Despite its name, Australia’s House of Representatives is anything but representative. Parliaments around Australia have low levels of representation from many community groups, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, people from non English speaking families, people with disabilities and people from low socio economic backgrounds.
This can make it difficult for people from these groups to have influence over government policies and programs, particularly important currently as our country responds to two recent threats: the 2019/2020 bushfires and the COVID19 pandemic.
Below, emerging public health researcher, Tracey Oorschot, suggests a new initiative called Voices of Australia. This would be a national online platform to engage Australians to hear their voices about how the bushfires and COVID has impacted them, to ask what changes they want to see in our society concerning inequality, inequities, and social justice.
This essay was submitted for the National Public Health Think Tank Competition and has been selected by Croakey for publication. The competition is an initiative of the Students and Young Professionals in Public Health (SYPPH) Committee of the Public Health Association of Australia.
Tracey Oorschot writes:
“Australia has an identity crisis” and “lacks leadership” are phrases that are being increasingly used. Do we truly lack a national identity or is the real issue a lack of national debate about what Australian values are, including the type of leadership we are seeking? The recent bushfires and COVID-19 provide insights concerning these issues.
Australians rallied together to raise millions of dollars to support fellow Australians devastated by the bushfires. This precipitated many to protest about a lack of political leadership to address climate change issues.
The COVID-19 pandemic has added to these concerns, with many discussing our failings as a society to promote health and well-being for all.
Australians are voicing their opinions in increasing numbers about what kind of society they want to create and the type of political leadership they are seeking to create this society. This is public health’s moment to augment these debates to address the current challenges and embrace opportunities that support social determinants of health.
Examples from history
There are many examples from history of significant upheaval which have brought about societal change.
One event that comes to mind is the fight for independence in America during the 18th century that led to the creation of the Declaration of Independence (1776), that would in turn, inspire the American constitution and their national identity. Currently Australia has no such framework save the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
This document represents the voices of Indigenous Australians (Uluru Statement, 2020), but where is our National voice that respects this statement, that defines Australian values, in turn creating our National identity and which could serve to inspire public service promoting the health and well-being of all Australians now and tomorrow?
The role of public health
Public health has a focus on population health stemming from determinants of health known to affect individual health and well-being.
Both the bushfires and COVID-19 have generated conversations from the general public reflecting key social determinants of health concerning employment, education, gender equity, socioeconomic status, social exclusion, social capital, housing, local environments and human rights.
These elements contribute to a healthy society, with a key role of public health often involving partnering with government to influence health policy development that promotes societal health.
A lack of representation in parliament
Additionally, these conversations related to our societal fabric, have resulted in many Australians expressing feelings of underrepresentation by our parliaments. Parliaments are still largely dominated by members of Anglo-Saxon origin, do not (as a whole) represent Indigenous Australians, women or young people, with parliamentarians predominantly “born male to a white family, having attended a private school, university educated and were either a lawyer or active union member”.
This lack of representativeness has implications for the policy decisions that can affect our everyday life, with the present discussions concerning Federal Government policy responses to COVID-19 representing examples of this. To encourage better parliamentary representation, we need to come to some decisions about who we are as a Nation.
Voices of Australia project
To facilitate this conversation, I propose the Voices of Australia project. A national online platform to engage Australians to hear their voices about how the bushfires and COVID has impacted them, to ask what changes they want to see in our society concerning inequality, inequities, and social justice.
Within this website, will be a national competition open to all Australian residents and citizens (either an individual or group entry) to create our own national values instrument, with the winner presenting this instrument to Parliament.
Entries will be judged by a panel of five members representing public health (PHAA), Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, industry/professional groups (for example Human Rights Commission, ACOSS, Beyond Blue) and community groups (for example UN Youth Australia, National Seniors Australia).
Judges will decide the top three entries, with the winner decided by public vote via the website. Engagement will also be sought from a current member of State or Federal parliament who can act as a liaison with Government.
By virtue of creating this competition, it is intended that the platform will increase political literacy (for example, having a glossary section of commonly used political terms) and raise awareness of the connections between public health and public policy.
This can be achieved via forum discussions, links to/embedded open access journal articles or newspaper articles, video uploads, snap polls/surveys, and so on. It would also facilitate debate around issues concerning Australians, such as climate change, education and employment, social justice, and inequity/inequality resolution.
Tracey Oorschot is an emerging public health researcher with multidisciplinary training in human services/social work, counselling and psychology. Tracey’s interests include chronic disease, mental health, complementary medicine and integrative health care, and public policy. She is currently a doctoral student of public health at the Australian Research Centre in Complementary and Integrative Medicine within the Faculty of Health, University of Technology Sydney.