The first Aboriginal elected to Australia’s lower house won a standing ovation Wednesday for a moving maiden speech in which he spoke of his childhood poverty and hopes for more indigenous MPs.
At times choking back tears, Ken Wyatt wore a traditional kangaroo skin cloak as he described South African anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela as an inspiration and pledged to work to improve the lives of Aborigines.
“It is with deep and mixed emotion that I, as an Aboriginal man with Noongar, Yamitji and Wongi heritage, stand before you and the members of the House of Representatives as an equal,” he said.
Wyatt thanked former prime minister Kevin Rudd for his historic apology to the indigenous Australians for the injustices committed by white settlers, including the forced removal of children from their families.
The West Australian said his mother was a member of the Stolen Generation, a term used to refer to Aboriginal people who were removed from their parents to be raised by whites or in institutions, and would have been deeply touched.
“On behalf of my mother, her siblings and all indigenous Australians, I, as an Aboriginal voice in this chamber, say thank you for the apology delivered in the Federal Parliament,” he said as his voice wavered.
Wyatt, a teacher who worked in Aboriginal health and education, is the first indigenous person elected to Australia’s lower house and the third, after senators Neville Bonner and Aden Ridgeway, to serve in the national Parliament.
Voted in for the seat of Hasluck in Western Australia for the conservative opposition Liberal Party in August 21 polls, Wyatt made no mention of the racist emails and calls which followed his victory.
But he said indigenous people, who are the country’s most disadvantaged group, needed to be empowered to develop their own solutions to the problems they face.
“If change is to occur and become embedded and sustained then all must be equal and active partners in all facets of planning, implementation and accountability,” he said.
The eldest of ten children raised by railway ganger Don Wyatt and his wife Mona, Wyatt described himself as someone who used education to overcome his modest beginnings.
“I have been a battler for most of my life but I have always driven myself to be successful in order to achieve my dreams,” he said.
Wyatt said his life experiences — from trapping rabbits as a teenager to put food on his family’s table, rising at 4.30 am to check his traps before school, to his work as a labourer — would inform his work.
The 58-year-old called on his fellow members in the 43rd Parliament of the of the 150-seat House of Representatives to “commit to and fight for change.”
“In the 44th Parliament I hope to see Aboriginal Members from all parties in their place in the House of Representatives,” he said. — Sapa-AFM