it is run through the establishment of communityadvisory boards. About 60 per cent of the Indigenous Advancement Strategy and Aboriginals Benefit Account grant funding is provided to Indigenous organisations, a significant increase from 35 per cent before the introduction of the strategy.
We have committed an additional $10 million to support the revival and maintenance of IndigenousAustralians' languages. We are also helping our nation to heal with funding to deliver the support that is needed for surviving members of the Stolen Generation. Since 2015, more than 1530 Indigenous businesses have won over 12,600 contracts under the Indigenous Procurement Policy totalling more than $2.1 billion.
But even the most well-intentioned modern policies and programs have still tended to take a top-down, command-and-control approach. As if Aboriginal people didn't know what they needed or wanted. As if proud members of one of the world's longest lived civilisations had nothing to say, no wisdom to offer, about what would help their families thrive and their communities flourish.
Fred Chaney, minister of Aboriginal affairs in the Fraser government, put it this way: "They were first, and they survived - we should listen." A piece citing this in The Australian in January last year was critical of the Turnbull government's response to the Uluru statement. I made this commitment on my first day: I will listen, and I will walk with Aboriginal people as they find their own paths to health, happiness and success.
In finding those paths, we are not looking out on a trackless landscape. There are tracks and songlines to follow created by people who have gone before, seeking better lives for our people.
If you think about the fact that 65 per cent of all Indigenous Australians are under 30, you realisewhat an enormous difference we can make by investing in their futures. I've never met an Aboriginal parent who didn't want their child to succeed, to be healthy and happy, to have a better life than we as the earlier generations had.
I'd like to share a story about one of my heroes. Last Saturday, the first statue of an indigenous AFL footballer was unveiled at the 50th Western Derby between West Coast Eagles and the FremantleDockers at Optus Stadium. The bronze statue pays tribute to Neil Elvis "Nicky" Winmar, a Noongar man known for his career with St Kilda and the Western Bulldogs in the AFL, as well as South Fremantle in the WAFL, but also for one of the most famous moments in Australian sport.
After the final siren in the round four Saints win over Collingwood at Victoria Park on April 17, 1993,Nicky lifted his St Kilda jumper and pointed to his stomach, his skin. The image captured by the photographer portrayed the strong sense of pride for all Indigenous Australians of their culture, historical links to country and that the colour of one's skin is not a barrier.
By doing this, he made a stand against racism in sport, starting the conversation that it needed to be tackled and was unacceptable behaviour.
We have non-Indigenous heroes too. Fiona Stanley and Fred Hollows in health. Nugget Coombs and Sir Paul Hasluck in public policy. There are many more who work with us and alongside us including our teachers, police officers, nurses, corporate leaders and community workers. I value their contributions immensely.
Neville Bonner was the first Indigenous person in the Australian Parliament and Neville and I became friends in his later years. I'll never forget being shown around the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House, and seeing his pillow on display.
The curator explained that his family had donated his pillow and his diary. In the diary he wrote that in Canberra, he was never invited to a function, or to dinner. He was never invited for a coffee and a chat. He went home every night to his pillow - his only friend. It's like the child who is never invited to a birthday party.
What a picture of loneliness. It is so much harder to walk the path of progress when you're alone.
I take great comfort in knowing I am 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. I will do my best if our leadership and our communities walk with me leaving our footprints for others to follow.
This is an edited text of a speech given by Ken Wyatt, Minister for Indigenous Australians, at the National Press Club on Wednesday.