Picture in your mind a massive billboard poster featuring an Aboriginal flag in the form of a band aid alongside the words: The Indigenous health crisis needs more than a quick fix.
This is the image hundreds of thousands of Australians will begin to see from this weekend as a high profile national Aboriginal health advertising campaign rolls out across Australia to galvanise our political leaders into long term action to close the 17-year life expectancy gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians as part of the Close The Gap campaign.
Revelations that there are deep social problems in many of our Indigenous communities are not new. Indigenous leaders have been warning for the past decade that a social crisis would emerge if Federal, State and Territory Governments failed to provide Indigenous Australians with the opportunities and basic services other Australians take for granted; policing, primary health care, education, housing and real employment opportunities.
We are now reaping what we have sown through the failure of successive State, Territory and Federal Governments to address the root causes of this crisis. Look no further than the Northern Territory to understand the social consequences of this chronic under-investment in opportunities and services for Indigenous Australians.
Take housing. As many as 25 people now cram into each house in many Indigenous communities, with a shortfall of 4,000 houses across the Territory alone at a previously politically unpalatable cost of $1.4 billion.
Take education. The recent Little Children are Sacred highlighted the chronic shortfall in schools and teachers in Indigenous communities in which many children are denied access to post primary education. Education matters – on average for every additional year of education you give to a young Aboriginal woman, you add four years to the lives of her children. The report recommended an additional investment of $600 million over the next decade to get Indigenous education in the Territory alone up to scratch.
And take health care. The Little Children are Sacred report recommends dramatically boosting the number of doctors and Aboriginal health workers to be trained and located in remote communities. This is consistent with the analysis of both the Australian Medical Association and Access Economics which suggests an additional $460 million investment is required per annum over the next decade to bring primary health care services for Indigenous Australians up to scratch. In contrast, the recent Federal Budget allocated an additional $30 million for Indigenous health services – less than 6% of what’s needed.
So now we sit at a great moral cross road in Australian history.
We have a clear choice. We can apply yet another short term band aid as a quick fix, knowing full well that this social crisis will continue to deepen.
Or we can summon the political will and resources to make the long term investments in health, housing, education and real jobs that will ultimately overcome the fact that an Indigenous child born today will live 17-years less than other Australians.
This is the aim of the Close The Gap campaign. Launched in April by Ambassadors Ian Thorpe and Cathy Freeman, the Close the Gap campaign is calling on Australian governments to take action to achieve health equality for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders within 25 years through increasing Indigenous Australians access to health services, addressing critical social issues such as poor housing, nutrition and education which contribute to the Indigenous health crisis and building Indigenous responsibility through control and participation in the delivery of health and other services.
The evidence is there that this long term investment in working with Indigenous communities brings positive change. In Townsville for example a Mums & Babies project has received nearly 40,000 patients since it opened in 2000, leading to dramatically improved health and birth weights of Aboriginal babies. Deaths of newborn babies more than halved in just four years.
And last year the Wu Chopperen Aboriginal Health Service in Cairns won a National Indigenous Governance Award from Reconciliation Australia. The award recognizes the excellent work of the health service in areas including specialist clinics, chronic disease management, oral health, as well as social health and wellbeing
Working with Aboriginal people is a critical success factor in Closing The Gap. They must be allowed to chart their own course and direct the aspirations of their communities. Many Aboriginal political, community and business leaders are trailblazers in their chosen fields and have much to offer as we map out a better future of understanding, equality and justice in indigenous Australia.
For the tens of thousands of Australians who have joined the Close The Gap campaign this choice is clear. Now is the time to be visionary to tackle the root causes of the problems besetting some Aboriginal communities. The time for the quick fix is over. Its time for real long term investment and partnership with Indigenous Australians to Close The Gap.
James Ensor is Director of Public Policy with Oxfam Australia.
Published in Melbourne’s The Age and Brisbane Times on 17 July 2007.