Marie McInerney writes:
Leading Aboriginal health experts have called on researchers, academics, universities, research institutions and private corporations, especially those with Reconciliation Action Plans, to make a stand in support of the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
Central Australian Aboriginal Congress CEO Donna Ah Chee and Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance Northern Territory (AMSANT) executive director John Paterson made the call at a National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) symposium in Brisbane yesterday.
Paterson and Ah Chee, who play key roles in the acclaimed Central Australia Academic Health Science Centre (CAAHSC), urged the symposium, opened earlier by Indigenous Health Minister Ken Wyatt and NHMRC CEO Professor Anne Kelso, to issue a formal statement supporting the Uluru document.
The symposium also heard from a senior Federal Indigenous health bureaucrat, Professor Ian Anderson, about plans to “refresh” Closing the Gap targets. He said the current targets – some of which are due to expire next year – were developed in a “closed shop” that excluded Indigenous experts and communities and fed too much into a deficit narrative.
The NHMRC research translation symposium, its sixth, is this year focused on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health and is co-hosted with the Lowitja Institute, Australia’s National Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Research.
Lowitja Institute chair Pat Anderson was one of the architects of the Uluru Statement.
In a keynote address on the work of the CAAHSC, Paterson said Pat Anderson’s connection to the scholars and researchers in the room gave added impetus to the call for the conference to support the Statement.
“Given that Pat Anderson is the chair of Lowitja and led the process that led to the Uluru Statement, it would be appropriate for this broad gathering of the research community to express its support for the Voice of Aboriginal people as reflected in this wise and beautifully crafted expression of self-determination,” Paterson said.
“We cannot let this vision wither on the vine and we need to recognise the ultimate importance of a national voice at this level to protect and safeguard all expressions of community control.”
Ah Chee said Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people had been told on multiple occasions by government to work out what they wanted – only to get, as Pat Anderson had said, “a kick in the guts” .
“What we’re calling on the academic and research fraternity of today is to get behind what the Uluru Statement stands for and what the Aboriginal leadership is calling for.”
A range of non-Indigenous researchers, clinicians and service providers, led by Professor Fiona Stanley, are also calling for the Federal Government to support the Uluru Statement.
Paterson said it was also important for the corporate sector – “all those with RAP plans incorporated into their organisations” – to step up in support for the Statement.
Call for funding certainty
In a hard-hitting presentation and later interview with Croakey, Paterson and Ah Chee also called for dedicated NHMRC funding to be guaranteed for the Lowitja Institute.
The Institute, named in honour of its patron Dr Lowitja O’Donoghue, is funded by the Australian Government Cooperative Research Centres (CRC) Programme. It has survived on short-term funding grants or agreements for 20 years, with its latest cycle due to end in 2018.
Ah Chee said the Lowitja Institute was “the torchbearer for Aboriginal health research”, with its predecessor bodies the first health research organisations in Australia to include Aboriginal community controlled organisations as equal partners.
“It’s just not good enough that we have our iconic, leading national research institute… that guides and oversees us in terms of strategic research in Aboriginal health have to constantly worry from triennium to triennium where its next dollar is coming from,” she said.
Ah Chee called for the 400 plus delegates at the symposium to also pass a resolution calling for the Lowitja Institute to get access to ongoing, sustainable funding from the NHMRC.
The two Northern Territory leaders also sounded a warning to the Northern Territory and Federal Governments ahead of the handing down on Friday of the findings of the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory.
“We will not sit on our hands and watch this report be put onto bookshelves to gather dust like so many other reports,” Paterson said.
Aboriginal organisations in the Northern Territory would be “vigilant”, to make sure that Federal and Territory governments, which both supported the Royal Commission, committed to its findings, he said.
Focus on aspirations
Also at the symposium, Professor Ian Anderson, Deputy Secretary of Indigenous Affairs in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, urged delegates to get involved with the Council of Australian Government’s Closing the Gap refresh over the coming months.
Anderson is a Palawa Trowerna man from the Pyemairrenner mob in Tasmania, with many decades experience in Indigenous health, including as Director of Research for the Lowitja Institute and related Cooperative Research Centre for Aboriginal Health.
He said the Closing the Gap refresh was “an incredibly important process”.
Anderson said the annual Closing the Gap statement by the Prime Minister to Parliament each year had “brought Indigenous policy back to the centre of the national stage”.
But he said the refresh acknowledged, “a number of other things we’d like to do better this time”.
Even though the original 2008 targets had been built on the Close the Gap campaign led by Indigenous agency and organisations, he said they had been essentially determined in “a closed shop”, “a conversation between governments”.
“This time we are committed… to Indigenous engagement process as a part of this engagement,” he said, acknowledging many groups like Congress have done considerable work already.
The first round tables with Indigenous communities began two weeks ago, he said, and there would be engagement with Indigenous stakeholders, communities, and leaders over the next few months.
Another key point to learn from the past targets was “to really understand: have we got the balance of science and politics in setting targets?”.
While not specifying particular targets, it was hard to understand a rationale for how some of them had been set – “some were not only ambitious but unachievable if you had a good sense of the science behind the target,” he said.
Having the Prime Minister standing up year after year and admitting Australia was not on track with the majority of the targets “reinforces a sense in the broader Australian community that things aren’t working, that all the money we’re spending on Indigenous affairs is not making a difference”.
“It could be true that we haven’t put the right investments behind some of these targets,” he said. “But equally true we probably haven’t set the right targets.”
Anderson signalled the next set of targets would also focus on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander “aspirations”, not just feed into a deficit narrative.
While he said nothing was yet fixed, he expected 8-10 targets, with some to address environmental and economic issues.
One of the things we’re very mindful of is very fair criticism… that the targets really focus on disadvantage – which they needed to do, but they fed into a deficit narrative that rendered invisible all the success we know is in the Indigenous world.
We know that success is there, that’s part of our everyday reality but we don’t reflect that in our targets.
Moving to a strengths-based focus is very challenging, because you don’t want to lose focus on the important challenges – there is a gap in life expectancy and we need to have that as part of the targets.
We don’t want to lose sight of disadvantage, but we need to shift the narrative, to build a strengths-based approach.”
Supporting local decision making
Anderson talked about the importance of good evidence and evidence translation for Closing the Gap, saying his unit was looking to build investment in infrastructure to support regional and local decision making the provides “the granular data they need to make a decision”.
He talked particularly about work done in regional Shepparton in Victoria by the Algabonyah Data Unit established by the Kaiela Institute for the Yorta Yorta people. The work was also highlighted at a recent Indigenous Data Sovereignty symposium in Melbourne.
“You need to know how many jobs, in actual numbers, to reach parity, (in order) to go lobby the local businesses and authorities, how many kids, in actual numbers, are missing out on finishing school, how many mums are missing prenatal care, then you can anchor accountability throughout the whole system,” he said.
But evidence was not enough, it needed also to consider Indigenous priorities and cultural preferences and to think how to translate evidence into meaningful information and communicate it effectively so people at the policy level and on the ground could make decisions.
To that end, Anderson announced he was working on an Indigenous research hub, not to do research but to focus on knowledge translation, to bring together policy makers, researches and Indigenous communities.
More tweet reports
Welcome to Country, acknowledgements and introductions
Minister Ken Wyatt
Donna Ah Chee and John Paterson
(NB: Ian Anderson is from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, not the Health Department).
Warm thanks to all tweeting #ResearchTranslation17 – the hashtag was trending nationally for much of yesterday.
Summer May Finlay and Marie McInerney are covering the Symposium for the Croakey Conference News Service. Follow the discussions at #ResearchTranslation17, @WePublicHealth, @OnTopicAus, and @mariemcinerney.