“Well Indigenous health is one of those areas impacted by things like the freeze as well, so I think people need to understand that when we talk about the impacts of the freeze, and just like we did when we talked about the $7 co-payment, that system actually also deals with many Indigenous people, whether it be through traditional or mainstream general practice, or through Aboriginal community controlled health services or AMSs, so they are impacted by these sorts of things as well.”
“Indigenous disadvantage is a reality that must be confronted and owned by the entire nation. But we perceive a real danger in this election campaign that the many issues affecting Indigenous people will be swept aside or tritely agglomerated into a single issue – recognition in the constitution. Recognition is a worthy aim, and The Age supports it. But it will not and cannot, by itself, resolve practical disadvantage.”
Photo above : Doctor John Boffa Chief Medical Officer Public Health at Central Australian Aboriginal Congress Aboriginal Corporation – Professor Brian Owler , Congress Chair William Tilmouth and Hon Warren Snowdon Local Federal Member
QUESTION: Professor Owler it’s Indigenous Health May Day today. Do you believe there’s elements of racism in the health system?
BRIAN OWLER: Well, I mean racism is a word that needs to be used cautiously, but there is no doubt that there is an element in terms of how we deal with Indigenous people. Now it’s not to say that the people in the system are racist, it is about the way that we recognise and provide culturally appropriate care.
Now, if you go to somewhere like Alice Springs Hospital, for instance, you can see the way that the hospital deals with Indigenous people is very, very different.
They have a much more culturally sensitive way of dealing with Indigenous people, which means they’re more likely to engage in the health system. So other hospitals that still have significant numbers of Indigenous people as patients, or health care centres, are probably less understanding, and less well equipped to deal with the cultural issues that Indigenous people have as well. So I think in that way, yes, there is an element of racism, and those are the sorts of things that we need to deal with.
But you know, I don’t think people should understand that the people in the system itself are racist, it’s the way that the system needs to change and develop to make sure that we look after Indigenous people in the way that is more appropriate, safer in terms of culture, and that is likely to engage them more and deliver much better outcomes.
QUESTION: We know the gaps aren’t being closed despite the billions of dollars we spend. Does either side of politics need to spend more money or promise more money during this election campaign?
BRIAN OWLER: Well Indigenous health is one of those areas impacted by things like the freeze as well, so I think people need to understand that when we talk about the impacts of the freeze, and just like we did when we talked about the $7 co-payment, that system actually also deals with many Indigenous people, whether it be through traditional or mainstream general practice, or through aboriginal community controlled health services or AMSs, so they are impacted by these sorts of things as well.
But having toured central Australia and the Northern Territory, and spoken to people that work in this field, they have seen a cut in Indigenous health over the past few years. It has been less obvious and less talked about than some of the other cuts that have been made, and while we’ve made ground in Indigenous health, there is so much more to do. And it’s easy for people to get tired about this issue. But when you go and talk to people, when you see the realities on the ground, the issues that are being faced by Indigenous people, particularly in remote and rural communities and regional Australia, you can see that there’s so much more that needs to be done.
I talked earlier about the fact that we say now there’s a ten year difference in life expectancy for Indigenous people compared to non-indigenous people, but actually in many parts of Australia there’s a 26 year difference in life expectancy. We have seven-year-olds developing type 2 diabetes because of the social determinants of health, because of their living arrangements and other issues, infections, et cetera, that occur because of the environment, and that is probably the lowest age of any person in the world that develops type 2 diabetes as a result of these things. So, there are a lot of things that we need to be looking at, particularly in terms of the social determinants of health, for Indigenous people as well as their health care services themselves
How will our children judge the strength of our nation? Will it be through the mighty defence of our borders, or the vitality of our engagement with the world? Will it be measured in terms of economic output or the strength of our financial markets, by the accumulation of personal wealth or the diversity of cities we have developed?
Will future generations see this as a generous period? Or will they consider it yet another long and inexcusable era of procrastination and apathy, a period in which Australia, its federal and state governments, failed to make headway on what we, at The Age, consider one of the profound and pressing issues facing the nation: the multi-faceted disadvantage affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people?
We raise these questions because rarely do Indigenous issues come to the fore in election campaigns. They might light the agenda for a day, trigger a flurry of ping-pong responses from political leaders, and fill a few lines of small print in budget papers. But too soon, eyes turn away, hearts grow cold and the inequity rolls on. Such apathy has festered in Australia for more than two centuries, and it cannot and must not continue.
Like it or not, Australia is judged by the world in terms of how it treats its first people, and on so many levels we are failing. The evidence is abundant. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people face a deficit of economic opportunities, as well as below average outcomes in life expectancy, general health and education.
The Closing the Gap report, released this year, showed the Indigenous child mortality rate is improving but efforts to narrow the gap in life expectancy have fallen behind. That the goals in terms of literacy and numeracy are pitched in terms of halving the gap, not closing it, underscores the enormousness of the task.
And then there are the imprisonment rates. It is 25 years since the royal commission examining Aboriginal deaths in custody exposed the travesty of disproportionate rates of incarceration. Yet the situation has worsened dramatically. A person of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander background is 15.5 times more likely to end up in detention than any other member of the community (compared with seven at the time of the royal commission), and Indigenous children aged 10 to 14 are 30 times more likely to be incarcerated.
Thirty times. You read that correctly. The Commonwealth spent millions of dollars on a commission that came up with powerful findings and hundreds of potentially game-changing recommendations. Why has this nation not improved on those awful lessons?
Indigenous disadvantage is a reality that must be confronted and owned by the entire nation. But we perceive a real danger in this election campaign that the many issues affecting Indigenous people will be swept aside or tritely agglomerated into a single issue – recognition in the constitution. Recognition is a worthy aim, and The Age supports it. But it will not and cannot, by itself, resolve practical disadvantage.
Mandatory imprisonment in Western Australia and the Northern Territory for offences that could be managed through alternative methods of justice is contributing to poor social outcomes. Imprisonment destroys a person’s hope and hardens their grievances. It exacerbates underlying mental health issues. It erodes families and, thus, contributes to social dysfunction. As the royal commission urged, jail must be the last resort.
Incremental advances are being made, but progress is slow. It is imperative in this election that the major political parties elevate the issues affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to a leading priority and not render them a patronising afterthought.