NACCHO political health alert: Warren Mundine says we must talk about Aboriginal health to close the gap

Close the gap

Close the gap

WE NEED to talk about Indigenous health. And the reason we need to talk about Indigenous health is because Indigenous people have significantly poorer health than other Australians and die much younger.

I have already reached the life expectancy of an indigenous male of my generation. And last year I had quintuple bypass surgery after the doctors found a 75 per cent blockage in the main artery to my heart. I also have diabetes. I have previously been obese. Fortunately I’ve never smoked or I would be dead.

Having cheated death I now live – psychologically at least – on borrowed time.

Please note: Warren Mundine is appearing on Q and A Monday 14 October ABC TV 9.30 pm

You can ask him a question HERE

So I no longer have the time or the patience to wait while the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians in health and life expectancy stagnates or closes at a glacial pace. We can only close the gap by addressing the socio-economic standing of Indigenous people. We can only do that by looking at this issue through an economic and commercial lens.

The full speech is online at

Photo and article from Daily Telegraph

Most of us are aware of the depressing facts about indigenous health – it all paints a singular picture, a tapestry of interconnected health problems, risk factors and social issues. And when you step back from the tapestry, what you are really seeing here is poverty.

Most Aboriginal people of my generation grew up in poverty or not far above it.

I was no different. When my parents had their first child they lived on the banks of the Clarence River in a tent. By the time I came along, eight children later, they had bought a small house in Grafton.

We were a family of 13 but my father worked as a grader driver which was a good job for an Aboriginal man back then. Still, there wasn’t a lot of income. We were an example of the working poor. But at least we were working. My parents sent us to Catholic schools which were not segregated. Many Aboriginal people were doing much worse.

Then in the early 1970s the law was changed to mandate equal pay for Indigenous people and the government provided them with a welfare framework. Many working as stockmen or domestics lost their jobs. and they received money and services from the government for which they didn’t have to do anything in return.

Indigenous people embarked on a new existence. They would receive housing and other services and be taken care of. The older people coined the phrase “sit-down money” – and they weren’t being complimentary.

Poverty is both a cause and a result of poor health. People living in poverty live in environments that make them sick. If we want to lift people out of poverty then we need to get it right in three crucial areas: education, employment and the economy.

The most effective way to get people out of poverty is to get them into a job. For that they need an acceptable level of education and to live in a real economy. Many indigenous people don’t.

At the moment there are not enough jobs in remote indigenous communities, not because of remoteness but because there is almost a complete absence of commerce.

There are more jobs in urban communities but too many lack the education or training to fill them or are trapped in intergenerational welfare dependency.

One of the things we need to do as a matter of utmost priority is get more indigenous people working in the health sector.

Improving indigenous health is not just about indigenous people as patients. We also need indigenous people to be health workers. We need more indigenous doctors, nurses, midwives, researchers, dentists, dental hygienists, physiotherapists, occupational health therapists, optometrists, disability carers, aged care workers – and I could go on.

Training and actively encouraging Indigenous people to work in the health sector addresses Indigenous health in many ways. Firstly, it means putting Indigenous people in jobs, which is the best way to lift them out of poverty.

Secondly, it should help improve access to health services in remote and regional Australia. Demand for health services in remote and regional areas usually outweighs supply. We also know that the indigenous population is skewed towards remote and regional areas. People who come from those areas are also more likely to want to work there. So if more indigenous people from remote and regional communities who work in the health sector, it should help meet the demand for health services on the ground.

Thirdly, and very importantly, having indigenous people as health providers helps to address the fears and reluctance of some Indigenous people to access services.

I think there may be a perception that the health sector involves high-skilled jobs that are more likely to be out of reach of Indigenous people. Sure, it takes a long time to become a doctor or a researcher. All the more reason to be focused now on the increasing number of young indigenous people who are getting a first-rate education.

But not every job in the health industry is high skilled. There are many supporting, administrative and lower-skilled jobs that don’t require a university degree. Some even provide a pathway to higher-skilled jobs in the future.

In recent years I have been involved with the initiative to train 1000 Indigenous accountants by 2021. Why shouldn’t we also try to train 1000 indigenous doctors or set targets for other health professionals?

Australia should be able to solve these problems. We have skills, money, resources and brain power. Most importantly the Australian people and all Australian governments want to see the gap in indigenous health closed.

I would like to see it closed in my lifetime.

Warren Mundine is the executive chairman of the Australian Indigenous Chamber of Commerce. this is an edited version of a speech for Baker IDI Central Australia in Alice Springs last Friday.

Warren Mundine - Panellist 

Warren Mundine

Warren Mundine was born in Grafton, New South Wales. He is from the first Australian nations of Bundjalung and the Gumbaynggirr people and is the former National President of the ALP.

He succeeded Barry Jones as President of the ALP, beginning his term in January 28, 2006, and became the first Indigenous Australian to serve as President of an Australian political party.

No longer a member of the ALP, Warren is the chair of Tony Abbott’s Indigenous Advisory Council.

Warren is Chief Executive Officer of NTSCORP Ltd, a company that assists traditional owners to achieve social justice and promote economic, environmental and cultural development through native title and other avenues.

As Chair of the Australian Indigenous Chamber of Commerce, Warren provides national leadership for initiatives to promote economic development and help Indigenous people break the welfare cycle, such as the Australian Employment Covenant and the First Australians Business Awards.

Warren has been recognised for his community, government and business achievements by being awarded Doctor of the University at Southern Cross University. He has also been awarded the Centenary Medal for services to the community and local government and the Bennelong Medal for Leadership in Indigenous Affairs.

Warren was the ninth of 11 children in his family, eight boys and three girls. He was raised a Catholic. In 1963, the family moved to Sydney and settled in the inner-western suburb of Auburn. After leaving school, he found work as a fitter and machinist and as a sewerage worker, then later went back to night college to earn his Higher School Certificate. Following a job at the Australian Taxation Office, Warren moved to Adelaide, studying at the South Australian Institute of Technology. He now lives in Sydney and has seven children


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