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From remote housing to federal parliament, Indigenous-led co-design is a game changer

Introduction by Croakey: “Indigenous knowledge is a resource and an opportunity.”

This quote, from Torres Strait Islander academic Francis Nona, sums up the first day of national sessions at the HEAL2023 conference on Thursday 16 November.

Below, Alison Barrett reports for the Croakey Conference News Service, deep dives into key conference presentations that reveal the secrets of successful program co-design with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.


Alison Barrett writes:

When Francis Nona addressed the Climate Change and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Ministerial Roundtable at Parliament House on Thursday, he had an uncompromising message for the parliament. “Australia is lagging behind” on rights-based approaches to climate action.

“It’s time for Australia to catch up with other countries,” he said.

Later that day, he spoke to the Heal Network’s conference. “First Nations people have valuable knowledge systems, and we can contribute to policies that are affecting us,” Nona, a Torres Strait Islander Man from Badu Island and lecturer at Queensland University of Technology, told attendees.

“The Australian Government has to sit with community and understand what the community’s needs are, instead of implementing what’s best from a hierarchy position.”

In the wake of the Voice to Parliament referendum verdict, this indictment of Australia’s response to climate change should galvanise all those concerned by the slow pace of progress, and by the missed opportunity presented by the referendum, to harness Indigenous knowledges and perspectives, Nona told Croakey following the Conference.

The Ministerial Roundtable was hosted by the Lowitja Institute at Parliament House, and attended by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander experts and community leaders, and government representatives including Assistant Minister for Health and Aged Care Ged Kearney, Assistant Minister for Climate Change and Energy Jenny McAllister, Senators Jana Stewart and Dorinda Cox and Assistant Minister for Indigenous Australians Chief of Staff Sheralee Taylor.

Participants discussed policies, strategies and reforms aimed at addressing the impacts of climate change on First Nations health, including Lowitja Institute’s recommendation for the Government to fund the establishment of an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Coalition on Climate and Health.

“Indigenous knowledge is a resource and an opportunity” – there is much to be gained in partnerships, Nona said.

The Lowitja Institute’s position paper on the proposed Coalition states that it would be “an independent collective and strong voice that has its own table to invite government to sit at, and representatives that can also sit at the table of government to advise. A Coalition could work with government as a partner in developing effective and meaningful policy on climate and health”.

The position paper also noted the importance of a decolonising approach in healing “relational wounds”, and to “ensure our peoples have power and agency in this space” – similar comments were also made by Dr Veronica Matthews in Croakey’s preview of the annual HEAL conference.

The recommendation for a Coalition is based on community engagement, discussions with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander academics, and the climate and health panel at Lowitja Institute’s 2023 conference.

Stay tuned for more Croakey coverage of the discussions on First Nations rights-based approaches to climate justice from HEAL 2023, to be reported by Danielle Manton.

More than consultation

The conference also heard about the need for strong partnerships and relationships in co-designing research and other initiatives.

Yamatji Elder Dr Mara West, Manager of the Kulunga Aboriginal Unit at Telethon Kids Institute, told the conference it was important to engage and involve First Nations people in research from the beginning.

West said the fallout from the Voice Referendum has “created a huge chasm between Aboriginal people and the wider community”, with many Aboriginal people going back to distrusting non-Aboriginal people.

Research driven and controlled by First Nations’ people is critical for research to succeed – it “diminishes the negative impacts of past research practices”, West said.

On creating collaborative research with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, West recommends ensuring that everyone understands the common goal and that it is more than “just consultation”.

“Don’t promise what you can’t deliver and don’t do anything about us without us”, she added.

Social determinants

Dr Kimberly Humphrey, Public Health Medical Consultant and Climate Change Lead for South Australia’s Department for Health and Wellbeing, told the conference that while climate change will impact everyone and all body systems, it will disproportionately impact some people – most often those who have contributed the least to climate change.

In addressing climate change, the social determinants of health and poverty need to be addressed from the community level by finding out what communities’ experiences are of climate events, particularly in areas where interventions are most needed, Humphrey said.

She said it was important to consider what co-design is not – in policy spaces, she sometimes hears co-design being used interchangeably with consultation, which it is not.

If truly co-designed, policy needs to be community-led and based on “what a community needs as opposed to what we think the community needs”, Humphrey added.

Echoing Humphrey’s comments, Professor Rebecca Bentley from the Melbourne School of Population and Global Health at University of Melbourne, told the conference it was critical to address the social determinants of health, including housing, if we want to put public health policy in place.

Bentley also said that given it is such a personal thing, co-design in housing was critical.

“Partnerships with communities and engagement” are a way to mobilise a prevention strategy in Australia, which will enable us to be prepared and work towards equity, particularly in the context of the changing climate and housing policy in Australia.

Co-Director of The Australian Prevention Partnership Centre Professor Lucie Rychetnik said that science communication and accurate information is “essential for community co-design approaches”.

Misinformation has been shown to undermine “some really valuable initiatives”, particularly in the climate space.

Identifying strengths

A session on Indigenous Knowledge Systems showcased examples of co-design and bringing Indigenous knowledges into practical strategies to improve community health.

Following the devastating category four Cyclone Nathan in 2015, the remote Galiwin’ku community in Arnhem Land felt a need to strengthen their community resilience to disasters.

Acknowledging that social impacts often outweigh natural impacts following disasters, they aimed to “rebuild Indigenous capacities that would reduce the risk of natural and social disasters”, Dr Petra Buergelt of University of Canberra told the Conference.

On behalf of Yolŋu researcher Dr Elaine Lawurrpa Maypilama and the whole project team who helped prepare the presentation, Buergelt shared insights on the project titled ‘Waka Ŋurrkanhayngu-Regenerating the existence of life: Pathways for reviving & strengthening Indigenous ways of being, knowing, doing to heal the source of ‘Natural’ & social disasters’.

Applying a long-term Indigenist community-based participatory action research methodology, the project team includes current and emerging clan leaders, managers and ceremony men covering nearly all the 16 clans living in Galiwin’ku.

“We are co-creating and co-implementing at every stage and it’s completely emerging – we never know what’s going to happen next which is very exciting,” Buergelt said of the long-term ongoing initiative. They have just completed phase two and are moving into phase three of the project.

Buergelt acknowledged the “tremendous resilience, courage, humility and generosity of Indigenous leaders past, present and future for being able to withstand all of the colonising practices and to really make sure that all the sophisticated knowledge is preserved and cared for”.