Closing the gap is a 'national emergency', Illawarra indigenous leaders say

“Closing the gap” in health outcomes between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians has become a “national emergency”, health leaders said at the University of Wollongong yesterday.

Leadership: Health worker Sylvia Akusah, Dr Scott Wynch and UoW PhD candidate Marlene Longbottom. Picture: Sylvia Liber.

Leadership: Health worker Sylvia Akusah, Dr Scott Wynch and UoW PhD candidate Marlene Longbottom. Picture: Sylvia Liber.

Yesterday marked the ten-year anniversary of the Glosing the Gap campaign, aimed at fixing the disparity in life expectancy, poverty and health indicators between indigneous and non-indigenous Australians.

But Closing the Gap campaign leaders say the indicators show “we’re going backwards”.

An event at the University of Wollongong emphasised the work of the graduate school of medicine, with eight programs where students work in the community partnership with indigenous health groups.

These included drug and alcohol programs, probation and parole, youth work, men’s health, food security, art, women’s groups.

The Coomaditchie artwork is unveiled

The Coomaditchie artwork is unveiled

Artists from Coomaditchie presented a painting to UoW and the school’s indigenous health discipline leader, Dr Scott Wynch, was proud to say there would be five indigenous medical graduates at UoW this year.

But he said “the gap” remained wide open, in some areas getting worse.

“It’s extremely frustrating,” he said. “Communities have given their opinion about it for a long time. Governments have for a long time done things to Aboriginal people, not with Aboriginal people. They haven’t empowered Aboriginal people to lead health initiatives.

“I think the Prime Minister is now understanding that you need to enable Aboriginal communities to lead the initiatives because they know what’s best.

“Health outcomes aren’t always about health interventions; it’s about having a holistic approach, so creating strong and solid communities is important.”

The “intervention” into Northern Territory Aboriginal communities by the Howard Government in 2007 was described as a response to a “national emergency”.

Yesterday Dr Wynch said the health gap also deserved those terms. “Absolutely it’s a national emergency,” he said. “[But the way] John Howard went about it is a prime example of how you shouldn’t have done it.

“It must be about empowering communities.

“We need to really have Aboriginal people front and centre making decisions about all these things.”

Funding must reach real workers

“Closing the gap” must mean funding reaches those on the ground, health worker Sylvia Akusah said yesterday.

Mrs Akusah’s Illawarra Koori Smart group, funded by the UoW’s graduate school of medicine, works to help beat drug and alcohol addiction.

But with just one of the Federal Government’s own “close the gap” measures still on track, Mrs Akusah wondered if indigenous voices were being heard.

“As a worker on the ground, the rates that we see on the ground, a lot of the funding and the promises the government says they’re going to do aren’t actually being filtered down,” she said.

“I see it being caught up in administration.

“This is why the gap’s still there because the government’s not engaging and fulfilling the recommendations they’re meant to [to make] that progress.”