It’s time to close the gap – demand health equality for Indigenous Australians

Media Releases, Opinion article written on the 29 Jan 2007

Forty-years ago 90 per cent of Australia voted to give Aboriginal Australians equal rights – equal rights as citizens of Australia to help redress the ‘White Australia’ policy as well as to right wrongs experienced by Indigenous Australians. It was heralded as a watershed moment in Australian history – 200 years after the first Britains settled and claimed the land for themselves, Indigenous Australians were to be recognised as equals.
The 1967 referendum was undoubtedly a victory for the movement of equality and justice. Australia voted to reconcile the injustices and poor health, living standards and poverty Aboriginal Australians had previously been forced to endure.
But today in 2007, the 40th anniversary of the referendum, has anything changed for the better? Have we taken the bold and courageous path and delivered on our promises to build a nation free of inequality and injustice for our Indigenous people? Sadly the answer is, no.
In modern day Australia the fair go rally cry does not, it seems, extend to Aboriginal Australians. Nowhere is this more evident than in the enormous gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australian health standards. It is unconscionable that in Australia, a first-world wealthy nation with some of the highest living standards in the world, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have not shared in the health gains enjoyed by others over the last 100 years. As a nation we should not countenance Indigenous Australians living on average 17-years less than non-Indigenous Australians. Nor should we accept that they end up in hospitals at twice the rate of other Australians. Neither is it fair that while the rest of us can look forward to long healthy lives with access to some of the best healthcare facilities in the world, Indigenous Australians can expect to die at much higher rates of heart disease, cancer, diabetes and renal failure to name a few diseases. Make no mistake. This is a national scandal that ought to bring shame to Australia.
The naysayer’s argue the Indigenous health crisis is too thorny an issue to grasp, that Aboriginal Australians are unable to help themselves, that governments at all levels have tried to fix the problem and that there are no answers. This however is plainly absurd.
What is lacking is adequate government action and resolve to solve a problem for which universally agreed solutions already exist. The first and most pressing step is for Governments from all sides of politics and all levels to agree to commit to an agreed timeframe for achieving health equality. Secondly it is a matter of committing appropriate resources to address the health crisis. Problem is governments have failed to deliver the funding necessary to close the gap in health care. Admittedly there have been some funding increases in Indigenous health over the years but it is not sufficient to make even the slightest impact.
The Australian Medical Association believes that Governments under fund Indigenous health by at least $450 million per year in primary health care alone. It sounds a lot but Australians spend more than ten times that amount on pampering their household pets each year. Fact is we can fix the Indigenous health crisis but we choose not to. Our Governments simply lack the will to help improve the health and lives of a small number of its citizens.
Odd then that we laud our Indigenous sports heroes and revere them like national treasures yet allow vulnerable Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to cling to existence in some of the worst living conditions in the developed world with inadequate access to healthcare.
Achieving health equality requires measures to ensure equal access to quality health care, health infrastructure and medicines for Indigenous Australians as well as increasing the number of health practitioners working in Indigenous Health. Mainstream health services must improve access for Indigenous people as well.
It will also involve an acknowledgement and strengthening of the role and capacities of Aboriginal community controlled health services, established in the 1970s because of poor access to mainstream services for Indigenous Australians.
There are broader issues to address too that impact on the health of Indigenous Australians, including education and housing. But perhaps most important of all Indigenous Australians must be allowed to shape and control their own health programs. Non-Indigenous Australians have a vital role to play supporting Indigenous involvement in decision-making that affects their lives and health, however we cannot impose our own health solutions.
The time for a step by step, incremental, patient approach is over. Targeted, achievable, comprehensive, sustainable and well-resourced action is needed, and now. Achieving Indigenous health equality can and should happen within this generation. It is time to end this national shame. It is time to close the gap.
Andrew Hewett
Executive Director
Oxfam Australia

Oxfam is part of a coalition of Australia’s leading Indigenous, health, human rights and development agencies calling for Prime Minister John Howard, State Premiers, Territory Chief Ministers and parliamentarians to commit to a plan to achieve health equality for Indigenous Australians within 25 years.