POLITICS

While Turnbull Was Reshuffling His Broken Deck, Ken Wyatt Was Making History. Again.

He started as an undertaker's night attendant. Now he's a federal minister.

19/01/2017 1:34 PM AEDT | Updated 19/01/2017 4:41 PM AEDT
Alex Ellinghausen/Fairfax
Ken Wyatt now on the frontbench with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull

CANBERRA -- Well before politics and a landmark position in the Turnbull ministry beckoned, Ken Wyatt worked as the night attendant for an undertaker.

It was an unusual, life affirming career choice, setting up caskets and speaking with the recently bereaved, that is paying dividends now.

Alex Ellinghausen
Liberal MP Ken Wyatt at Parliament House in Canberra

"It changed my philosophy and view on life," he told The Huffington Post Australia. "It took me to a point where I used to see death occur at any age, in any stage and in bizarre circumstances.

"Helping people in time of grief, being prepared just to listen and then offer advice was great.

"And I thought I will plan for the long term, but I going to live each day as it comes. Enjoy it regardless of the circumstances."

Glen McCurtayne FAIRFAX MEDIA
Ken Wyatt delivers his maiden speech on 29th of September 2010

That experience, and the rough and tumble of Aboriginal politics, has "well skilled" Wyatt for the wider political arena.

"We are much tougher in our community. We are much harder on each other," he said. "You make a mistake within the Aboriginal community the responses are much sharper."

In federal parliament for under seven years, Wyatt has just made history as Australia's first indigenous minister. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull called, as part of his freshly announced, fourth mini-reshuffle, and Wyatt answered.

Eventually.

"I was taken aback and it took a moment to answer him. Then the rest was just sort of a whirr for a few moments and then common sense prevailed."

Alex Ellinghausen
Senator Malarndirri McCarthy, Liberal MP Ken Wyatt, Labor MP Linda Burney, Senator Pat Dodson and Senator Jacqui Lambie at Parliament House

After holding the position of Assistant Health Minister, the Member for Hasluck will serve on the Turnbull frontbench as Indigenous Health Minister and Minister for Aged Care.

While finding his elevation a whirlwind, it has not surprised his Coalition colleagues and those in his portfolio sector. Wyatt's promotion is widely regarded as being on merit.

In announcing Wyatt's promotion, the Prime Minister said Wednesday he was an ideal choice.

"Just as Ken was the first Indigenous person to be elected to the House of Representatives and the first to be appointed to the executive of the Commonwealth Government, he is now the first Indigenous person appointed to the Commonwealth ministry," Mr Turnbull said.

"His extensive knowledge and experience as a senior public servant in Indigenous health, coupled with his work as an assistant minister in this portfolio, makes him an ideal minister for this area."

The new minister likes to talk about breaking through the "brown glass ceiling".

And he is thrilled by the "Aboriginal Bloc" of five the indigenous members of the federal parliament; Malarndirri McCarthy, Pat Dodson, Linda Burney, Jacqui Lambie and himself. They meet regularly and the Prime Minister takes the bloc's advice.

"To have this appointment means that forever, in the future of Australia, indigenous Australians will be considered on merit for appointment," he told HuffPost Australia.

"Going into politics and having five indigenous members there now, brings that home strongly.

"We already see that with the Shadow Ministers that have been appointed into the roles that they have."

Andrew Meares/Fairfax
Ken Wyatt (r) joined Tanya Plibersek, Bill Shorten, Charlie King and Malcolm Turjnbull in linking arms at the No More event in support of ending family violence

Wyatt has not officially started the new roles, but if he follows the usual political path, a Cabinet seat would be next.

He wants it.

"I certainly hope so," he said. "I will focus on my responsibilities within these two portfolios and ultimately, if I am effective in them, if I do the task the Prime Minister has set me, and I am effective, then the next step obviously would be progression into Cabinet.

"When that happens, it would be the same for my colleagues on the other side -- any senior appointment is going to open doors in a way young people have never thought was possible and this creates that opportunity."

Alex Ellinghausen/Fairfax
Ken Wyatt, Linda Burney and Malarndirri McCarthy during the smoking ceremony at the welcome to country on of the 45th Parliament

The question then becomes which Cabinet seat. Before anyone thinks the conversation around Wyatt is getting way ahead of reality, there is strong talk of him being primed to take over Indigenous Affairs from Northern Territory Senator Nigel Scullion.

The incumbent has barely held onto the job over the past few months and had been lashed over his response to the abuse of juveniles at Darwin's Don Dale detention centre.

Indigenous Affairs is actually a job that Wyatt wants.

"I would like to do Aboriginal Affairs, but not yet." He's said as much to Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull.

Alex Ellinghausen/Fairfax
Ken Wyatt embraces Linda Burney, first Aboriginal woman in the House of Representatives, after she delivered her maiden speech

Wyatt has held a number of senior public service roles in Indigenous affairs in Western Australia and New South Wales and he is now tackling the "complex" and "challenging" portfolio work in the "critical and key" areas of health and aged care.

"(I) will accept in the future an opportunity to become the minister for Indigenous Affairs, should it arise," he said.

"It is taken at the moment. I am quite happy for Minister Scullion to continue in that role while I consolidate my skills."

Wyatt insists he in politics to make a difference. He explains he wants to improve outcomes in aged care, especially the quality of life for people in residential care.

In indigenous health, Wyatt wants to focus on mums and bubs, as well as Indigenous youth, particularly the "thorny" issue of Aboriginal youth suicide.

Australia's first Indigenous Minister will be sworn on Tuesday by the Governor-General with new Health Minister Greg Hunt and other new members of the executive.

More On This Topic