I acknowledge the traditional owners of the lands across my large electorate of Indi, the Waywurru, Dhudhuroa, Bpangerang and Taungurung peoples. I honour the resilience, wisdom, scientific knowledge, stories and art of the world’s longest surviving culture.
It’s always an honour to speak in this place as the representative of my communities. But today it’s a particular honour to speak on this very important Closing the gap report. It’s the twelfth such report and it highlights that from here the focus will shift to a much stronger partnership between government and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. This is important and it is right.
The report tells us that the gap in life expectancy has not narrowed and the target of achieving this by 2031 is not on track, so a new approach is needed. But we must be cognisant always that life expectancy is determined not simply by the presence or absence of disease but by the social determinants of health, such as education, housing, employment and racism, which are estimated to be responsible for at least 34 per cent of the health gap.
My aim today is to bring to the House some voices of the Aboriginal people from Indi who spoke to me of closing the gap and what it means for them, and who told me what is working in their communities where they are determining programs and listening carefully to what their families are asking for. I want to be clear that there’s no single Indigenous voice I can claim to represent in Indi. I speak from a position of humility, as someone who is here to listen and to learn. I do so, too, as a person of optimism and hope because I know the strong, proud culture of Aboriginal people holds the keys to closing the gap, provided our system, laws, and attitudes are enabling rather than disabling of self-determination.
Today I will speak about the work done on the ground in Indi to close the gap. I will share what I heard about the health targets and touch on aspects which local people tell me can bring better outcomes. First, I want to thank the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups in Indi, who have been so generous with their time and reached out to me as their representative since I was elected last May. I have benefited from sharing meals together; attending flag-raising ceremonies; touring health services and kindergartens, returned soldier events; and having a yarn with individuals.
This is generous, because I recognise that many Indigenous people have great distrust and cynicism about government. As their representative in this place, a place that has historically contributed to many problems they deal with daily, I acknowledge how difficult it is to trust government, any government, including representatives such as myself. Trust, rightly, is hard-earned when the history of dispossession, tragedy, and pain is so recent and recurring. I thank those who have worked with me and my office so far. I look forward to deepening my engagement with Indi’s Indigenous communities throughout my term.
There are community groups and services doing powerful work all across the electorate of Indi, including the Albury Wodonga Aboriginal Health Service, Mungabareena Aboriginal Co-op in Wodonga, Gadhaba Local Indigenous Network in Mansfield, the Dirrawarra Indigenous Network in Wangaratta, the Wodonga Aboriginal Network and the First Nations Senior Advisory Group. They do diverse work, from delivering health services to supporting youth networks, organising NAIDOC Week celebrations, establishing gathering places in community and consulting with the Victorian government on implementing their 10-year Aboriginal education strategy known as Marrung.
In October 2019, I was a guest of the Wodonga Aboriginal Network and received a tour of Burraja, an Indigenous cultural and environmental discovery centre located on Gateway Island in Wodonga. I had a walk through the new native garden. Burraja is an important site for the local Aboriginal community and I was honoured to attend. The generosity in sharing culture and stories was appreciated and I learnt so much of the strong people who lived along the river that we now call the Murray. I leaned so much of the strong communities of Aboriginal people who still live there.
As part of preparing this speech I spoke with many of these organisations and they have told me of three key concerns. First, for many, Closing the gap is distant and symbolic from their everyday activities. The targets are seen by service delivery organisations as a responsibility imposed on them but for which they receive inadequate support in meeting. As one local woman told me: they are doing it to us, not with us.
Second, there’s concern the aggregate statistics of Closing the gap are not showing the full picture. Victoria doesn’t track two of the seven targets. Furthermore, as one outreach organisation told me, many Indigenous people remain reluctant to identify as Indigenous in the census or to local services and this holds back the outreachability of many services, as well as limiting the representative accuracy of the data for the five remaining categories. Finally, many recognise the current approach is not working and we do—and they do—very much support a refresh. There’s also a wariness that governments have promised collaboration in the past and rarely, if ever, delivered on true partnership.
My consultation with local Indigenous groups revealed how important it is to ground national statistics with local experience. The Closing the gap report shows that Victoria is on track for early childhood education, with Victoria achieving full enrolment for Indigenous children in 2018. When I asked local Indigenous service organisations about this achievement, they said the reality is a little more complicated than the statistics suggest. They say that Indigenous childcare providers simply do not exist at the density required to ensure Indigenous people can access culturally safe care in their communities. Costs are still prohibitive for many families. While state-run programs, such as Koorie Kids Shine, are doing good work, it remains the case that services on the ground are simply spread too thin.
In relation to other Closing the gap targets, neither life expectancy nor childhood mortality are tracked or measured in Victoria. Because of this, the aggregate figures provide no quantifiable insight into the progress that’s being made locally. As one exasperated local Indigenous woman told my office, ‘How can you track it if you don’t have it?’
At a local level, Indigenous health organisations tell me that improvements are being made in infant mortality, thanks to locally-led Aboriginal antenatal care programs and an increased rollout of father-inclusive models of pregnancy care. This is fantastic news and a real testament to these organisations. The 2016-17 Victorian Maternal and child health service annual report shows that north-eastern Victoria has the highest attendance rates for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children for their 12-month, 18-month, two-year and three-and-a-half-year health checks. The work of many local Indigenous organisations has contributed to these positive outcomes.
The programs of AWAHS have been so successful in Wodonga that the City of Wangaratta approached them to bring a maternal child health program to their town. Sadly, though, AWAHS have neither the capacity nor the funding to carry that out.
The chair of AWAHS, Craig Taylor, tells me this is just one manifestation of sector-wide issues with funding uncertainty:
The issue we face is ongoing secure funding to keep these programs going. If we want to continue to close the gap and create generational health change then we need a secure stream of recurrent funding above and beyond what is currently in place. Being funded on the whim of a political cycle is not supporting the health and wellbeing of our next generation of Aboriginal people.
This is just one local story, but our local organisations and policymakers both need secure funding to generate reliable hard data. Without it, we can’t know what’s working on a granular level and why.
What we do know, however, is that closing the gap is bigger than the targets set out in this report. At its core it’s about a broader inclusion which seeks to remedy the effects of past injustices. The gap exists because long-term injustice has created social, economic and health disparities for Indigenous peoples.
The Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation, or VACCHO, states that closing the gap must aspire to creating a future:
… where families and communities thrive and live long lives and where systems advance their inherent right to self-determination.
Self-determination needs to be the foundation on which stable and steady progress can be made towards closing the gap.
Genuine recognition of Aboriginal peoples and their history and culture will underpin true self-determination. In Victoria the treaty process to recognise Indigenous Victorians is an important first step. The Prime Minister himself recognised at the opening of the 46th Parliament the intrinsic need for recognition of our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and committed to recognising Indigenous Australians in the Constitution.
In conclusion, I am honoured to represent diverse and proud Indigenous communities in my electorate and I commit to doing all I can to listen and learn from them as they determine a future that brings equality and equity in health outcomes.