NACCHO-NAIHO 1982 Aboriginal Health Conference paper- Bruce McGuinness


In the first of our NACCHO’s historical series we thank Gary Foley for providing a paper delivered to a Aboriginal Health Conference in 1982  by NACCHO life member  Bruce McGuinness  that “ol Mac Blagic” who sadly passed away in 2003:

“The health of Aboriginal people has improved with the establishment of community controlled health services.

The services they provide either as an actual curative service or as a preventative one, has had a positive and quantifiable effect on those Aboriginal communities.

Give control of our communities lives to our people and the physical and mental health of our nations will improve”


1.You can read Essays, Papers & Other Writings by Bruce McGuinness at Koori Web

2.To read full tribute by Gary Foley  Memoriam to my friend and mentor Tracker Magazine 10 October 2012

Extract from Gary’s tribute

“Bruce was also instrumental in the later emergence of the National Aboriginal and Islander Health Organisation (NAIHO) in the 1970s. NAIHO was ostensibly a national ”Umbrella organisation” that had been established to represent the interests of the new national network of community-controlled health services.

“Bruce McGuinness would go on to become one of the most important Aboriginal leaders of his time. He was a founder of a revolutionary education program at Swinburne College that evolved into the Aboriginal Health Worker Training project called Koori College.

He was also the long term Chairman of the Victorian Aboriginal Health Service (VAHS), which led to him becoming one of the founders and key organisers of the National Aboriginal & Islander Health Organisation.

He had also been the first Melbourne Aboriginal elected representative on the first national Aboriginal consultative body, the NACC set up by the Whitlam Government in 1972.

In all of these roles McGuinness was an inspirational leader who had a strong influence on those around him.


Paper delivered to Aboriginal Health Conference 1982

As published:Essays, Papers & Other Writings by Bruce McGuinness
Before I start I would like to give you some background on the National Aboriginal and Islander Health Organization (NAIHO). NAIHO is a collective of some 72 Aboriginal communities from around Australia. The purpose of the organization is to assist communities in their efforts to improve the health status of Aboriginal people and’ to promote concepts of self-determination and community control.

The paper we have prepared for this session purposely has not, included any statistics and has not sought to be, I hope, academic discussion of meaningless figures and-suggestions. Rather I hope it concentrates on the fundamental causes of Aboriginal ill health, as they relate to the criminal justice system and the conundrum, of oppression, which faces Aboriginal people today.

This paper does not purposely draw a cartfull of conclusions. Basically it has drawn one fundamental assumption which I will leave to the end. Hopefully what the paper will do is just start people thinking on questions on Aboriginal health and how it relates to the broader spectrum of Aboriginal affairs and, particularly’, to the criminal justice system.

It is vital that in any discussion of the concerns of Aboriginal people, in which non-Aboriginal people are participating, or which may be used by non-Aboriginal people afterwards, that the parameters which flavour discussions are clearly defined by Aboriginal people themselves.

The National Aboriginal and Islander Health Organization has adopted the following definition, and I shall use this definition for the purpose of this paper:

Health does not mean the physical well being of an individual, but refers
to the social emotional and cultural well being of the whole community.

For Aboriginal people this is seen in terms of the whole- life-view. Health care services should strive to achieve the state where every individual is able to achieve full potential as human beings, and must bring about the total well being of their communities.

In a discussion of Aboriginal health, and of the Australian justice system, the full scope of our definition is activated. We fundamentally must ask ourselves three questions. What is a “law” What purpose do laws serve? And, who makes laws? These three questions we believe are central to our discussions here.

We believe that the primary purpose of law in Aboriginal nations was to ensure survival, both of the collective and individual. The nature of what was to survive was an intricately interwoven mosaic, centering on individual/group relationships, and the respect and reverence for the land as a living member of Aboriginal life-ways.

The law embodied not so much governments, but more so ideals, individuals and groups. The nexus between spiritual and temporal laws were so close, as to refuse separation. Interwoven, overlapping, and infusing each with the other – spiritual and temporal laws provided a foundation of the past, the existence and survival.

The administration of law, which in essence reflected the rights of the individual at the collective Aboriginal unit, was recognized by the Aboriginal nations and was thereby enforceable through all sectors of the community. In all ways law and health, both physical and mental supported each other. Survival in our society required both ability and attitudes.

The law provided both of these. Without ability survival was threatened. Similarly, without proper attitudes survival was threatened. Lifeways shaped by Aboriginal law promoted both good physical and strong mental health, such was the self-perpetuating cycle of Aboriginal life.

The arrival of European colonizers interfered with that cycle. Interestingly and ironically, it was law that started the assault on Aboriginal identity and survival, and has given rise to the appalling health status of our people.

The European law of Terra Nullius was one of the first deliberate actions imposed upon Aboriginal people. The consequence of this imposition scattering and deadly. European colonizers proclaimed “occupation” and in doing so proclaimed the existence of British justice as the law of the land. To Aboriginal people and nations, both proclamations were lies and acts of unprovoked aggression.

It is true that the immediate affects of these proclamations, if not indeed the very presence of, Europeans, instilled a measure of confusion, fear and hatred in the lives of our people. There was no explanation provided to our people that satisfactorily addressed the confusion created by Terra Nullius. There was no attempt to enquire of, respect or participate in Aboriginal law. The confusion and conundrum were compounded.

Aboriginal law and life-ways were stunned by the new boat people and their technological and biological assaults on our nations, our laws, and our survival. From this moment we-have two important references. One, a law was forced on Aboriginal people that contributed no identifiable benefit to Aboriginal life-ways and survival.

A law which created confusion not clarity of life. Secondly, the law did not stem from Aboriginal collective identity. It did not draw its authority from, nor was it recognized by, Aboriginal nations and was therefore not enforceable by them.

The effect of these two references on the health of Aboriginal people is undeniable. The physical well being of the community was under threat, in that the community was placed behind the colonialist, zeal for material gain, which included the ever-accelerating land grab.

The mental health-of the community was under attack also. The Christian, the government official, the lustful, the army, the convict seeking freedom. the greedy and the other perverters that infested the colony assailed the moral, religious and legal standards of Aboriginal society.

Let us deal firstly with the matter of the physical threat to Aboriginal survival and its impact on the health of our people. The traditional economy was impeded initially only at the point of colonization. But with the final spread of the colonial infestation the traditional economy further afield suffered and in many cases collapsed.

Not only did they seek to actively prevent us from collecting food and water on our traditional land, thus seeking to starve us out, they also replaced the land use pattern with a model which hastened the destruction of our capacity ‘to survive. Consequently nutrition suffered, physical illness followed. Death, infirmity and dependence replaced health, independence and sovereignty.

The mental health of our people came under particularly sinister and unrelenting attack. With the continuing exclusion of our people from our lands, the lands which our laws taught us were essential to our continuing Aboriginal survival, the physical manifestations of our culture, our songs, our dance and our ceremonies were curtailed leaving a gap in our life-ways which could only be filled by culturally unmotivating and inappropriate actions. The total of these actions and those of the perverters pushed our people into physical and mental dependency – weakening self-esteem, weakening collective identity and integrity, and imbuing our people with self-doubt and confusion.

In taking a moment to reflect, it is clear that the disregard of the principles and purpose of law have had a negative effect on Aboriginal physical and mental health. The ensuing 196 years of colonization and the continuing existence of physical and. mental ill health in Aboriginal communities is well documented, I need not go into that in detail here. It would, for the purpose of these discussions, appear more fruitful to examine contemporary patterns of ill health, and whether the two original references are valid today.

One of the major health challenges for Aboriginal communities is the continuing efforts of large sections of the Australian community ‘to rob us of our identity and status as Aboriginal people. The sometimes subtle, sometimes overt actions by public and private sector organizations do not in many cases aide the efforts of Aboriginal communities to promote good physical and mental health.

The popularization of the great Black myths by some notable elements within the Australian community; the assertion that our claims to Aboriginal and human rights are more than can be realistically acknowledged; ‘coupled with the actions of some racist groups who have vested interest in maintaining Aboriginal physical and mental ill health, can only serve to continue the disproportionately large numbers of Aboriginal people appearing before the justice system.

Aboriginal people’s appearance before the courts is the result of the conflict between two systems of society, between two national identities. The continual harassment of Aboriginal identity has caused many manifestations of Aboriginal mental health.

Some of these include family breakdowns, nervous disorders, anti-social behavior, low motivation and poor self-esteem, child abuse and many other behavioral disorders. Further, these patterns of mental ill health usually combine with physical illnesses. Indeed most’ of these manifestations lead the individual into contact with the European legal system.

Complicating matters further, the contrast and social put-downs which also flow, reinforce many of the elements present in the original dilemma. The way out of the conundrum is, however, in essence simple. It simply requires the recognition of Aboriginal rights, our status as the indigenous people of this continent, and the guarantee of Aboriginal survival.

Aboriginal people are saying today that a great proportion of the body of legislation and social convention, which makes up the Australian legal system, is in many ways incompatible with our efforts to ensure the survival of our people. These two elements legislation and social convention – which make up the Australian legal system are established, policed and reviewed by non-Aboriginal people.

The capacity of our people to intervene in this process has been minimal. Aboriginal frustration, anger and self-doubt manifest itself in conflict between our two systems. Essentially we must remove the conflict. The jurisdiction of European legal and social standards must recognize Aboriginal law and social ideas, and ratify our sovereignty.

I am not advocating separatism, but more so parallel development. A pattern of development which allows Aboriginal people to be who we are, for we can be no other lest yet we die. Still we would wish to participate in the Australian nation state. Control of our lives and of our society is an essential prerequisite for the solution of the conundrum. Where our people can gain such control, the incidence of violence and anti-social behavior has decreased. Conversely, where the autonomy of Aboriginal communities is being diluted the, incidence of anti-social behavior or violent behavior increases.

Examination of the social impact, for instance, of natural resources development on indigenous peoples has shown that, where the rights of Aboriginal people have not been considered, there is a large increase in conflict between the indigenous and the non-indigenous societies. Usually resulting in Aboriginal people suffering at the hands of the imposed European system. In 1977, Mr. Justice Thomas Berger in his report on the Valley Pipeline Inquiry, said:

I am persuaded that the incidents of these disorders are closely bound up
with the rapid expansion of the industrial system, and with the persistent
intrusion into every path of the Native people’s lives. The more the’ industrial
frontier displaces the homelands in the North, the worse the incidents of crime
and violence will be.

Similar comments can be found in the social impact statements on various uranium mining projects affecting the Aboriginal people in Australia. Studies have shown a marked increase in violent crime in those Aboriginal communities affected by mining. However, in other locations around Australia’, where Aboriginal people have taken control of their communities and lives a reduction in crime, and subsequent contact with European legal system, is notable.

The health of Aboriginal people has improved with the establishment of community controlled health services. The services they provide either as an actual curative service or as a preventative one, has had a positive and quantifiable effect on those Aboriginal communities. Give control of our communities lives to our people and the physical and mental health of our nations will improve. As a consequence, the rate at which Aboriginal people appear before the Australian justice system will also decrease.

I am reminded of a quotation with which you might already be familiar

I sit on a man’s back, choking him and making him carry me, and
yet assure myself that I am sorry for him and wish to lighten his
load by all means possible, except by getting off his back.

Leo Tolstoy 1886

The answer that we propose is that the recognition of Aboriginal rights is the only answer to the dilemma.

NAIHO Collective

One comment on “NACCHO-NAIHO 1982 Aboriginal Health Conference paper- Bruce McGuinness

  1. Thanks to NACCHO for linking this into the historic document – thanks to Gary Foley too Koorie Web is a fantastic source of historical photos and documents from the very early days of the modern push for Aboriginal rights and health.

    Jason B King

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