There’s life in campaign to close the gap

Media Releases, Opinion article written on the 25 Jun 2007

In the last few months a new phrase has entered the Australian vernacular. Three words that when used together have come to symbolise our nation’s greatest challenge. A new lexicon, they have been used extensively by media commentators, celebrities, campaigners, politicians and perhaps most important of all, the Australian public.
I’m talking of course about ‘Close The Gap’, the biggest ever campaign in Australia’s history to narrow the life expectancy gap between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and other Australians. In Australia, Close The Gap has done for indigenous health what Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth did for climate change. In hardly any time at all the campaign has put the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders squarely on the public and political agenda. Put simply it has become a mainstream issue. For the first time in a long time the nation is awakening to the possibilities of a country in which all people, black and white, live long healthy lives.
It’s hard to believe but impossible to deny that indigenous Australians live nearly 20-years less than the rest of us. In 21st century Australia this is plainly unacceptable. We should not accept that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders end up in hospitals at twice the rate of other Australians. Nor is it fair that while most of Australia 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, and kidney failure to name a few diseases.
It’s sad but true that Indigenous Australians have not shared in the health gains enjoyed by other Australians over the last twenty-years. Yet it is inconceivable that a country as wealthy as Australia cannot solve a health crisis affecting less then three per cent of its population.
The naysayer’s argue that there are no votes in Aboriginal issues. Or that Aboriginal Australians are unable to help themselves. Or that governments at all levels have tried to fix the problem and that there are no new answers.
The naysayers are wrong. Australia-wide Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander communities are taking action to improve the health of their people. In Townsville for example a Mums & Babies project has received nearly 40,000 patients since it opened in 2000, leading to improved birth weight of Aboriginal babies. In far north-west South Australia, a primary healthcare service for the Anangu people has a national reputation for best practice clinical services. It operates 9 clinics and a 16-bed aged care facility as well as a range of other services such as dental and healthcare programs.
There are always answers. It is a question of Government leadership at both federal and state level across all parties. It is time Australia flexed its muscles and mustered the political will to redress Australia’s health inequalities between Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islanders and other Australians.
We welcome the recent announcement by Kevin Rudd committing the Australian Labor Party to Closing the Gap within a generation, with an initial downpayment of $261 million of new funds over four years to improve the health of Australia’s indigenous population. It‘s a good start but it’s important to acknowledge there’s still a long way to go narrow the gap in life expectancy between Indigenous and other Australians. The Australian Medical Association estimate that an additional investment of $460 million a year would begin to meet the health need. Close The Gap now looks to all side of politics at State, Territory and Federal level to invest in heath services to make a difference in raising the life expectancy of Indigenous Australians.
What could be more important than investing in the health and wellbeing of the next generation of Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander children? Lend us your voice and be part of Australia’s generation to narrow the gap in life expectancy between Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander and other Australians.
Andrew Hewett
Executive Director
Oxfam Australia

Published in the Newcastle Herald on 25 June 2007.