Close the Gap. Three words that symbolise decades of neglect and hope and goodwill for the future. Three words that remind us that the average Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australian man does not live to see his 60th birthday. Three words that now represent an agreement between more than 40 organisations, state and federal governments that an unprecedented effort is needed if we are to achieve Indigenous health equality within a generation.
Today, April 22, is National Close the Gap Day which reminds us that barely 12 months ago the Close the Gap campaign did not exist. In less than one year, more than 115 000 Australians have signed the Close the Gap pledge to urge state, federal and territory governments to commit an additional $460 million to annual Indigenous primary health funding, give Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders a greater role in the delivery of health services, and address the social factors that perpetuate this inequality.
And governments have responded. In the lead up to the Federal Election, Kevin Rudd swiftly adopted the language of the campaign, and upon election, we saw the Council of Australian Governments commit to closing the life expectancy gap within a generation and halving the mortality gap for Indigenous children under five within a decade. Then last month, the Close the Gap coalition drafted a nine-point plan to address the Indigenous health crisis, and both Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Opposition Leader Brendan Nelson signed it, transforming this from a popular campaign to a force shaping government policy.
But perhaps he most important moment of all came with the long-awaited national apology to the Stolen Generations. It was a moment in time that re-energised Australians everywhere, a moment where the once immovable barriers of the past fell away and out emerged a contagious mood to right the wrongs of our past.
The challenge for us now is to translate this public support, political will and historic mood to sustained improvements in Indigenous health, and to close the gap within a generation.
First, we must broaden our understanding of health, recognising that physical wellbeing is related to social wellbeing. This is just one reason why the long-overdue apology to the Stolen Generations was so significant.
Of course, commensurate funding will be crucial in closing the 17-year life expectancy gap. Achieving Indigenous health equality relies on an enormous investment in primary health care spending for Indigenous Australians in essential medicine, immunisation, maternal and child health and the prevention and control of disease.
But it doesn’t stop there. A 2007 report by the Australian Medical Association uncovers evidence of inherent discrimination in our health system. It finds that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders do not benefit from mainstream health services to the same level of other Australians because they either are located out of the reach of Aboriginal communities or the medical attention they receive is culturally intolerant and unwelcoming.
Racism is just one of the social determinants of Indigenous health. Others include housing, water and sanitation and successful Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health programs have been those that have recognised and addressed these determinants.
One example in NSW profiled in the Aboriginals for Native Title and Reconciliation (ANTaR) publication Success Stories in Indigenous Health released last month, is the Murdi Paaki Regional Housing Program. The program equips community members with accredited training in carpentry, electrical and plumbing so that they can fix common housing problems. It is based on the idea that regularly maintained houses can help reduce infections and household accidents and improve children’s health.
So today, National Close the Gap Day, we must celebrate the achievements of the past year but remain focused on harnessing the mood of the nation, and translating public support and political goodwill into action. Let’s maintain pressure on state, federal and territory governments to release details of their commitments with timeframes, targets, and priorities to address the Aboriginal health crisis. But let’s also look to ourselves and assess how we can change our own behaviour to help create a social environment that is conducive to achieving Aboriginal health outcomes.
Let us be the generation that closed the gap and finally achieved Indigenous health equality.
Andrew Hewett is the Executive Director of Oxfam Australia. Tuesday April 22 is National Close the Gap Day.
For more information or to interview Andrew Hewett, contact Sunita Bose, Media Liaison Co-ordinator Oxfam Australia on 0407 555 960.