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COAG holds meeting with Indigenous focus

Posted on: 2 July, 2009
Issue: Vol 9 No 3, July 2009 - September 2009
Related to Health Policies

The main purpose of the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting on 2 July 2009 in Darwin, was to discuss further measures to overcome Indigenous disadvantage. This was the first time that COAG had held a meeting primarily on Indigenous issues. Commissioner Tom Calma, Chair of the Close the Gap Steering Committee and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, whose 2005 Social Justice Report, laid the groundwork for the community-led Close the Gap Campaign, praised the government for the COAG initiative. He explained that the meeting was important because it not only included a focus on Indigenous health but also addressed the social and cultural determinants that contribute to good health and wellbeing. In the agreement to Close the gap, the Federal Government and the Opposition plan to work in genuine partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to achieve equality in health status and life expectancy by the year 2030, and to develop a long-term plan of action.

The Prime Minister, Premiers, Chief Ministers and the President of the Australian Local Government Association were joined by a number of Treasurers for the meeting. With ongoing economic and social challenges, COAG discussed measures to overcome Indigenous disadvantage with a background of needing to bolster education, training and re-training efforts and securing further microeconomic and regulatory reform to enhance the economy’s future productive potential. Mr Gary Banks, Chair of the Productivity Commission, launched the report Overcoming Indigenous disadvantage: key indicators report 2009 at the meeting and presented findings. The report shows some progress against Closing the gap targets for infant mortality, employment and home ownership. COAG agreed that effective implementation of the existing National Agreements and National Partnership Agreements was vital for addressing Indigenous disadvantage.

For the National integrated strategy for closing the gap in Indigenous disadvantage, the Commonwealth is to provide a further $46.4 million over four years to fund agencies such as the Australian Bureau of Statistics and the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare to improve the evidence base and address gaps. A number of education initiatives will be brought together in a National Indigenous education action plan to be developed by the Ministerial Council for Education, Early Childhood Development and Youth Affairs (MCEECDYA) in consultation with Indigenous education leaders. COAG has requested the development, by the end of 2009, of a national strategy to address food security in remote Indigenous communities. A Closing the gap: national urban and regional service delivery strategy aims to coordinate and target the funding provided under mainstream and Indigenous-specific programs to address Indigenous disadvantage in urban and regional locations. At the meeting the agreement was signed for Closing the gap: national partnership agreement on remote Indigenous public Internet access, with funding of $7 million committed over four years from 2009-10 to support the initiative.

Mr Calma has said that money alone is not enough and that closing the unacceptable life expectancy gap would not happen unless COAG supports four critical measures:

  • COAG must ensure Indigenous Australians are able to participate in all decisions regarding their health needs. This should not be left to government-appointed advisory bodies and committees alone;
  • Federal and State Governments must develop a comprehensive, long-term plan of action to ‘close the gap’. That plans must be targeted to where the needs are and based on clear evidence;
  • Governments must work together to invest time and money into the fundamental prerequisites to good health – quality housing, employment and education;
  • Governments must increase funding for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community-controlled health services, not only in remote areas, but also in urban and rural areas.

The Close the Gap Campaign partners now look forward to COAG implementing the commitment. Dr Mick Adams, Chair of NACCHO the peak body for community controlled Aboriginal health services, agreed that working together as partners with good will and understanding between governments and Aboriginal peoples, will start closing the gap in health outcomes and quality of life. NACCHO welcomed recent investments in rural and remote health services and in the Northern Territory especially. Associate Professor Tamara Mackean, President of the Australian Indigenous Doctors’ Association, identified that the meeting represents a unique point in time where all the issues from policy, resource allocation, community engagement and models of practice can all be addressed. Andrew Hewett, Oxfam Australia Executive Director, said that more than 130,000 people have pledged their support for ending Indigenous health inequality and the Australian public will be looking to this COAG for further progress in order to ‘close the gap’. He added that for real progress to occur what government needs to do is sit down with Aboriginal people and communities. They know their communities best, and they need to be involved in decisions being made about their health and wellbeing.

Adapted from the Council of Australian Governments and the Australian Human Rights Commission websites