Marie McInerney writes:
The Lowitja Institute, Australia’s national institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health research, will next week stage its first ever international conference, welcoming Indigenous keynote speakers from across the globe.
Lowitja Institute CEO Romlie Mokak said the conference comes at a time of rising xenophobia globally and domestically, and at a “critical juncture” in Australia, with the need for a “big yarn” about constitutional recognition and reconciliation – which will play a vital role in the health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander people.
In an interview ahead of the conference (you can watch an excerpt here and below), Mokak called for Indigenous health leaders to be able to break through the “cultural ceiling” in government.
He said Indigenous colleagues in New Zealand, Canada and the United States remain “speechless in disbelief” that an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person has never headed up Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health within the Health Department.
Mokak also called on governments to move to five-year funding for Indigenous programs and to apply equal accountability to itself and mainstream health providers as it does to over-burdened Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community organisations.
The Lowitja Institute International Indigenous Health and Wellbeing Conference 2016, to be held in Melbourne from November 8-10 under the theme ‘Identity, Knowledge, Strength’ will canvas Indigenous health issues and research from the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Council in Canada through to on-the-ground programs in Indigenous communities from Brazil to India.
Mokak said the theme aims to explore how Indigenous peoples’ identities are “constantly being constructed by others”, to understand how Indigenous knowledge systems preceded Western science and remain critical to the future of Indigenous people, and to pay respect to and sustain the strength that has seen Indigenous people of the world survive genocide.
The keynote speakers include big international names in Indigenous health and justice:
- Professor Megan Davis, a Cobble Cobble woman from Queensland, who is Professor of Law at the University of New South Wales and the current Chair and expert member of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues
- Chief Wilson Littlechild, Commissioner with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, which last year released its final report
- Gunn Heatta, an Indigenous Sami woman from northern Norway who Mokak says runs the only Sami mental health and drug and alcohol service in the country
- Professor Karina Walters, an enrolled member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, whose work includes leading the HONOR Project, a nationwide health survey that examines the impact of historical trauma, discrimination, and other stressors on the health and wellness of Native American LGBT and two-spirited men and women
- Moana Jackson, Ngati Kahungunu/Ngati Porou and a lawyer working in New Zealand on Treaty/constitutional issues and international Indigenous rights, including as a member of the UN Committee on Indigenous Rights.
Littlechild’s plenary on Wednesday will be followed by a panel on ‘Truth telling – Unfinished Business’, chaired by Professor Marcia Langton.
Another panel session, on Thursday, will review the progress of the Close the Gap campaign. Panellists will include Richard Weston from the Health Foundation, Dr Jackie Huggins, Co-Chair of the National Congress of First Nations (which revealed this week it may have to cease operating at the end of next year if it cannot secure ongoing funding), and Fadwa Al-Yaman from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.
Mokak said the international focus is part of the ambition for the Lowitja Institute, named for its founding chair Lowitja O’Donohue who will officially open the conference next Tuesday, alongside current chair Pat Anderson, who recently gave passionate evidence to the Royal Commission into juvenile justice in the Northern Territory.
“In this context, we are thinking not just Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander people, we want to contribute to Indigenous empowerment across the world,” he told Croakey.
The rise of xenophobia in Australia and globally was important context for the conference, as “the glue that holds us together continues to be weakened and diluted”.
That creates an environment where “it’s easy for black fellas to be the target on any number of things,” he said.
At the conference, Lowitja will also launch a 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 British medical journal The Lancet. Among other findings, including identifying critical gaps in knowledge and data about Indigenous people in various nations, the report found that being Indigenous in a wealthy country does not necessarily lead to better outcomes.
Mokak wants the study to be ongoing: “if Indigenous people of the world are not even counted, how can we get to understand whether we are going forwards or backwards.”
Indigenous perspectives still ‘not at the policy table’
Mokak recently delivered the Cranlana Programme’s 2016 Medicine & Society Oration – you can read it in full here or listen to it via Radio National’s Big Ideas program – saying the absence of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the most senior roles in government is “disastrous for policy development and implementation because – largely – our perspectives are not at the table”. He said:
We are outsiders to the intimate internal discussions about our very own health and wellbeing. This results in policymaking distant from those who are most invested in ensuring that instruments of state work for them. We need to understand how the differences between Indigenous worldviews and the dominant Eurocentric worldviews influence the development of policies and frameworks.”
“It’s a fundamental point,” he told Croakey. “Indigenous knowledge needs to be valued, it can’t be tokenistic, it can’t be romanticised, it’s not icing on the cake…it’s central.”
The speech highlights the disruption and distress caused to Indigenous health and other services from cuts in the 2014 Budget, and argues that governments must “relinquish their role of ‘fixers’ and negotiate as ‘enablers and facilitators’.
Mokak said the state uses a range of instruments on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples – legislation, policy, guidelines, contracts, funding agreements – often to the “utter detriment of our people”.
He said Lowitja’s 2011 Overburden Report analysed the complex contractual environment for the Aboriginal community controlled health sector and found that highly fragmented funding from multiple sources imposed a heavy and onerous burden of reporting and acquittal that was not shared by equivalent mainstream metropolitan health providers.
In effect, he said, it concluded that “the funding of the sector imposed barriers to care, impeded efficiency and diverted vital resources away from the ultimate goal of improving health outcomes for clients.”
That contrasted, he said with an “astounding” dearth of evaluation of government programs in Indigenous health, which needed to be built in and funded in all programs.
“I’m as strong as anyone on the need for accountability, but accountability often gets translated in our world as black organisations being compliant,” he said. “The accountability framework the other way does not often get prosecuted, let alone built into the design.”
Mokak said his call for government to “step away” so Indigenous organisations can take the lead and to consider five year Indigenous funding agreements was not inconsistent with the Prime Minister’s ‘with us not to us’ mantra on Indigenous affairs.
He did not want to comment on recent reports (which have sparked alarm) that former Prime Minister Tony Abbott wants to replace Nigel Scullion as Indigenous Affairs Minister, but said he had been heartened by the recent Dungala Kaeila Oration delivered by Martin Parkinson, the head of Prime Minister and Cabinet, at the Rumbalara Football and Netball Club in Shepparton in regional Victoria.
That too is worth a read.
Since taking up his position at Lowitja two years ago, Mokak has often spoken of the organisation’s role – “we’re a black organisation, not an Indigenous research unit within an institution” – in creating a “black space” where Indigenous people can “have the difficult yarns we need to have.”
This conference would also provide such a space, he said, pointing as an example to a workshop session on ‘Healing from homophobia and preventing suicide’ being led by Dameyon Bonson, the founder of Black Rainbow, Australia’s peak suicide prevention organisation for Indigenous LGBTI people, their families and their communities.
“When we have our own conversations within our own spaces, we’re not having to explain ourselves to others,” Mokak said.
“The difficult conversations really just speaks to the fact that we are Indigenous people are not homogenous…
“There will be a range of views on a range of issues and for us to all be boxed in as having ‘the Indigenous perspective on x’ is an injustice. Yes, we have to have collective, strategic, unifying voices on certain things but we need diversity and robust, respectful engagement on others.”
• Follow @RMokak – and watch the clip below.
Marie McInerney and Summer May Finlay are covering the conference for the Croakey Conference News Service.