Reclaiming health and wellbeing for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people

An artwork called 'the Diversity of one working together' by Max Mansell, an Indigenous Tasmanian artist

Dr Michelle Kennedy – PHAA Vice-President Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health

This continent’s First Peoples were healthy enough to live here for tens of thousands of years, creating the world’s longest-lasting cultures.

Then, colonisation. In a few generations the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ populations declined dramatically, and so did much of their health and wellbeing – connected as it was to country and culture which were stolen, damaged or destroyed.

The legacy of colonisation has resulted in new illnesses particularly from tobacco, alcohol, unhealthy food and drink, and much more.

We can and must turn this around. Building on our strengths, knowledges and wisdom.

First, all people in Australia need to embrace the deep commitments agreed to five years ago in the Uluru Statement from the Heart – that everyone tell the Truth about our past, give Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people a real Voice, and all of us talk and reach lasting agreement on how to walk together.

Truth-telling and nation building are critical to truly closing the gap in health and wellbeing outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.  The Uluru statement also identifies sovereignty and self-determination as being critical to seeing the necessary decisions made to close the gaps.

We need real investment to address the underlying social and cultural determinants of health, including systemic racism.

We need to provide appropriate housing, which is not overcrowded, so that disease spreads can be controlled, and families can feel safe and at peace.

Education gaps are improving, but education is the basis of so much else in society. We must keep building up its strength to the point where kids can see generations of well-educated parents and grandparents, and crucially, we need to ensure kids can be connected to their Country, culture and Indigenous Ways of Knowing.

One notable closing-the-gap success is in terms of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s life expectancy. But with people living longer, we need to strengthen our focus on elder care.

And we need our justice system to be just, so that it is protecting people, not playing a role in endless incarceration and fear.

We need to give communities a seat at the table and acknowledge them as knowledge holders in policy making, and this is true in health as much as anything. Empowered local communities with well-resourced Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations (ACCHOs) are the health service providers which have been proved over more than four decades to work.

This includes building and resourcing a strong and supported health workforce that has appropriate clinical and non-clinical skills to provide culturally safe and responsive health care.

And we need to throw huge efforts and resources into preventive health: reducing smoking rates, drinking less, providing healthier food and drink, and scanning our vulnerable populations for life-threatening diseases such as Rheumatic Heart Disease.

We’ve seen how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander-led interventions strengthen Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s health already. We must ensure continued and quality ongoing investment, with a focus on sustainability, with ACCHOs leading.

And we need to ensure that we address, and stop, the systemic discrimination still occurring when accessing services.

The fact is, the COVID pandemic has hit Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities much harder than non-Indigenous communities in Australia. Our communities have experienced inequitable access to COVID treatments, and relatively low rates of vaccinations.

These are many clear examples of the significant health disparities which continue to occur in this wealthy country.

Some of the reasons behind those disparities include the ongoing effects of colonisation, racism, inter-generational trauma, and other injustices.

These compounding, interconnected factors mean that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are sicker, and will live shorter lives than their non-Indigenous counterparts.

We can and must turn our current problems around.

We’re a rich country. We can and must address the disgraceful gaps in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health and wellbeing, and other areas like justice, education, and housing.

The Australian Government needs to involve and listen to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, resource prevention and health services properly, and over and above all such actions, act on the Uluru Statement and its potential.

So this election, consider carefully what every candidate and party is telling you. Please use your vote to bring about better health services for – and by – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people –  and Vote For Public Health.


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Image: Detail from an artwork called ‘the Diversity of one working together’, 2010 by Max Mansell, an Indigenous Tasmanian artist. The print hangs on the wall of the PHAA National Office.

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