The establishment of a constitutionally enshrined Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament will positively transform narratives around First Nations health, according to members of the National Health Leadership Forum (NHLF).
The NHLF is a peak body representing the views of 12 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations working in health and wellbeing.
This article is published by Croakey Professional Services as sponsored content, and follows this recent article, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health leaders highlight many benefits from a Voice to Parliament.
Croakey Professional Services writes:
When Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and communities have a systematic, explicit say in the development of policies and services that affect their health and wellbeing, many benefits will flow, according to Lowitja Institute CEO Adjunct Professor Janine Mohamed, a proud Narrunga Kaurna woman.
The Lowitja Institute, Australia’s national community-controlled Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research institute, has long urged full implementation of the Uluru Statement from the Heart’s calls for Voice, Treaty and Truth, including by the states and territories.
Most recently, the Lowitja Institute issued a statement urging Australians to vote ‘yes’ in the upcoming referendum, “so that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples can look forward to living long, healthier lives”.
The Lowitja Institute is a member of the National Health Leadership Forum, which has also been a longstanding advocate for constitutional recognition, and also supported the three foundational elements of the Uluru Statement: Voice, Treaty, Truth.
The referendum that will be put to Australian voters on 14 October asks voters to reply ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to this question: “A Proposed Law: to alter the Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. Do you approve this proposed alteration?”
According to Professor Janine Mohamed, one important benefit of a constitutionally enshrined First Nations Voice to Parliament is the opportunity it will bring to re-write colonial narratives about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ health.
It will signal an end of the deficit discourse that has too often dominated public and policy debate, and that has entrenched harmful, wrongful narratives about inherent fault in First Nations people to uphold a deliberately discriminatory status quo.
Pathologising and paternalising First Nations people is a direct legacy of colonisation, and it is tacitly endorsed at the very highest level, including through the exclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from the Australian constitution, added Mohamed.
A Voice to Parliament will also facilitate wider truth-telling, not only about the harms and traumas of colonisation, but also about the strengths of First Nations cultures that have thrived for millennia, founded upon values of caring for Country and communities, said Mohamed.
“Truth-telling in health demands that we acknowledge who created the system, who was locked out of it, who benefited, and who was harmed. And it’s not just about bearing witness but identifying lessons to ensure that it cannot be repeated in future,” she said.
For Mohamed, the transformative potential of centring and integrating Indigenous ways of being, doing and knowing extend well beyond service provision to the preconditions for health, appreciating that wellbeing is communal rather than individual, sustainable rather than extractive, and involves dadirri – deep, respectful listening.
Describing climate change as “just another product of colonisation”, Mohamed said the entire nation stood to benefit from decolonisation and “embracing the cultural determinants of health, those things we sort of innately know, you’re part of the ecosystem and only take what you need”.
Trauma-aware, healing-informed systems that were culturally safe and respectful spaces would benefit not only those carrying an intergenerational burden of erasure and loss but improve health and wellbeing for all Australians, she said.
For the Uluru agenda to succeed, Mohamed said this shared stake in a better Australia had to be brought into sharper focus, speaking directly to zero-sum fears that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples could only flourish at the expense of those who had for so long benefited from “the taking of our land, the death of our people, and the ongoing exclusion of us and our voices”.
“We have to talk about past harms, no doubt, but it also has to be a valuing and celebration of Indigenous peoples, the opportunities, what we stand to gain as a nation,” Mohamed said.
Likening this time to contemporary moments of reckoning like the Love Is Love movement for LGBTQIA+ rights or feminism’s Me Too phenomenon, Mohamed said “people need to see themselves in it, see the benefit and that it is the right thing to do”.
Cultural determinants central
Professor Pat Dudgeon, a Bardi woman who helped establish the Australian Indigenous Psychologists’ Association (AIPA) and is a renowned figure in First Nations mental health, said a collective national pride in and willingness to engage with Indigenous ways of knowing and being was central to Uluru’s promise.
“We’re not just people who live in our minds and bodies, we are shaped by – and what is important to us – is our connections to family and kin, connections to our community, our culture, our country, our spirituality and our ancestors,” said Dudgeon.
Rather than a predominantly clinical question, Dudgeon said she had witnessed the evolution of thinking around suicide to encompass social, political and historical determinants, including the influence of racism, something science had now demonstrated impacted the brain at a cellular level.
“It’s about your environment, housing, the social determinants and also the cultural determinants – fishing, hunting, learning language, ceremony. At the centre of that is our families and kin groups and communities. We can’t view mental health in isolation from those other issues,” she said.
This was part of what Dudgeon described as an Indigenous psychology, “one that challenges the hegemony, questions Western psychology, posits Indigenous knowledge, and embraces that we are in a political struggle”.
While the referendum process itself is proving traumatic for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, there is an appetite for reform and momentum to be seized as health organisations apologise for past harms and cultural safety is codified at the highest levels.
“We can’t escape the influences of history, of colonisation, and the need to recover from that and be self-determining,” she said.
To unpack this legacy, Dudgeon said “we need positive ways forward, and the Uluru Statement is one of those”.
• This article was funded by the National Health Leadership Forum (NHLF) and edited by Forum members. It was written on behalf of Croakey Professional Services by Dr Amy Coopes, and also edited by Dr Summer May Finlay and Dr Melissa Sweet.
Bookmark this link to follow the NHLF series:
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health leaders highlight many benefits from a Voice to Parliament
- Celebrating the contributions and expertise of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health professionals
- As a new Government sets to work, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health leaders call for transformational change
- Connection. Strength. Resilience. | Voice Referendum: Social and Emotional Wellbeing Resources
- First Nations mental health and wellbeing services and supports
- Support resources: Voice to Parliament referendum. Compiled by Australian Indigenous Doctors Association