Australian governments at all levels must adopt the Uluru Statement from the Heart, and should take strengths-based approaches to improve health outcomes for Australia’s First Peoples, according to the Close the Gap Campaign.
The campaign is made up of 54 organisations, including the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), and aims to achieve health equality for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
In its 2021 Close the Gap report (not to be confused with the federal government’s Closing the Gap initiative), the campaign noted that the events of 2020 have reinforced the need for large-scale systemic reform and a “paradigm shift” in Australia’s approach to truly empower Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
The report recognises that governments “must be led by, and invest in, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander solutions” in order to achieve positive and lasting outcomes for Indigenous Australians.
Among its 15 recommendations, the campaign has called on governments to fully implement the Uluru Statement from the Heart and a constitutionally enshrined First Nations Voice.
Governments must also commit to long term, needs-based and coordinated cross-sectoral funding for the full implementation of the National Agreement on Closing the Gap, the refreshed National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Plan, and other supporting plans.
Other recommendations include raising the age of criminal responsibility “immediately and nationally” from 10 to 14 years old; creating a national strategy to combat systemic racism; and investing in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workforce development and service delivery solutions.
Governments must listen to the voices of Indigenous Australians and self-determination is critical in order to enact real change, according to the AHRC’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social justice commissioner June Oscar and National Association of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Workers and Practitioners CEO Karl Briscoe.
“We perpetually recommend the same approach: to involve us, to listen, to reform and invest,” the campaign co-chairs said in the report.
“Be it in systemic reform, policy design, service delivery, evaluation or agreeing upon funding, ‘nothing about us, without us’ will be the only successful approach.”
They said it is an “international embarrassment” that Australia is the only country in the Western world that has failed to eliminate the leading cause of preventable blindness, trachoma, which mainly impacts Aboriginal communities.
The co-chairs noted the Indigenous youth suicide rate continues to be four times that of other Australian youth. Meanwhile, the Black Lives Matter movement has drawn attention to the prevalence of systemic racism and the preventable deaths in custody of many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, they said.
The report has called for the development of a whole-of-government Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural policy that affirms the centrality of culture to Indigenous health and wellbeing, and informs investment in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural governance, maintenance and revitalisation projects, initiatives and activities.
It has also recommended that governments evaluate and report on successful policy and program structures, partnerships and funding arrangements implemented in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak.
“Such evaluation must inform future crisis responses and the reforms required for more effective day-to-day agreement-making and funding systems,” the report said.
During COVID-19, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders moved quickly to protect communities, proving that “at times of crises true leadership steps up”, Oscar and Briscoe said.
“Their actions were decisive and designed with each local community in mind and avoided a potential catastrophe,” they said.
“Some of our homelands, once threatened with closure by governments in the past, became some of the safest places in Australia. We know what is best for our people and we are delighted to summarise some of this remarkable and ongoing work herein.”
The report has also presented recommendations relating to crises such as national disasters, as well as climate change.
For example, governments should embed flexible funding models that allow for rapid responses and surge capacity support to Aboriginal community-controlled organisations during times of crisis, and national emergency response and recovery programs should be reviewed to ensure the needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are included.