The Close the Gap Campaign aims to close the ten to 17-year life-expectancy gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians’ within a generation.
Founded in 2006, it marks its fifth anniversary today. Fuelled by despair and anger at the poorer health of Indigenous Australians, the campaign is made up of a coalition of Indigenous and non-Indigenous peak health organisations, NGOs and human rights bodies that have used people power to give Indigenous health an unprecedented place on the national agenda.
For Indigenous people, health inequality has always been more than just a question of statistics: it’s an extremely personal issue. The 2002 Australia Bureau of Statistics’ social survey asked almost 10 000 Indigenous Australians what the greatest ‘stressors’ were for them over the past year and almost half – 46 per cent – reported the death of a family member or close friend.
The unnecessary early deaths of our elders contribute to a lack of governance in our communities, and impacts on the transmission of our culture and languages. So why and how are we allowing health inequality to continue?
Equal standards of health mean that we should have the same access to doctors and health services as other Australians enjoy. It means making sure we have the same access to healthy food, sanitary conditions and healthy housing, which are simply not in place in may communities.
It is an insidious myth that Indigenous Australians do not care enough about their own health. It’s true to say that health is ultimately our responsibility, but governments do play a role and must show leadership. As an example, it has taken 30 years of anti-smoking campaigns to get smoking rates down to the record low rates we see today in the non-Indigenous population.
The Close the Gap Campaign calls for a ‘catch up’ in this and other areas so that Indigenous Australians have the same opportunities to take responsibility for their health as other Australians.
Today we now have a key ingredient for change that we lacked five years ago before the Close the Gap campaign started: political will.
Almost 150 000 Australians and many organisations including the National Rugby League, have come out in support of the campaign, and that people power has successfully leveraged an unprecedented amount of political support for Indigenous health.
In December 2007, the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) adopted the target of achieving life expectancy equality within a generation and to halve the mortality rate of Indigenous children within a decade.
In March 2008, the then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, and then Opposition Leader Dr Brendan Nelson, signed the historic Close the Gap Statement of Intent that commits the Australian Government to developing a national Indigenous health equality plan. Since then almost every State and Territory government and opposition has followed suit, heralding unprecedented bi-partisan support for an Indigenous policy objective.
We have seen almost $5 billion of ‘closing the gap’ branded programs from Australian governments, including a $1.6 billion National Partnership Agreement on Closing the Gap in Indigenous Health Outcomes.
A National Indigenous Health Equality Council has been established, the first ever Minister for Indigenous health has been appointed, and the Prime Minister now reports back on progress to closing the gap to Parliament each year.
These steps have laid a solid foundation for the achievement of health equality for our peoples.
The next chapter is to develop a national plan for the achievement of Indigenous health equality in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and their representative bodies operating through the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples.
This plan must tackle cardiovascular disease, in part by addressing smoking, and this will involve expanding our primary health care services, particularly in the Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Sector.
Ensuring our access to the mainstream economy is also crucial. The evidence shows that the single biggest determinant of health status is ‘wealth status’ which is why addressing the social determinants of our health such as employment, education and housing is crucial.
Social and emotional well being and mental health is also key and another reason why constitutional reform recognising us as First Peoples is so important. Racism must be addressed in any part of our nation where it lingers, including in our foundation document.
We Indigenous Australians are such a minority that our votes hold little sway at elections. This is why people power is such a vital force for us. That is also why the Close the Gap campaign is not just a ‘black’ movement. It has brought together, for the first time, Indigenous and non-Indigenous organisations and individuals to work to the common goal of health equality for our peoples.
Congratulations to the Close the Gap campaign on its fifth birthday. May the next five years be as rewarding, and turn this great foundation into real, sustained health improvements that are felt on the ground.
Mick Gooda, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, and Dr Tom Calma, National Coordinator Tackling Indigenous Smoking are the Co-chairs of the Close the Gap Campaign .
This opinion editorial was first published by ABC’s The Drum Opinion on 10 March 2011.