Ben Wyatt making history as nation's first Aboriginal treasurer

Updated March 16, 2017 23:12:33

Ben Wyatt is making history as the first Aboriginal person to be treasurer in a state or federal government in Australia, as part of the incoming WA Labor administration.

He follows in the footsteps of his relative Ken Wyatt, the first Indigenous man to become a federal minister.

Ken Wyatt is Minister for Aged Care and Indigenous Health in the Turnbull Government.

He said he had mixed emotions on election night, March 11.

"Actually, it was devastating with the loss we had, and I was with John Day watching his figures come in," he said.

"The one good thing that's come out of this is Ben being elevated into government and becoming the first Indigenous Australian to be a treasurer anywhere within this nation.

"It's a great example of aspiration but also demonstration of capability and capacity to do a tough job."

But while the younger Wyatt is blazing a trail, he said doing a good job was his priority.

"From the moment I was elected and I imagine it was exactly the same for Ken, inevitably we're both finding ourselves in positions of firsts along the way, and certainly I've tried to ensure that I'm not just 'that Aboriginal person doing that job'," he said.

"I'm actually a person of, hopefully, capability, doing that job who happens to also have an Aboriginal background."

Family and cultural ties add to responsibility

Ben Wyatt said he grew up with the knowledge that Ken, his own father Cedric, and Brian Wyatt were all prominent public servants at a time when Aboriginal leadership was "more forceful".

Ben Wyatt describes Ken as his uncle, although Ken has pointed out that in western society they'd technically be cousins, as Ben's grandfather was Ken's cousin.

The elder Wyatt said their heritage brought a different set of expectations.

"One of the challenges that Ben and I have, is that we have three sets of constituencies.

"We not only have the people who elect us, we have our party and the party structures, but we have Indigenous Australians who come to us on a whole range of issues.

"In that sense you do get to take leadership roles in key areas, not only within the context of your obligations to your constituents but also in areas that makes a difference to the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across this state and across the nation.

"And the expectations for us to succeed is far greater than anybody else, we are in a sense scrutinized with a great deal of consideration by many Australians."

Ken Wyatt said he often got comments about his and Ben's careers.

"People saying, 'You two are doing exceptionally well, you speak well, you're measured in your speaking, and you're not radical', but in a sense we are because we've stepped outside of the mould that people often saw Aboriginal people in, historically," he said.

"And when I worked with both my other cousins, Cedric and Brian, we were at the forefront of those fights and debates we used to have in the '60s and '70s in order to get to where we are today."

Achieving beyond Aboriginal affairs

Both Ken and Ben Wyatt said it was important for them to be achieving things outside of an Indigenous affairs portfolio, which is where Aboriginal politicians were often expected to work; but both were deeply committed to the principles of "closing the gap".

They have also said they wouldn't have been able to get to their positions without having had a good education, spurred on by positive teachers.

Ben said when he was in Laverton Primary School, he never imagined he would one day hold the purse strings of the entire State.

Ben Wyatt has described Aboriginal leadership as "inherently understated" with trying to build consensus.

Mr Wyatt said he would like to see more Indigenous people in leadership positions.

"To create a number of people so all the parties are able to draw on a bigger and determined skill set of Aboriginal people is what I'm keen to see and this is the issue; politics is not one for shrinking violets, you've got to be determined you've got to keep pushing and pushing," he said.

"I think you're seeing around the country now more and more Aboriginal people appearing in parliaments, and I'd now like to see more and more Aboriginal people appearing in those senior bureaucratic ranks in particular and also... senior corporate.

"That's still, I think, some big room to move where you're talking about your senior executives in corporate Australia."

Ken Wyatt said he would encourage any Indigenous person who was thinking about going into politics to pursue it.

"I am working with young people now across Australia who come and say to me, 'How did you start your journey, what did you have to do?', and I say to them, 'I don't care which party you're thinking of'," he said.

"I should say 'coalition', but I'm not going to, because I think that we've got to give people the choice of their belief to aspire to the party that they believe in.

"Ben and I have got an obligation in many senses to help them on that journey by giving them advice, being mentors, but being there for them when they make a decision that may cause them some grief in their aspiration and say: 'This is only one stumbling block, hop up and go again, because you have the ability to be in any chamber as an equal peer to any other member who's been elected'."

Topics:state-parliament, indigenous-aboriginal-and-torres-strait-islander, government-and-politics, perth-6000, canberra-2600

First posted March 16, 2017 22:36:40

Read more http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-03-16/ben-wyatt-wa-aboriginal-treasurer-making-history/8361710