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Hello. I’m Karla Grant.

A report released earlier this week by Oxfam Australia and NACCHO, the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation, confirms that Australia is ranked at the very bottom of a list of wealthy countries when it comes to addressing indigenous health. However, the report offers some hope that the crisis in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health can be overcome. Angela Bates reports.

Infant mortality rates of Indigenous babies are more than 50% higher in Australia than in countries like New Zealand, Canada and the United States. This is one startling statistic revealed by the ‘Close The Gap’ report. Another is that the life expectancy gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people is greater in Australia. This means Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people die 20 years younger than non-Indigenous people. The comparison with New Zealand, with Canada and the United States is about a 7-year gap. That gap in those countries is still too great, but it’s so much better than it is in Australia. We need energy foods. Energy foods are Weet-Bix, bread, rice. While the report highlights some alarming figures, it also provides solutions. These were examined in the ‘Start Strong’ and ‘Grow Strong’ documentary series produced by the Rural Heath Education Foundation. This mother here has probably done the right thing by eating the right food… It’s programs like this one, the NT Strong Mothers, Strong Babies, Strong Culture that have been hailed as a success and the key to improving Indigenous health. One of the things that came through from international experiences but also some real success stories in Australia is the more that indigenous people are in the driver’s seat helping to shape and implement health programs, the greater the likelihood of success. President of the Australian Medical Association, Dr Mukesh Haikerwal, has welcomed the report but says more funding is needed to address the current Indigenous health crisis. The first is to ensure that there’s significant funding, funding for primary healthcare services, and we reckon about $460 million is required for that. Federal Health Minister Tony Abbott told ABC’s ‘Lateline’ that more money is not the answer. We could put hundreds of millions of dollars into health. We would not necessarily get significantly better health outcomes. Certainly, I think that the additional money that has been spent on Indigenous health over the last decade or so has been very important. Shadow Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin believes a national commitment is needed. What we want is to see all levels of government, both sides of politics to join together to make the national commitment that’s really needed. Oxfam agrees. The other big thing which we can learn from countries like New Zealand and Canada is that the political will from our nation’s leaders and from all levels of government is critical if you’re going to turn around Indigenous health outcomes. In comparision, it was a more positive study which revealed that the life expectancy of Indigenous people in the NT has significantly improved. We were able to calculate life expectancy since the mid-’60s and found that for women, life expectancy improved by 14 years from 54 to 68 years currently, and for men improved by a lesser amount, by 8 years from 52 to now 60 years.

Angela Bates with that report. And joining me now in the studio is NACCHO chairperson Henry Councillor. Henry, welcome to the program.

Hello, Karla.

First of all,with the Federal Government pouring at least $385 million into Indigenous health every year, why are we still at the bottom of the table in comparison to other First World nations?

Aboriginal health is quite complex in this country, in its entirety. And, particularly with Aboriginal health, it needs a whole-of-government approach in terms of looking at how we can deal with some of the chronic problems and some of the issues regarding the social impacts to Aboriginal health. If we don’t get the whole of government from the States and territories as well as the Federal Government involved,

in terms of taking Aboriginal health as a priority, then it will not work, it will just continually be drip-fed. And it’s not just about the money – the report highlights an additional $460 million just to meet today’s needs. And that in itself needs to be spoken to in regards to how we can prioritise Aboriginal health and what are the areas, the key areas that we need to concentrate on. What are those key areas? Some of the key areas that the Aboriginal Medical Service around the country has been highlighting is about employment, housing, self-esteem, education – the things you hear every day down the street in relation to why is Aboriginal health still poor.

When you consider there is only 500,000 Aboriginal people who live in this country, the question has to be answered – what is Australia really doing about their own backyard? We have known about these poor health statistics and the state of Indigenous health for some time now.

Why hasn’t it been fixed and what is going wrong with the system?

The health system entirely is also very complex. It has never been designed to look at cultural appropriateness in regards to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The system is quite set up in corporate boxes rather than looking at a more freelance, opportunist healthcare. The Aboriginal Medical Service has developed the opportunities of primary healthcare in regards to attending a clinic, having a diabetes check, having a hypertension check. Also seeing the doctor for whatever needs may to be and having a follow up on a 6-monthly basis. These are the key things that don’t need a huge injection of money but need human resource and capacity to build on them. Until we fix that, until government owns to say this is what working, and Aboriginal medical services around the country are an integral part of the health system, then we will continue to be drip-fed and we will continue to have these dramatic problems

and crises we see around us today.

What can be learnt, do you think, from these other nations – Canada, USA and New Zealand – in terms of closing the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous people. What have they done right that we can learn from?

In these other nations what has happened is that the government of those nations has taken responsibility in actually setting some targets and those targets is in terms of reducing the life-expectancy gap of their indigenous population in the period between 15 to 25 years. And they have actually owned the problem, rather than just leaving it as a single item. And this is where Australia collectively needs to follow that trend. It has been shown that it works. The life expectancy gap has been shortened in New Zealand by seven to eight years. However, they’re are still focusing on a captured audience.

But Australia can do the same. There is no reason why they can’t. The AMA are calling for another $450 million to be poured into Indigenous health, and of course you have already said they you are asking for another $350 million to $500 million for Indigenous health. How will this money be spent?

The money needs to be spent in a more constructive manner rather than just throwing money at the problem, and the problem is in terms of looking at housing and infrastructure, looking at the work force, particularly trying to draw more Australian doctors out to the bush and to these rural towns. And even to the Sydney metropolitan area to actually take on Aboriginal health issues in terms of the chronic problems that are surrounding us. Some of the other areas to be focused on is building a capacity in primary healthcare services delivery, looking at specialist care, particularly in terms of remote-area Australia, and how that specialist care can be delivered in a more meaningful way. And the strategy we need to be focusing on is the basic principle of the 1989 National Aboriginal Health Strategy that was drawn up by the Commonwealth Government at the time, driven by ATSIC.

A number of sections have said that there needs to be a more unified approach in terms of addressing Indigenous health. Do think the State governments need to do more?

I think the State Government needs to hold responsibility quite high in regard for their constituents across the board. Considering that the GST has been poured to the Commonwealth by the States and territories. And how is this money going to be spent. It needs to be more coordinated. Talking to the AMA, the division of general practice, Oxfam, Community Aid Abroad, even the Equal Opportunity Commission itself is stating that unless there has become a coordinated approach, a holistic approach to looking at health issues and health problems, they will continue to be the same status in 20 years time.

Well, it will be interesting to see how this all pans out. Henry, thank you very much for joining us today.

Thank you, Karla.

That was NACCHO chairperson Henry Councillor.

Michael Anderson was one of the original founders of the 1972 Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra. Today he is fighting for Aboriginal rugby league in country NSW, where he says the game is slowly dying. Video journalist Kris Flanders brings us this story looking at how Michael has helped kick-start the Aboriginal Nations Super League.

As it stands now, we’ve got too many Aboriginal people in the place, NSW anyway, right across the north, even up the coast, who are not playing competitive rugby league, and they love the game. Rugby league is starting to die in a lot of country areas. It was those fears that urged Michael Anderson to come up with the idea of the ANSL. The Aboriginal Nations Super League competition would be played in country areas. We formed it because we could see the demise, we could see teams getting weaker and weaker and in the meantime there wasn’t much effort being put into development of Aboriginal players. Terry Quinn is the general manager of the already established Country Rugby League, otherwise known as the CRL. They immediately raised their concerns, and without their consent, the new competition would not get the go-ahead. Major concerns were what effects it was going to have on other competitions around the areas, in the groups that we play currently in country NSW, and also the impact on what would happen with representative sides and players moving from clubs to play in this competition. To run a rugby league competition is a massive task. There were many issues that needed to be addressed. I think the challenges firstly are the governance of the game – they must get all their clubs or their teams incorporated, they must comply with the committee structures, and the constitutions that have to be put in place, business plans – to make sure that if it goes, it’s going to sustain itself. To resolve concerns, a meeting was held in February this year in Tamworth, western NSW, between the ANSL and CRL. Obviously financial issues will be a concern, other logistics like transportation, geographical location and also the formation of a solid committee that leads the nations rugby league from the front. But it was argued the Aboriginal Nations Super League would provide many positive benefits to country communities. All we see is our kids living in communities and in areas where alcohol is rife and drug abuse is rife. We need to set a new direction for our kids and that’s part and parcel of this competition as well. The response to the competition has been overwhelming from existing Aboriginal teams. It also gives us a chance to counteract the social issues. You know, the teenage pregnancy by the young fellas, boredom. And getting them active in other things. A lot of interest there for a lot of juveniles and a lot of parents in Tamworth to find the kids something to do twice a week and the game day on the weekend. And playing against the other Aboriginal sides in the northern NSW competition. On March 26 of this year, the Country Rugby League finally sanctioned the Aboriginal Nations Super League. We had a lot of grievances and I think there was some common ground, and once we found the common ground we were able to work on it. It’s taken a while, there was a bit of a stand-off for a while. But fortunately good sense and reasoning came to the fore and we ended up reaching an agreement. The new competition opens the door for the Moree Boomerangs. The western NSW team was banned from playing in the Country Rugby League. Back in 1998 they said it was travel, but we come up with solutions for the travel which was that we would travel and meet them halfway or we’d travel to their home grounds. When we brought that up, then they started bringing in other things such as crowd control and security, and they just kept on moving the goalposts on us. With the green light now given for the Aboriginal Nations Super League, the community at Moree are excited about their second chance. The young fellas, they’re the fellas who are really looking forward to it, because they haven’t had the opportunity to play in their famous colours. That’s the red, black and yellow. The Gimbisi Warriors from Kempsey in northern NSW is another team that was banned. In a town like Kempsey with huge social disadvantage, football plays a major role in providing positive pathways for kids. Strict measures have been put in place to ensure that there are no incidents with player or crowd behaviour in the Aboriginal Nations Super League. Any player who abuses a referee or is aggressive towards a referee or a linesman, for that matter, is automatically suspended for the following week. We only have to get a negative report on that person. The South Sydney Rabbitohs have come to the party by throwing financial support behind the new competition. Souths will provide teams with their on-field gear and all sides will carry the famous Rabbits logo. One of the beauties about having those fellas on board is the fact that they get us access to corporate sponsorship and they want to see Aboriginal people develop. We’ve got a working arrangement now where we will continue to talk and continue to develop this competition. In what will be an historic chapter for league, the Aboriginal Nations Super League is expected to officially kick off on Saturday 14 April. There’s an opportunity for them to play football, and try to work towards playing a good style of football. So I think there’s an air of excitement and probably an air of trepidation as well, I guess, but we’ll see when it all starts. I know I’m looking forward to the comp starting, and I know that the players are looking forward to getting into it, yeah. They’re looking forward to the comp.

Kris Flanders with that story. As was reported, the ANSL will now kick off on Saturday 14 April.

At the moment there are 10 sides that are officially playing under the Aboriginal Nations Super League banner, most of them from northern NSW.

Meet performer Kirk Page, a down-to-earth character who’s currently starring in ‘Priscilla’ the musical

at Star City’s Lyric Theatre in Sydney. Tonight is the 200th performance of ‘Priscilla’, and earlier this week Kirk invited our video journalist Tani Crotty to join him behind the scenes.

Welcome to the Lyric Theatre. This is the backstage area where we’re often running around getting changed, in and out of costumes. This is some of them. These are my man costumes. The second scene is over here, come on. We do get dressed up in women’s clothes (giggles) and it’s fun! Kirk grew up in a family of natural-born performers. They included cousins Stephen and David Page, the creative team behind leading Indigenous dance company Bangarra. His mother used to dance in the mirror, so Kirk’d be there dancing. She’d always get Kirk dancing. I think he was just bought up in the same way, of parties, and there was always music in the lounge room, in the kitchen. There was always people around, entertainment, that real natural way of observing it, I suppose. In 1993, Kirk left his home town of Brisbane to take up a dance scholarship with NAISDA, the National Aboriginal Islander Skills Development Association, based in Sydney. However, he eventually received an offer he just couldn’t refuse. We kidnapped him. Like, he was supposed to finish the course and we just said, “Hey, cuz, do you wanna come over to the company?” I think he only did one year, or two years, and then he came and joined Bangarra. Ever since, Kirk has never looked back, performing with many of Australia’s leading theatrical companies as a dancer, actor and singer. A proven all-rounder, Kirk had no trouble landing a starring role in the hit musical ‘Priscilla On Stage’. It’s a constant challenge as well, a challenge of trying to hit the mark or perfect a particular thing or move. With eight shows a week, each with 25 all-singing, all-dancing production numbers, it’s non-stop for Kirk. Kirk’s great as a great performer. He, um… what I’ve noticed that he’s different to the other performers, is he’s definitely the most disciplined amongst the cast. In that he’s here every night without fail at 6:30 to do his own personal warm-up before the actual group warm-up starts. Yeah, he’s just got a natural ability, and he wasn’t scared of challenging it. But the only thing he couldn’t do… didgeridoo. As well as the big costumes we also dance in heels half the time, um, and that’s been a challenge. These are mine. If music’s on from another number he might bust into some kind of crazy dance routine and end up in the splits in a costume and everyone is just dying with laughter. But behind the comic relief, you’ll always find a serious and focussed performer. I think for me it’s kind of transforming and disappearing, and kind of leaving all of this behind and stepping on to the stage and the lights come up and all of a sudden you’re not you anymore – you’re something else or somebody else. And that’s nice, to kind of disappear. Even after 10 years, there’s still nerves before every performance. At the top of the show just before we go on I’m often like… (takes breath) I mean, I’ve done it 150 times but I still get that… it’s just that entrance point at going on to the stage and knowing that there’s 1,000 people there, watching you. I mean, I take my hat off to him. I think surviving in this industry, let alone being black, he’s done really well for himself and we’re really proud of him and he’s a Page… Yeah. Out of their book. It’s fun – I get to dress up and dance and act and sing and at the end of the day, you know, people clap.

Let’s take a look at what’s making news.

The Gunditjmarra Aboriginal people in south-western Victoria have won native title rights over 140,000 hectares of Crown land. The Federal Court recognised those rights in a ceremony at Mt Eccles National Park. The claim was settled by agreement between the Gunditjmarra people and the Victorian Government after three years of mediation. Another 30 groups have consented to the agreement including the federal and local governments, the Victorian Farmers Federation, fishing groups, miners and beekeepers. The claim covers State forest, national parks, river frontages and coastal foreshores stretching from the regional hub Portland to the SA border. Federal Health Minister Tony Abbott has vowed to make non-sniffable petrol available to all Aboriginal communities that need it. The Federal Government has been rolling out non-sniffable fuel through central Australia for the past 18 months but is being pressured to extend the program. Mr Abbot says the Government is keen to make the fuel available wherever it is needed. We certainly wanted to ensure that any community with a petrol-sniffing problem that wants Opal can get it. And while in the Territory this week, Mr Abbott said that central Australian communities needed to place moral pressure on petrol stations that have not yet taken on Opal fuel. In the wake of the New South Wales elections, Linda Burney has become the State’s first Aboriginal Minister. NSW Premier Morris Iemma unveiled his new-look front bench last week. Ms Burney, who is the Member for Canterbury, one of the most multicultural electorates in the State, takes on the portfolios of Fair Trading, Youth and Volunteering. And today in Sydney, Olympic champions Cathy Freeman and Ian Thorpe launched the biggest ever campaign in Australia’s history to improve the health and wellbeing of Indigenous Australians. For the first time, more than 40 Indigenous and non-Indigenous organisations have united to support the Close The Gap campaign. The campaign urges federal, State and territory governments to commit to closing the life expectancy gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians within a generation.

And that’s all for today.

On next week’s program, we head to the Alice and take a look at the work of the Tangentyere day and night patrol.

Thanks for your company.

I’m Karla Grant. Goodnight.

Series 7 Episode 5