A new way forward to closing the gap
BY AMA PRESIDENT DR TONY BARTONE, CHAIR, AMA INDIGENOUS TASKFORCE
In an Australian Medicine column earlier this year, I mentioned the AMA’s support for the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) decision to establish a formal partnership with a Coalition of Peak Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations to refresh the Closing the Gap strategy. As part of this agreement, a Joint Council on Closing the Gap, comprising of equal representation from Government and the Coalition of Peaks, was formed to guide the Closing the Gap refresh and monitor its implementation over the next decade.
The AMA is pleased to see that at its most recent meeting in August this year, the Joint Council agreed to work towards a new National Agreement on Closing the Gap to ensure better health, education and employment opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It is also pleasing to see that three priority reform areas have been identified to underpin joint efforts. These are:
- Developing and strengthening structures to ensure the full involvement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in shared decision making at the national, State and local or regional level and embedding their ownership, responsibility and expertise to close the gap;
- Building the formal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community-controlled services sector to deliver closing the gap services and programs in agreed priority areas; and
- Ensuring all mainstream Government agencies and institutions undertake systemic and structural transformation to contribute to Closing the Gap.
With Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people experiencing more disadvantage than other Australians across a wide range of areas, these priority reforms are key to making the new Closing the Gap agreement a success. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people know what works best in their own communities and have long been calling for governments to heed their advice when it comes to developing new policies and programs.
When COAG established the Closing the Gap strategy in 2007 to end the health and social disparities between Indigenous people and their non-Indigenous peers, it was ground-breaking – it was the first time that governments undertook a concerted effort to improve the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Despite this, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people themselves were not part of the decision-making process.
What followed over the next decade, was successive governments producing reports that showed consistent failures to achieve their own Closing the Gap targets, with the most recent report showing that only two of the seven Closing the Gap targets are on track to being met. The unacceptable progress against the Closing the Gap targets is reflective of the need to better incorporate the knowledge of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people into policies and programs and include them in the negotiating process. This has long been called for.
While this new formal partnership with COAG, is a positive step forward, we still have a long way to go until Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander people can enjoy the same level of health and wellbeing as their non-Indigenous counterparts. Governments must ensure that this partnership is more than just symbolism – they must acknowledge the solutions that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have, and will, put forward and incorporate it accordingly into the refreshed Closing the Gap agenda.
The AMA is hopeful that this unique partnership between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and governments will provide a pathway for governments to achieve tangible improvements in life expectancy and other key health indicators for Indigenous Australians.
Published: 12 Nov 2019