The speech shows how if Indigenous people are given a platform, Australia could start to see things in a different way.
Too often in the past, many, especially on the right, have refused to talk about historical wrongs inflicted on Indigenous people which they say are a “black armband view of history.”
But Mr Wyatt talked from family experience about the pain of the stolen generations. He said telling the truth about this ugly past was a key issue for the Indigenous community.
Often non-Indigenous people are attracted to fast, simplistic solutions imposed from outside for Indigenous problems. A clear example was the military intervention in remote communities in 2007 but Prime Minister Scott Morrison was perhaps also slightly guilty of it in February when he responded to the Closing the Gap statement by pledging to “focus on just one area” – education.
Mr Wyatt however has broadened the focus significantly, ranging in his speech from the epidemic of youth suicide to high incarceration rates. He insisted that he could only set priorities in consultation with Indigenous people themselves.
The target set by Mr Wyatt of holding a referendum on constitutional recognition in 2022 is a significant and welcome development.
Mr Wyatt as recently as two months ago was wary of binding himself to a timetable. He warned that change could be set back decades if a referendum was rushed and rejected by the electorate.
It is a credit to Mr Wyatt’s powers of persuasion that he now appears to have the support of Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his party to push tentatively ahead. Indeed, Mr Morrison has also grown in his understanding of the issue.
Mr Wyatt has made the right decision by taking the time to develop a detailed plan rather than the alternative of asking citizens to vote on the principle of constitutional Indigenous recognition and leaving the details till later.
Recognition has bipartisan support for now but the republic debate shows how easily opponents can exploit any ambiguity to kill a proposal to change the constitution.
Yet Mr Wyatt’s speech also left crucial questions unanswered. While he has committed himself to constitutional recognition he did not say what would be recognised.
Rather than the peak national consultative body proposed by the Uluru Statement he talked about a multiplicity of voices and treaties for Indigenous peoples at all three levels of government.
That is worthy but if the voice is watered down and fragmented into hundreds of talk shops it risks losing any impact, either symbolic or practical. Mr Wyatt is right to be cautious. But a proposal for constitutional recognition that disappoints the aspirations of generations of Indigenous people will do nothing to reconcile black and white.
- The Herald’s editor Lisa Davies writes a weekly newsletter exclusively for subscribers. To have it delivered to your inbox, please sign up here