The Guardian 25 April, 2007

Equality is
the goal of Indigenous campaign

Solua Middleton

Olympic gold medallists Cathy Freedman and Ian Thorpe say Australiaís failure to close the life expectancy gap between its Indigenous and non-Indigenous citizens is un-Australian and embarrassing.

The two former elite athletes and good friends joined forces in Sydney earlier this month to launch a national campaign calling on Australians to take the issue of poor Indigenous health personally.

The campaign follows the release of "Close the Gap" paper from the National Aboriginal Community-Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO) and Oxfam detailing solutions to Australiaís Indigenous health crisis.

Supporting Freeman and Thorpe was Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Tom Calma, broadcaster Jeff McMullen and NACCHO Chairman Henry Councillor.

They joined more than 40 Indigenous and non-Indigenous organisations to urge the Federal, State and Territory governments to do more.

The paper identified Australia at the bottom of the wealthy nations when it comes to Indigenous health across a range of health indicators. It confirmed that while countries such as New Zealand, Canada and the United States had narrowed the life expectancy gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people to about seven years, Indigenous Australians were still dying almost 20 years younger than most other Australians.

Freeman, who wears her Aboriginal heritage proudly on her sleeve along with her pride in being an Australian, told the audience that she was one of the more blessed Aboriginal Australians after growing up in a family who understood the importance of health.

But while she has achieved many things and can look at her life with pride, she said the poor health of most Indigenous Australians was something that every Australian should take personally.

"Iíve always been proud to be Australian and equally proud to be an Aboriginal Australian, incredibly proud", she said.

"It (Indigenous health) should be made to be personal, this is about who you are when we look at each other. You are what you see, and if you are proud to be here in this wonderful country you will be a part of this cause.

"Each of us as individuals should want to do something about this.

"You kind of walk around in really personal moments and sort of think to yourself ĎI am feeling good about myself, I donít really need to think about anyone elseí. But then I think it is really irresponsible and very un-Australian, it is as simple as that."

Thorpe has also taken the issue of Indigenous health to heart, having seen first-hand the living conditions of Aboriginal people around the country. However, he said he was optimistic after seeing the strength of mothers and the hope of communities.

"I donít think it is confronting. I think it is shocking", he responded at the campaign launch when Jeff McMullen asked if he was surprised to see the living conditions of Aboriginal people in Arnhem Land.

Thorpe said it was one thing to read all the literature, but another thing to witness things first-hand.

"Seeing this, I am rarely embarrassed to be an Australian, in the particular situation I was because we havenít done enough", he said.

"It is about stepping up and making sure that that we donít leave a single child behind."

Thorpe said he believed that most people in Australia were unaware of the Indigenous health crisis, but it was time all Australians were told so they could take action.

He was encouraged by the generosity he received from Australia when competing as an elite swimmer, and believes the nation has the capacity to offer the same sentiment to change the devastating lag in Indigenous health.

"Iíve seen what people have been willing to offer me and what we (Australia) have been willing to offer around the world", he said.

"If every Australian knew what was going on we would make a difference, and we would make a change quicker than any of us would expect to make."

NACCHO Chairman Henry Councillor said it was not up to governments alone to fix the Indigenous health problem.

"There are less than half a million Aboriginal people who live in this country yet we have a problem far greater than any other nation. The question is why?" he said.

Mr Councillor said better access to primary health-care services and the engagement of Aboriginal people to look after Aboriginal people were key in addressing the crisis.

He drew on the latest Menzies School of Health Report, where the Indigenous life expectancy in the Northern Territory had increased for men and women by eight and 14 years respectively to demonstrate the reality of improvements.

"How is that possible?" he asked the audience in Sydney.

"It is because the Aboriginal medical services have been established there and people are using them and accessing them and that is the key thing."

Mr Councillor identified education, affordable medicine, a sustainable workforce, mother and child health and affordable food as fundamental to closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

"I welcome you to join us in the campaign and support us and encourage us to make it work. It is the only way it is going to happen", he said.

Social Justice Commissioner Tom Calma said the state of Indigenous health was because a "state of lethargy" in Australia.

"Our primary message is not to simply scream Ďcrisisí", Mr Calma said. "Our message, and our goal is to champion how and to focus on solutions. This crisis is not insurmountable. We can triumph.

"It will require additional funds, although this alone is not the solution. It will also require a focus on the social determents of health ó living conditions, overcrowding in housing, education and employment.

"This is not just a health sector responsibility. This requires a whole-of-government, cross-departmental approach."

Journalist and broadcaster, and Director of Ian Thorpeís Fountain for Youth Trust Australia Jeff McMullen said Australians should view the Indigenous health crisis as a national emergency.

"It is now more serious than the risk of terrorism, global warming and the water shortages", he said.

"We talk about those threats almost every day; we are facing up to that. But in the heartland of this country we are seeing an epidemic of chronic illness and itís preventable and treatable and it can be cleaned up in 25 years.

"It can be cleaned up in a decade if we really put our shoulder to this cause.

"Weíre here to say to all governments Federal, State and Territory, all communities, every household in this country can remember what we did 40 years ago in that national referendum when we said we are equal, we will unify, we will do better."

Oxfam Executive Director Andrew Hewitt said statistics such as the fact that the incidence of low birth weights in Australia was more than double that in Indigenous populations in Canada and the United States, as well as 60 per cent higher than in New Zealandís Indigenous population were indicators that it was an international scandal.

"At what point do we stand up and start shouting? Itís scandalous", he said.

Federal Health Minister Tony Abbott said that despite improvements in the NT, there was still a long way to go. He said anyone could only be disappointed at the slow progress in respect to Indigenous health.

The Australian Greens applauded the "Close the Gap" campaign.

"We need to follow the example of other first world nations and put a massive injection of resources into Indigenous health of around $500 million a year", Greens Senator Rachel Stewert said. "We have a good reason to be ashamed."

In a joint statement, Federal Opposition Spokeswoman on Health Affairs and Reconciliation Nicola Roxon and spokesman on Family and Community Services Jenny Macklin said a national commitment to Indigenous health meant setting goals for improvement and benchmarks for delivery of primary health, helping families to teach children about prevention, nutrition and hygiene, and Indigenous people taking action to change community attitudes like attitudes towards alcohol and substance abuse.

To read or obtain a copy of the 28-page report visit

So whatís the solution?

To achieve Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health equality within 25 years, the Close the Gap report recommends that Federal, State and Territory leaders from all sides of politics work together to:

  • Improve access for Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islanders to culturally appropriate primary health care, and to a level commensurate with need;

  • Increase the number of health practitioners working in Aboriginal health settings, and further develop and train the Indigenous health workforce;

  • Improve the responsiveness of mainstream health services and programs to Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islander health needs;

  • Increase targeting of maternal and child health and greater support for Indigenous-specific population programs for chronic and communicable disease;

  • Increase funding and support for the building blocks of good health such as awareness and availability of nutrition, physical activity, fresh food, healthy lifestyles, and adequate housing;

  • Set national targets and benchmarks towards achieving healthy equality, by which progress can be closely monitored.

    Koori Mail

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