In the past few weeks, two powerful speeches have highlighted the importance of self-determination for the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, with one of these speeches also revealing how political processes undermine this right.
The speeches – made at the 15th World Congress on Public Health in Melbourne by Summer May Finlay, a Yorta Yorta woman and a Contributing Editor at Croakey, and in Parliament House in Canberra by Senator Skye Kakoschke-Moore – are published below and can also be watched via the YouTube links at the end of the post.
The speeches coincide with the findings of a United Nations human rights expert, the Special Rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous people, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, that Australia has failed to respect the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to self-determination and to full and effective participation in society.
Tauli-Corpuz said in a statement that Australia must reduce the “astounding” rates of imprisonment for Indigenous peoples and step up the fight against racism:
Government policies have failed to deliver on targets in the areas of health, education and employment and have led to a growing number of people being jailed, and have resulted in an increasing number of children being removed from their homes in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.”
“Nothing about us, which isn’t led by us”
Summer May Finlay writes:
“Nothing about us, without us.” I don’t actually know where this saying came from, but it is used a lot when people are advocating for Indigenous engagement in our own business. Professor Pat Dudgeon said it the other day in the First Nations Suicide Prevention World Leaders Dialogue.
I would like to challenge us as public health professions to take this one step further.
“Nothing about us which isn’t led by us.”
I want to see Indigenous people not just at the table but at the head of the table, leading. I don’t want to continue to see the token black. I want our mob designing, implementing and evaluating our business.
No one should be speaking on our behalf. I expect to see Indigenous people’s voices preferenced and prioritised.
We shouldn’t just be consulted on issues affecting us. We should be making the decisions ourselves.
Why doesn’t this happen already? I believe that there are two main drivers holding us back. The clear power imbalance and the deficit approach. These are not exclusively Australian Indigenous issues but also are felt by other Indigenous peoples around the world.
Across the world Indigenous peoples have been defined and owned by non-Indigenous people. We have been told where to live. What to eat. Who we could marry. The United Nations Permanent Forum is ON Indigenous people. Not led by us. The power lies with the majority.
I have worked across a number of different public health fields including policy, research and media. When it comes to Indigenous affairs, these spaces are dominated by non-Indigenous people.
We have a research project in this country, which is about Indigenous Cultural Competency in hospitals, funded by Australian Health Minster Advisory Council, which is led by non-Indigenous people.
Nigel Scullion, Minister for Indigenous Affairs, announced that $10 million will be spent on a suicide critical response project pilot. Without consulting the pilot site communities.
Colin Barnett, Premier of Western Australia, threatened to close up to 200 Aboriginal communities without consulting any of them.
Albert Einstein said the definition of insanity is doing something over and over again and expecting a different result.
For the last 200 odd years, a lack of Indigenous engagement on our issues hasn’t worked out so well for us.
It’s time non-Indigenous Australians stopped pretending they are the solution and realise we are. It’s time to recognise that while non-Indigenous Australians are making decisions on our behalf that they are part of the problem.
We aren’t perfect, we will make mistakes, but I believe we can do a hell of a lot better than what is currently being done for us.
It’s not just the power imbalance that holds us back but also the deficit lens through which we are seen.
I recognise that it is because of things like the life expectancy gap and over representation in the criminal justice system that drives investment in Indigenous policy and research.
The drawback of this is that deficit becomes the entire dialogue. Dr Chelsea Bond, who has been here this week, said: “Charting a community’s deficits only seems to deepen the despair.”
As Indigenous Peoples, we do not see ourselves in deficit. We know we are more than the sum total of our negative statistics.
While we continue to been seen only as deficit, how will we ever be seen as capable to run our own affairs?
This is not to say that there isn’t a space for non-Indigenous people; there is. We are only three percent of the population; we can’t do this by ourselves. We need strong allies. Allies who will champion our causes our way. Who will assist us to facilitate a process we have defined and use their white privilege to our advantage.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people need to be the directors, actors and producers, with non-Aboriginal and Torres Strait people as the back stage crew.
I stand here because of the strong advocacy of people before me, both Indigenous people and non-Indigenous Australians.
I am here because of the support and mentoring by both Indigenous people and other Australians. Aboriginal people such as my mum Rhonda Finlay, Professor Bronwyn Fredericks, Professor Alex Brown, Geoff Scott, Les Malzer, Lisa Briggs, Dr Scott Winch and Associate Professor Karen Adams.
Non-Indigenous people such as Melissa Sweet, Professor Jenni Judd, my dad Mark Finlay, Kerri Lucas, Michael Moore, John Hendry.
The people I have listed, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, are the reasons why I know we can undertake a decolonising process. They are already doing it.
There are over 300 million people around the world who are recognised as Indigenous.
And I am proud to announce, on the 50th anniversary of the World Federation of Public Health Associations, that the World Federation of Public Health Associations has endorsed the Indigenous Working Group.
The Indigenous Working Group was born at the World Congress in the First Nations Yarning Circle space.
The Working Group will be led by Adrian Te Patu, the first Indigenous member of the World Public Health Associations.
Nothing about us, without us. Nothing about us, which isn’t led by us.
• Summer May Finlay received a standing ovation after making this speech in the closing session of the 15th World Congress on Public Health in Melbourne on 7 April, 2017. See the World Federation of Public Health Associations announcement on Indigenous Working Group.
Revealing exclusionary political processes
Senator Sue Kakoschke-Moore writes:
In 1991, Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody wrote the now famous song From Little Things Big Things Grow. Apparently they were sitting around a campfire, and a few hours later they had written a six-minute song.
The song tells the story of Vincent Lingiari and the Wave Hill walk-off in 1966, through to Prime Minister Gough Whitlam symbolically handing their land back eight years later, an event which became a catalyst for the Aboriginal land rights movement.
What I have learned in my past six years of being involved in politics is that some of the most significant reforms can grow from what seems to be a small idea or issue.
Of course, some of the most obvious injustices are not always quickly or easily fixed by legislative reform. But – to take from the words of Kelly and Carmody – gather round, people; let me tell you a story.
A week before Senate estimates last month, I was having a conversation with my staff that went like this: ‘What flight are you on at the end of estimates?’
‘I’m on the Thursday night flight because estimates only runs for four days this time,’ was the reply. ‘Are you sure?’ I asked. ‘Well, the sitting calendar only shows four days.’
And then it dawned on us: cross-portfolio Indigenous matters, which usually occur on the Friday of the estimates week, are not included on the sitting calendar.
Consideration of cross-portfolio Indigenous matters started following a recommendation of the Standing Committee on Community Affairs in 2008, where it was established that it was just too difficult for senators to navigate various committees to ask questions on these matters.
Of course, estimates provides a perfect opportunity to raise the issue with the government. So, during questioning of Prime Minister and Cabinet, I asked Senator Brandis why cross-portfolio Indigenous matters were omitted from the official sitting calendar.
Senator Brandis said: ‘I do not know the answer to that question.’
Discussion ensued about who is responsible for creating the calendar. Senator Brandis ultimately said:
‘As to your point, Senator Kakoschke-Moore, that the cross-portfolio Indigenous questions are not shown as a specific estimates day in the calendar, I must confess I have never noticed that before, but I suspect you are right.’
I queried who I should speak to about rectifying the significant omission and, in referring me to the managers of government business in the House and the Senate, Senator Brandis said:
‘There is certainly no reason why that Friday should not be marked in the calendar as an estimates day.’
The government has since agreed to add the day to the calendar. It has therefore taken eight years for anyone to notice the omission and then have it rectified.
It seems to me this omission is symbolic of the way Indigenous people are often treated by politicians and policymakers. I have only been in this place as a senator for a relatively short time, but I can already provide a number of examples where Indigenous people have been an afterthought or completely forgotten.
One of the first examples I encountered was in relation to the government’s proposed childcare reforms, which were considered by a Senate committee. The government proposed to cut budget based funding, 80 per cent of which goes to early childhood education in Indigenous communities.
Despite this, the government failed to consult with stakeholders such as SNAICC during the initial reference group consultation period on the design of the reforms package. When questioned about the number of Indigenous organisations involved in this consultation process, the department were unable to name a single organisation, and the response from them on this issue was quite unsatisfactory.
However, the Nick Xenophon Team was listening to SNAICC and other Indigenous stakeholders, and we managed to secure the budget based funding, as well as an additional $49 million for early childhood services in Indigenous, remote and disadvantaged communities, through negotiations with the government about the childcare reform package. But we should not have had to be the ones to do it. The cuts to these services should never have been on the table in the first place.
Another example stems from a meeting I had with a number of Victorian and South Australian traditional owners in relation to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, and, in particular, the northern basin review.
They told me there had been no integration in the review of Indigenous cultural consultation. They pointed to 1½ pages, which included a large photo, in the Northern basin review report. The report’s preface highlights key perspectives from stakeholders that were represented during the review, including—and I am quoting from the report here:
‘The Aboriginal perspective of ‘when rivers and waterways are dying, you are dying with your Country. Your science dies, your culture dies, and your ceremony dies.’
These are incredibly powerful words.
I was therefore quite surprised that, in this 52-page report, only 1½ pages were dedicated to describing the importance of environmental water to Aboriginal people. That section of this report states that Northern Basin Aboriginal Nations, representing 22 first nations, made contributions to the northern basin review.
However, based on the 1½ pages in this report, I am still not clear on what NBAN’s view on the review was, particularly the recommendations of the review. The traditional owners told me, ‘We have not been asked what we want,’ and they made heartbreaking comments such as, ‘We have been forgotten again.’
A third example I have been involved in arose from issues in relation to the remote health workforce. Following the tragic murder of South Australian remote area nurse Gayle Woodford, the federal government commissioned the Remote health workforce safety and security report.
The damning report, which was released in January 2017 by workforce representative body CRANAplus, noted:
Twenty-five percent of questionnaire participants reported that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in which they worked had no Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander Health Workers. The absence of Indigenous clinical staff impacts negatively on both the cultural safety of services available to communities, and the safety of RANs and other members of the remote health workforce.”
The report continued:
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Workers identified that some hazards and risks they experienced were the same as those experienced by RANs, but many were different. If an angry or drug affected person came to the clinic intending to harm staff, everyone would be at similar risk. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health staff were more susceptible to internal family and community violence—domestic violence, community punishment, or assault by others trying to project blame onto others.”
The report went on to make 31 recommendations about improving the safety and security of the remote health workforce. Yet, when I asked during Senate estimates almost two months later when we could expect a departmental response to the report, I was met with silence.
It seemed the department had not turned its mind to responding. They were not sure how they would respond and said no funding was available to respond. I was told a roundtable would be held in May, although the department was unable to give me any information about the dates or the agenda.
Other Indigenous health workforce reforms are being pushed for by groups such as the Congress of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Nurses and Midwives, and their CEO, Janine Mohamed, who is a fantastic advocate.
Simple requests, such as embedding cultural safety—which can also be called education about racism—into health practitioner regulation law, are falling on deaf ears.
To achieve parity, the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nurses needs to dramatically increase. Providing a safe workplace is an obvious way to attract Indigenous people to the workforce. The positive outcomes that would flow from increased participation by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the health workforce are dramatic, and include closing the life expectancy gap within a generation.
While I was not directly involved in the human rights committee inquiry into the government’s proposed changes to 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, I want to note that it is another example of the omission of Indigenous peoples from the process.
None of the five witnesses called to give evidence represented an Indigenous group, and, when the Aboriginal Legal Service of the ACT and New South Wales attempted to speak, they were not allowed to do so. The government are proposing to water down race-hate laws, yet they would not hear Indigenous views on their proposal.
Eight years we waited for Indigenous cross-portfolio issues to be included in the sitting calendar.
Eight years was the time Vincent Lingiari waited for a resolution. As Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody wrote in their song:
That was the story of Vincent Lingiarri
But this is the story of something much more
How power and privilege can not move a people
Who know where they stand and stand in the law
The waiting must stop. Instead of our first people being an afterthought, make them the first thought, because from little things big things grow.
• Senator Sue Kakoschke-Moore from the Nick Xenophon Team in South Australia made this speech in the Senate on 29 March, 2017.
Watch Summer May Finlay
Watch Senator Sue Kakoschke-Moore