Matter Of Public Importance - Indigenous Health

Today is the seventh anniversary of the first Closing the Gap agreement. I regret to say that it has not been met with happy news, because less than three weeks ago, when the Prime Minister stood at that dispatch box and handed down the annual Closing the Gap report, we took no joy in finding that five out of the seven targets that have been identified—targets which are aimed at addressing the gap in health, education and employment outcomes—had not been met.


That is to say: we are failing what we are setting out to do, not as a government, not as a parliament but as a nation.

In addition to that, we learnt, as the member for Ballarat and the member for Blair said in their addresses on this MPI, that the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare has today told us that we are failing to address the inequalities in a number of other areas. For example, if you are an Aboriginal person, you are three times more likely to be hospitalised for a preventable disease. If you are an Aboriginal person, you are six times more likely to have a disease which is preventable by vaccinations that are available to every other Australian. It is a shame upon all of us that somebody is being hospitalised for a preventable cause or that they are catching a disease for which there is a vaccine available to every other Australian.

In addition to that, we see that smoking rates are more than double that of the general population. When we look at the amount of money that is being spent out of the fantastic Labor initiatives, such as the Medicare Benefit Scheme and the Pharmaceutical Benefit Scheme on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people compared to the rest of the population, most people would be surprised to know that for every dollar that a non-Aboriginal person receives out of benefits from the PBS or MBS an Aboriginal person receives only 70c. For every dollar that you or I might receive out of the MBS or the PBS, an Aboriginal person receives less than 70c. We know that we have got a lot of work to do and that the mainstream programs are not working, which is why, as the member for Lingiari has just said, Aboriginal controlled and community controlled organisations are such an important element in the solution.

We cannot visit blame, as I have just said. We take no political joy out of the fact that we are failing five out of the seven targets. We also cannot say that the blame lies with the government. But what we can do is be critical of where a program fails to address the inequalities. There have been $500 million worth of cuts to Indigenous programs. There are $168 million worth of cuts in health specific programs, including a $130 million program addressing smoking, which has been frozen. If there was one initiative that we could do that would address the imbalance in health, it would be to bring the smoking rates down in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population to that of the rest of the population.

It is often said that it is not what you say but what you do that matters the most. I say that what you say matters as well, because it impacts on what you can do. When the Prime Minister talks about a country that was sparsely settled prior to white settlement or talks about 'lifestyle choices' it impacts upon what we can actually do as a parliament and as a nation. It sends a very negative signal to the rest of the population and it stands as an obstacle to us dealing with the reconciliation issues and with the important task of bringing people together as a nation, Left and Right and conservative and nonconservative for the important task of constitutional recognition. I say that it matters, and we on this side of the House say it matters. There are three things that we need to do through the process of constitutional recognition. We need to remove the stain of racism from our Constitution. There would be many Australians who would be shocked to know that our Constitution has clauses which specifically contemplate excluding people from the right to vote on the basis of their race—but it does, and it should be removed.

We sing in our national anthem that our country is young and free, when in fact our country is a very ancient country, with 40,000 years of history. This needs to be recognised in our Constitution. Together with that, we need some constraints to ensure that in the future we never commit the sins of the past. This is the task for the nation.