I begin by paying my respects to the traditional custodians of this land, the Ngunnawal/Nagambri people, their elders past and present. I thank Paul House for your welcome and we thank you again for having us on your country today.
I pay my respects to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander brothers and sisters in the room today, drawn from the many First Nations of this country. I acknowledge our non-Indigenous brothers and sisters that walk with us and continue to support our fight for a just and fairer Australia.
I acknowledge and thank the Prime Minister, the Opposition leader, the Leader of the Greens. I acknowledge the Aboriginal Members and Senators that make us so proud, and the other Parliamentarians that have come to hear us today. I also acknowledge those that have joined us from the States and Territories.
We are back here once again to talk about the health and wellbeing of the First Peoples of this country.
Another 12 months have passed and we return to this house, this meeting place to discuss how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are being treated in the land of our ancestors, a land that we have walked upon for millennia.
The Close the Gap Campaign’s 2018 Parliamentary Breakfast is pre-ceding a COAG meeting tomorrow and the tabling of the Prime Minister’s Closing the Gap Report next Monday.
Before these two events, we have brought you all here to reflect on where we are a decade since the signing of the Close the Gap Statement of Intent.
This still is one of the most emphatic commitments made by a Government, with support from across the Parliament, to work together with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to achieve ‘equality in health status and life expectancy’ between our people and our fellow non-Indigenous Australians by 2030.
In just one page, this statement captured a compact between our peoples and government bringing us together in a partnership, committing us to real and sustained change.
It was an ambitious, yet achievable and overdue declaration – responding to Tom’s seminal Social Justice Report in 2005 and the myriad of other reports, reviews and commissions to finally address the decades of failing policies directed at our people.
Coming shortly after the Apology, which we will mark in anniversary next week, the Statement offered hope. It promised a new beginning.
And now, as we near the half way mark of that commitment, we must work harder than ever to correct the inequality that continues to pervade this country and leaves many of our people in unjust and tragic circumstances.
Our people have lived off this land for millennia, we have nourished it and in turn, it has nourished us.
The damage that two short centuries of colonisation, after 60,000 years of good health and wellbeing, has entrenched complex issues across our communities that reach into every part of our lives. These are not challenges that can be undone in just a few short years.
But I know that progressively we can reverse the damage and see positive generational change. It is my sincere hope that by 2030 we will truly have made inroads into what are some of the biggest trials facing our people.
In order to do this, we need to look at what has happened in the last decade since the signing of the Statement of Intent and the Campaign has done just that this year. In a departure from our usual report, we submit our review of the Closing the Gap Strategy since inception.
Before a ‘refreshed’ Closing the Gap Strategy can be determined, we must look back at how effective the first Strategy has been, where it has fallen short or succeeded and what the implications have been and most important, what we’ve learnt.
Fundamentally, the Strategy, which began with such promise has, despite the best of intentions, not delivered for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Last year, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reported that the life expectancy gap is now widening again between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and non-Indigenous Australians. How is this possible?
After the last 10 years of Government policy, shared by successive governments of both persuasions, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, on average, have 2.3 times the burden of disease than fellow non-Indigenous citizens.
In our analysis, we identified five (5) key findings that point to why the Closing the Gap Strategy has, to date, failed to make inroads into the inequalities that we all agree leave us with a national shame.
Firstly, and crucially, the Close the Gap Statement of Intent has only partially, and disjointedly been implemented by the Closing the Gap Strategy.
Despite the introduction of targets and considerable injection of funding via the National Indigenous Reform Agreement, the Strategy was without a guiding plan from its inception in 2008 to the launch of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Plan Implementation Plan in late 2015.
Secondly, although the Closing the Gap Strategy was a twenty-plus year program, it was effectively abandoned after five years.
The early gains from the injection of new funding and prioritised action under the different components of the Strategy were recognised in early Government commissioned reviews. Ironically, each review highlighted the necessity of policy and program continuity to ensure the improvements would continue. Unfortunately, such sanguine advice was not heeded.
Despite its limitations, the original Strategy was never given the time or consistent support to achieve meaningful gains and COAG had essentially walked away from the Strategy.
From this, the Close the Gap Steering Committee implore that, more than just a “refresh”, it is necessary to rebuild the foundations that are required to achieve long term change.
This requires that the Strategy is reconstructed and re-built from its foundation based on the building blocks of a nationally coordinated approach, through national leadership and through outcome-orientated funding agreements.
The fourth finding of the Review we launch here today, is that the Closing the Gap Strategy must return to the original commitments made in the Statement of Intent in 2008. We haven’t forgotten the commitments made by both sides of politics in signing that Statement – a rare demonstration of bi-partisanship in the interest of First Australians.
The Closing the Gap Strategy must be anchored by the core priorities of the Statement – to have Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people at the planning table, to concentrate on ensuring access to health services (and particularly Community Controlled Health Services), to build the health infrastructure, and to work collectively across governments to address the social determinants that act as road blocks to good health.
Finally, the review found that Governments should once and for all address the funding myths about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health. The expression of half-truths about the dollars involved in Indigenous Health for political expediency must end.
This issue is frustrating for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health leaders and our supporters. Our peak organisations and our community controlled services are crying out for funding surety and policy stability, particularly given the burden of disease our people face.
There is a major funding shortfall for Indigenous health in this country and we need to be honest about this.
We cannot allow the depth of need to continue to be obscured by expenditure reports that do not disclose the true cost or benefit of government decisions.
This needs to change.
If we are to better invest in the health of Australia’s First Peoples, the Commonwealth must provide greater rigor around the costing of their plans and that our people are involved in decisions about how these resources are allocated.
Putting more resources into the hands of our own communities, services and organisations is the best place to start if we are truly committed to improving the long-term health and wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Two years ago now, Prime Minister you made a particular commitment to work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, rather than do things to us. Now is the time for you and your government to fulfil that commitment.
The Close the Gap Campaign and many other leaders and organisations have expressed concerns about the Refresh process of engagement for the Closing the Gap Strategy in 2017.
There are critical discussions to be had, and they must not be rushed – the implications are too important.
The States and the Commonwealth
As we know, COAG is meeting tomorrow and will be discussing the future of the Closing the Gap Strategy.
We have a message for the Commonwealth and the State and Territory governments, some of whom are represented here today.
It is time to step up.
As much as we haven’t had cause to celebrate the report each year, every Prime Minister since the start of the Strategy has stood up, and provided some accountability against the Strategy targets.
It is time for each government, particularly the Commonwealth, to affirm or reaffirm their commitment to the Close the Gap Statement of Intent and the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people within their jurisdictions.
We want to see Premiers, Chief Ministers, Health and Indigenous Affairs ministers in every jurisdiction providing regular, public accountability on their efforts to address the inequality gaps in their State or Territory.
No more finger pointing between governments. A reset Closing the Gap Strategy should clearly articulate targets for both levels of government and be underpinned by a new set of agreements that include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, their leaders and organisations.
If we are to make better gains for our people, we must all share this load together and we must all lift, not lower our efforts.
This is the future of the Closing the Gap Strategy.
I want to close on somewhat of a different note.
Late last year I was able to attend and speak at the Indigenous Allied Health Australia Conference in Perth. It was great to spend time with many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sisters and brothers that dedicate their working lives to delivering health services and support to our communities. One of the things I was able to say was that:
… From day to day or year to year, progress can seem non-existent. It can even seem like we are going backwards at times. But I find it helpful to take the long-arch view of our history. Inch by inch we are making gains. Time and again we have shown our incredible resilience and strength. In our communities, in our workplaces, in our schools we have fought for and won changes that have a good impact.
When you step back and see how far we have come in this country, where only 100 years ago our peoples were expected to die out – and yet today we are one of the youngest and fastest growing populations in Australia. We have increasing numbers of kids finishing school, and successfully negotiating the two-worlds that we are faced with.
We have more business leaders, government leaders and, as evidenced today, political representatives.
There is much to be encouraged by and I share Rod’s fire in the belly. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in this room and around the country are determined to achieve health equality. We stand on the shoulders of so many that have come before us and we walk with the youth who will lead with us.
Throughout the generations, our peoples have faced and survived so many challenges that have been thrown at us.
We have an opportunity through this Strategy, to ensure that the future of our children and grandchildren is better.
We will continue to be hard critics when it comes to achieving health equality for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples - our people depend on it.
We know that you share our desire for change, but we ask that you now match that desire with your deeds, not just your words.