With referendum voting already underway in some remote communities, health workers and organisations have been urged to step up their advocacy for a constitutionally enshrined Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament.
Marie McInerney writes:
Leading advocates for the Voice have urged supporters to not waste a day or a conversation in the lead-up to the 14 October referendum, and to tap into the power of the health professions as a huge workforce that is influential, trusted and respected.
The calls came at a #CroakeyLIVE webinar on the #VoiceforHealth that highlighted Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community-led health success stories that a Voice could multiply, and heard how its Indigenous and non-Indigenous panelists connected personally and professionally with the referendum.
Respected journalist Kerry O’Brien, who has co-authored The Voice to Parliament Handbook with prominent Indigenous #Yes23 campaigner Thomas Mayo, told the webinar he still believed a Yes vote was possible.
“I don’t think we can deny the trend [toward No in opinion polling] but I have serious scepticism about the accuracy of the figures,” he said.
“We’ve got nearly three weeks left and I think there is every chance still that we can see the right outcome emerge from this because I refuse to believe that a majority of Australians do not have the desire to do the right thing here.”
The timely webinar came as two separate collective interventions were staged by the health sector; the first in Victoria and the second nationally, when more than 125 Australian health organisations, including the peak medical bodies, took out a full page advertisement with a joint statement urging Australians to consider the health benefits of a Voice.
One of the signatories, the Public Health Association of Australia, launched its national conference this week with an opening keynote from Indigenous health leader Pat Anderson, who said the Voice would significantly benefit Indigenous health outcomes and ensure health funding goes to the right places. See related tweets.
The MJA recently also expressed strong support for the Voice, urging readers to weigh their arguments “in an evidence‐led manner that centres core public health principles of equity, justice, and recognition of the upstream determinants of health”.
O’Brien said the health professions, with their huge workforce numbers, represented a “rolling force” that could inform hundreds of thousands of family, friends and colleagues about the Voice, “taking the fear out of it”.
“Do not underestimate what you can do personally or within your organisation or as an organisation,” he said.
“The personal is political”
The #VoiceforHealth webinar, the first of two to be hosted by Croakey, also featured:
- Fiona Cornforth, a Wuthathi descendant from Queensland with family roots also in the Torres Strait Islands, who is head of ANU’s National Centre for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Wellbeing Research
- Scott Willis, Palawa man and National President of the Australian Physiotherapy Association
- Annie Butler, Federal Secretary, Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation.
Panelists were asked: What’s your connection to the Voice? How does it connect to you personally and with your work?
Cornforth said she had received a tough early lesson on the need for a Voice to be permanently protected, having begun her career as a cadet at the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), which was abolished after 15 years by then Prime Minister John Howard, who declared it a “failed experiment” in elected representation for Indigenous people.
She remembers it as “a really, really sad time” and a major setback to informed policy development, undoing foundational work being done nationally and internationally.
“Yes, there were lessons to be learned, and yes, [ATSIC) wasn’t perfect, but it’s something we should have built on,” she said, highlighting the need for a constitutionally embedded Voice “that can’t be taken away”, that will allow Australians to raise issues like disproportionate suicide and incarceration rates and ask politicians, ‘Are you listening?’.
Cornforth also talked about her previous role as CEO of The Healing Foundation, which advocates on behalf of the Stolen Generations and has been pointing to the absence still, more than 15 years after the National Apology, of a systematic government response to the needs and rights of survivors and their descendants.
“There are stories that I’ll carry with me for life,” she said, adding they had lit “a fire in my belly” to seek proper responses to their trauma.
Her support for a Voice stemmed from “understanding how many of these processes have been kicked down the road for years and years without getting any full recommendations addressed or responded to in any meaningful way”.
A new chapter
Webinar moderator Jade Bradford, a proud descendent of the Ballardong Noongar people, talked also about the intergenerational trauma of the Stolen Generations, with her beloved grandmother having been taken from her family when she was young.
“I was exceptionally close to her and I spent a lot of time with her as a child,” she said. “And it was during this time that I became aware that she was unwell, and that her spirit was very sick…from the abuse and trauma that she had endured during her own childhood, in the institutions.”
Bradford said it was forbidden in her family to ask any questions or speak of their heritage, so as a child she had watched “powerlessly” as her grandmother succumbed to alcohol abuse and died well before her time.
But, as soon as she was old enough, Bradford began submitting Freedom of Information requests to government departments, digging up family records and searching for lost family members, “connecting with them and hearing their stories”.
That had been an emotional and challenging process of reconciliation within her family, but one that ultimately brought the family closer together, she said.
Later she became a journalist because she wanted to create safe spaces for other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to share their stories, in the hope that other Australians would listen and begin to understand the trauma of colonisation.
She has also assisted in the research and development of the Passing the Message Stick program, designed to shift the public narrative in support of First Nations justice and self-determination.
For Bradford, the referendum presents an opportunity to come together and elevate First Nations to their rightful place in the Constitution, able to exercise influence “on the matters that are affecting our lives”.
“I’m really looking forward to this next chapter,” she said.
Voice plus vision
Scott Willis, who outlined his support for a Yes vote in an article this week at Croakey, also shared his professional journey at the webinar, saying he had been told by teachers that he was “not brainy enough” to become a physiotherapist and he should look for a different career.
Thirty years on, he is national president of the Australian Physiotherapy Association, the first Indigenous person to hold such a role at any of the mainstream medical organisations in Australia.
Willis said his story showed the need not only for a Voice but also for Indigenous people to be empowered with a vision “for what they want, not just what people are telling them to do”.
With a Reconciliation Action Plan that drives cultural safety training and the APA’s overall strategy, including a Deadly Physios truth-telling podcast, Willis said the APA “lives and breathes” the Yes vote in its work.
“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people know what they need, they know how to achieve, they just need the enabling…to actually achieve it”, he said.
For Annie Butler, federal secretary of the Australian Nurses and Midwifery Federation, the ANMF’s full support for a Voice lies in its union mission of fairness, justice, equity and solidarity, and in seeing the Voice as “a natural extension” of person-centred care, the central tenet of nursing: “having people centrally involved in the decisions about their own health and well-being”.
Butler said nurses, still a predominantly female profession, also understood what it is like to be undervalued and unheard, pointing to their efforts over decades to raise issues about aged care in Australia that are only now being taken seriously.
“We could have told everybody 10-20 years ago what was needed but there was no formal recognition of our voice, no formal recognition of our input,” she said.
O’Brien told the webinar he began work as a journalist in Queensland in the 1960s, knowing, like most other non-Indigenous Australians, “almost nothing about Indigenous history, Indigenous culture, Indigenous civilisation”, including how his settler ancestors came about their stories of prosperity.
He has since explored that history and his awakening in a 2019 Curtin University lecture and in an article in The Monthly, telling the webinar that he voted in the 1967 referendum with “the bare bones of a burgeoning knowledge…that something was fundamentally wrong with our country”.
That was only hardened in the coming decades, particularly when he came face to face with “raw racism” on assignment in Alice Springs, and later reported for Four Corners on the brutal murder of an Aboriginal woman and the “railroading into prison” by police of six young Aboriginal men who couldn’t possibly have written the confessions that were attributed to them.
What O’Brien hopes he brought to The Voice to Parliament Handbook was knowledge gained from reporting over decades on failures by governments to properly represent and serve Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, starting with then Prime Minister Harold Holt’s appointment, after the 1967 referendum, of three white men to advise him on Indigenous issues.
Like Cornforth, he acknowledged the devastating impact of the abolition of ATSIC, which he said pulled the rug out from underneath communities, stripping away hundreds of millions of dollars for vital infrastructure and health programs.
The back and forth on representative bodies is a pattern that has continued “with each government that’s come and gone” since and underscores the need for constitutional protection for the Voice, he said.
Now, as he crosses the country in support of Yes, O’Brien said he is concerned at seeing “non-Indigenous people struggle to know whether they’re doing the right thing in voting yes, because they hear or they read that many Indigenous people are opposed to it”.
While he acknowledged the right of Indigenous people to vote No, he said the four polls conducted specifically with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people around Australia have consistently returned a response of 80-88 percent support for the Voice.
Voice in action
The speakers also provided strong practical examples of how the Voice could work to improve health, a topic that has not received sustained or informed focus in much mainstream media coverage.
O’Brien raised Canadian examples highlighted by Professors Marcia Langton and Fiona Stanley in his book with Mayo, including one study showing that Indigenous communities with strong Indigenous councils, language and community controlled services had lower suicide rates than others.
He also cited Indigenous birthing services in the Nunavut community in Canada that, as well as improving child and maternal health, showed reduced alcohol use, domestic violence and suicide — “outcomes that weren’t predicted”.
Butler echoed the example, pointing to the success of Birthing on Country programs in Australia, which again improved health outcomes for babies and mothers and also had “much wider impacts as well, beyond just that central family, to the entire community”.
Such evidence showed that “giving First Nations people a voice is not only the right, practical thing to do, it is also economic best practice, which is a language that some people understand perhaps more than they understand health and education”, O’Brien said.
Willis highlighted research, reported by the ABC, showing that outcomes for chronic disease in the Aboriginal Health Service in Launceston were better than for GP services in northern Tasmania.
Cornforth said Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leadership in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, which kept infection rates for Indigenous Australians six times lower than for non-Indigenous Australians through 2020 and has been hailed internationally, is another example.
In the early critical stages of the pandemic, resources and decision-making were handed over to communities and community controlled health organisations “and our workforces used their knowledges to meet the support and protect needs of mob, including Elders, everywhere”, she said.
“We knew we had to protect people with full force and we did it, and all we needed was the decision making to be able to do it. It was true act of self-determination.”
Calls to action
With just over two weeks to go before the referendum, Butler espoused “the union approach”, urging Yes supporters to “have five conversations” with undecided voters in their circle of influence, and then get those five to have five more and so on.
Amid growing concern that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are being subjected to racism and abuse because of the debate, Cornforth urged people to support those “who don’t feel safe having their voice raised during this time when our identity is in the public debate”.’
Meanwhile, social work academics with expertise in the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have proposed seven strategies of self-care for First Nations people and have invited non-Indigenous people to provide support for First Nations people during this time, and always.
Writing in The Conversation, they suggest:
- Set boundaries when discussing the Voice referendum
- Disconnect and spend less time looking at social media and news
- Stay connected with others and avoid isolation
- Personal and community-care practices
- Make time for your body, mind and spirit
- Spend time on Country and practice Indigenous culture
- Know the signs and seek help.
In closing the webinar, Professor Bronwyn Fredericks, Co-Chair of Croakey Health Media, asked people to think about the hope, promise and peace that Voice, Treaty and Truth can bring to this country.
“Australia is a good country…but, you know what, it can be an absolutely fantastic country,” she said, urging participants to “keep having the conversations, keep going with the fight”.
“Every single day, and every conversation matters.”
Also read this compilation of the live-tweeting of the #VoiceForHealth discussions as they unfolded, by Marie McInerney.
Register here to join our next #CroakeyLIVE on the #VoiceForHealth, from 5pm AEDT on Monday, 9 October