Marie McInerney writes:
Federal Government changes to childcare funding would have “a devastating impact” upon Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, families and communities, leading Indigenous health advocates have warned.
June Oscar, CEO of the Marninwarntikura Fitzroy Women’s Resource Centre in Fitzroy Crossing in Western Australia, and prominent Indigenous medico Dr Mark Wenitong joined former Australian of the Year Professor Fiona Stanley in calling on the Government to address their concerns.
Speaking at the Lowitja Institute International Indigenous Health and Wellbeing Conference 2016 in Melbourne, Stanley said the changes to childcare funding could see around 70 Aboriginal early childhood learning centres shut down from next April, despite the critical role of early learning being a “no brainer”.
She called on health services and organisations to urge the Federal Government to set aside dedicated funding of $100 million, out of a total $2 billion child care package, to ensure centres like the Baya Gawiy Children and Family Centre in Fitzroy Crossing would stay open.
The conference heard that the Baya Gawiy early childhood learning and care centre in Fitzroy Crossing, operated by Marninwarntikura, is facing an uncertain future due to changes being introduced in the Jobs for Families Child Care Package.
Stanley said: “I am absolutely so anguished that at this time when the Federal Government has set up a Royal Commission to investigate the Don Dale disaster in the Northern Territory, they are now stopping to fund the Aboriginal community services in this nation that would actually be the interventions that prevent kids getting into Don Dale.”
Dr Mark Wenitong, Public Health Medical Advisor from the Apunipima Cape York Health Council told Croakey it was “completely incoherent from a policy perspective” that such services end up being casualties during major policy shifts.
“From a primary health care perspective and adult chronic disease, the bang for the buck is in early childhood, we all know that,” he said.
“They’re the ones that work, they work best for our mob, and if we want generational change, that’s where we have to start.”
Earlier at the conference, June Oscar outlined the risk to the Baya Gawiy Children and Family Centre, which has no guarantee of funding beyond July 2017.
Oscar said centres like Baya Gawiy bring together “the wealth of Indigenous and western knowledge”, simultaneously creating safety and stability in the present and eliminating harms in the future.
“Locally appropriate and community owned early childhood centres are the most effective form of combined crisis intervention and prevention,” she said.
“We cannot afford for changes in policy and legislation to deconstruct their framework.” (See her presentation).
“In vulnerable communities like ours a setback in the health, education and care of our children is disastrous. Once again we would be left in a precarious position with no structural supports to enable us to overcome inequality,” she said.
Indigenous health and education advocates like the Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care (SNAICC) have been warning for nearly a year that crucial Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander services are at risk in the Federal Government’s overhaul of childcare funding, and have written to every Federal Minister urging them to step in.
They say the changes will see the end of the Budget Based Funded (BBF) program, which provides funding for child care centres outside the mainstream system – most of them for Indigenous families in regional and remote communities, while other changes will also particularly affect Indigenous families.
Early this year a report by Deloitte Access Economics, commissioned by SNAICC, warned the new childcare package was likely to “significantly reduce access” to early learning for Indigenous children and threaten the viability of remote services.
Enabling legislation is due to come before Parliament later this month.
Stanley, retired Professor of Paediatrics and Child Health at the University of Western Australia, was speaking at the launch of a new global snapshot of Indigenous and Tribal People’s Health, a “companion piece” to a world first population study of Indigenous people across the globe that was published earlier this year as part of a Lowitja collaboration with the international medical journal The Lancet.
She said it was “unacceptable” to de-fund successful Aboriginal community services that delivered much more than early childhood but were also a focus for culture, wellbeing and employment.
“All the evidence from around the world is that a very rich early childhood experience is the most important one for brain development, the world knows that,” she said. “This is a no brainer.”
Oscar said Baya Gawiy, the only early childhood centre in a 260 kilometre radius, was “breaking the cycles of inequality” and was a vital link in the chain of intergenerational health wellbeing and prosperity that needs to grow in Australia.
“When a child is given the best start in life that child succeeds throughout their life. That positive chain of reaction sounds something like this: their mother has pre-natal and post-natal care; parents and carers are supported in maternity and parental programs; they can enrol their children in 0-5 full time learning and care; that child will go to school ready; will maintain good attendance throughout their schooling could go onto higher education; and then can seriously choose to be whatever they want to be.”
Oscar asked: What is the reality of a child not beginning their life like this?
“It is what we have now. Statistically it is more likely that an Aboriginal child will go to jail than achieve a degree in higher education. Can we look our children in the eyes and explain that this is their future?”
Watch Dr Mark Wenitong and June Oscar discuss the impact of the childcare funding changes.
New advisory group
Also at the conference, Assistant Minister for Health and Aged Care Ken Wyatt announced the makeup of a new advisory group established to assist with the Implementation Plan for the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Plan.
He said it would include representatives of the Department of Health and Prime Minister and Cabinet, and of the Australian Institute for Health and Welfare.
Indigenous health sector representatives would include Healing Foundation CEO Richard Weston (as co-chair), National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO) CEO Pat Turner, Apunipima Cape York Health Council’s Dr Mark Wenitong, Ms Donna Ah Chee, Chief Executive Officer of the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress Aboriginal Corporation, and Julie Tongs OAM, Chief Executive Officer of Winnunga Nimmityjah Aboriginal Health Service in Canberra.
Jurisdictional members of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Standing Committee would also join, he said.
Wyatt said the acknowledgement of racism as a critical component for health in the National Health Plan was a “huge step forward” and said he was delighted the Implementation Plan had “sown seeds to tackle social and cultural determinants of health”, which he said contributed to 31 per cent of the gap in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.
Speaking later to Croakey, he indicated he may support a move, heralded by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, to replace the words “insult” and “offend” with “vilify” in Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, as a move to meet demands from ultra Coalition conservatives while not scrapping the provision.
His comments came as the Federal Government set up a parliamentary inquiry into the Act to determine whether it imposes unreasonable limits on free speech and to recommend whether the law should be changed.
Wyatt said he would always fight to ensure people are not “racially vilified” but he said he did not want to see Parliament persuaded to “repeal” Section 18C.
“I would rather see a reconstruction that has strong words that stood the test against vilification and racism.”
Tweets and reports from the conference
Many presentations profiled cultural strengths and determinants of health.
A sensory feast
The Dhungala Children’s Choir provided one of the program’s many highlights.
Wall of selfies
And a final message:
• Marie McInerney and Summer May Finlay (pictured below) are reporting from #LowitjaConf2016 for the Croakey Conference News Service – via Twitter, Periscope and here.
• Bookmark this link to track the coverage.