Malcolm Baalman, PHAA Senior Policy and Advocacy Adviser
Today is the 55th anniversary since Australians voted in the 1967 Referendum on ‘Aboriginal people’.
Widely regarded as a turning point in the nation’s relationship with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, the 1967 vote changed our national Constitution. It meant that population counts for the purpose of representation in the Commonwealth Parliament would include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. It gave the Commonwealth Parliament new legislative power to make laws regarding Indigenous people and issues.
But those changes were only part of the task of addressing the impacts of colonisation on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. That work continues.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians bear a burden of disease estimated at around 2.2 times non-Indigenous people. Chronic diseases still lead to a wide variety of maladies, as well as reduced life expectancy.
A recent report by the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO) identified a $4.4 billion gap in Commonwealth, State and Territory Government, and private health expenditure. It equates to more than $5,000 per person per annum to give Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health outcomes comparable to the overall Australian population.
“It is no wonder that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people continue to live lives 8-9 years shorter than other Australians,” NACCHO CEO Pat Turner said.
“It is no wonder that our children are 55 times more likely to die of rheumatic heart disease than non-Aboriginal children.”
The consequences on survivors of the Stolen Generations are severe. According to AIHW analysis, 20 per cent of Stolen Generations survivors reported having experienced homelessness in the previous decade and 42 per cent reported having been homeless at some point in their life. Stolen Generations survivors are more likely to be living with higher levels of ill-health and other stressors. Survivors are 1.7 times as likely to have experienced discrimination, 1.4 times as likely to have a disability, and 1.3 times as likely to have been diagnosed with a mental health condition. They are more than four-and-a-half times as likely to have kidney disease, more than three times as likely to have diabetes, and seven times as likely to have heart, stroke, or vascular disease.
The public health community is deeply engaged with these issues. PHAA made the wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people a key theme in its recent election campaign. We called for greater investment in preventive health and treatment services, guided through the Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations network.
Specifically, PHAA policy calls for a range of immediate actions:
- Appropriate resourcing and implementation of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Workforce Strategic Framework 2016-2023
- Increased investment in prevention to reduce chronic and infectious diseases
- Appropriate resourcing and implementation of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Plan and Implementation Plan
- Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations should be preferred providers
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and their organisations must be engaged in a genuine partnership during policy development
Our national public health community also strongly supports fulfilling the potential of the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart. Mindful of the powerful effects of social, economic, and cultural determinants of health, public health people understand the relationship between empowerment of individuals and communities, and their improved health and wellbeing. The Uluru Statement calls for several important forms of empowerment, and recognition of the past. If fully embraced and enacted, these can greatly boost Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health.
In PHAA’s 2021 statement on the Uluru Statement from the Heart and the National Voice proposal, we supported all of its recommendations, including the establishment of a constitutionally enshrined Voice to parliament.
Enacting the Uluru Statement would be much more than about political structures. It could dramatically energise change for housing, justice, preventive health, protection of culture, environmental management, multi-generational educational advancement, and many other dimensions of health and wellbeing. It proposes simple changes in our political practice that could unlock dramatic recovery in the standard of living and wellbeing for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Today is the start of Reconciliation Week, defined by the joint anniversaries of the 1967 referendum (27 May) and the 1992 High Court decision about Torres Strait Islander and Aboriginal people’s relationship to their land (3 June). From today until 3 June, hundreds of community events, educational opportunities and memorials will be held across Australia. Reconciliation Australia hosts a comprehensive list of events and occasions for everyone in Australia.
Reconciliation Week 2022’s theme is “Be Brave, Make Change”. Reconciliation Australia CEO, Karen Mundine said this week that “our research shows that the majority of Australians support reconciliation and value the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. But – together – we still have a few big things to achieve. For reconciliation to be effective we need constitutional reform, treaties, and truth-telling.”
Last Saturday, the Australian electorate made change. Voters chose a new government whose policy goals open up the prospect that fulfilling the Uluru Statement, and a range of other practical boosts to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander circumstances, are at hand.
The newly formed Labor Government, the Greens, and the newly elected independents all expressed strong intentions to change. A referendum on enshrining a Voice to Parliament within the current electoral term seems highly likely.
But there will certainly be a need to be brave on constitutional reform. For decades, the Australian political and media establishment has been extraordinarily averse to proposals for constitutional change, anticipating that anything even remotely controversial will fall victim to veto by one side of politics or the other, or scare campaigns.
The veto problem has generally been partisan. The universal expectation in our political ‘elite’ is that conservative politicians, media, and voters form an implacable block on any proposal from the progressive side of politics. Perhaps progressive forces would also block conservative proposals, although such proposals are much less common.
The health and wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should never be seen as a conservative-vs-progressive issue. But more importantly, maybe the imagined veto power of the nation’s major political movements has itself been brought into question. At the election, the voter base of both the Liberal and Labor parties declined remarkably, to barely around one-third each. Something has changed in our country’s politics. Voters are looking for action on issues, not an endless recirculation of the practices of political incumbency between traditional partisan forces.
Management of these issues now falls largely to the incoming Labor Government’s Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Linda Burney MP, a Wiradjuri woman and an experienced politician with an instinct for coalition-building. Burney has already sought cooperation from other political parties and movements, and sends a message of respect and cooperation to Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities.
The Australian people may be at a rare moment where they are indeed ready to be brave, and to make change.
Reconciliation Week is a good occasion for all of us to reflect on how we can create a healthier and more united society.