On October 14, Australians will have a once-in-a-generation chance to change our Constitution and recognise the place of First Nations people through a Voice to Parliament.
I can't think of a more important area where we should listen to that voice than health.
The Voice will be a committee of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who offer advice to the parliament on issues that particularly affect them.
We need their insights so we can deliver real results that improve their lives - and importantly their health.
With the best of intentions and substantial investment from both sides of the parliament, the current approach simply isn't working.
There are many health challenges that unarguably impact Indigenous Australians differently, and some others that are largely unknown to non-Indigenous Australians.
Diseases like rheumatic heart disease, which was largely eradicated from developed countries more than 50 years ago, remain common in Indigenous communities.
It is a disease of grinding poverty, an entirely preventable disease plaguing remote communities.
Doctors in our major cities will likely never see a case of rheumatic heart disease, but the rates in remote Aboriginal communities are among the highest in the world, higher even than in sub-Saharan Africa.
First Nations children between 5 to 15 years of age are 55 times more likely to die from rheumatic heart disease than other Australian children. This disparity is unacceptable, but particularly in a country like ours, with our world-class healthcare system.
This is why the Voice is so important. To fight rheumatic heart disease, we need to improve not only healthcare, but also housing, basic amenities, and environmental conditions.
We need health, housing bodies and the environment department working together, listening to the voice of First Nations people to work towards preventing and eliminating rheumatic heart disease.
I know all Australians care deeply about closing the gap, but we need a new approach.
Just as a good doctor will listen carefully to their patients, a Voice to Parliament involves listening to the voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people about better ways to make a real difference to their health care.
That's exactly what Dr Simone Raye, president of the Australian Indigenous Doctors' Association says the voice can deliver, saying it will offer "huge potential to close the gap in unacceptable health disparities."
Dr Raye says the voice is the much-needed step to give Indigenous people a role in shaping policies that directly impact their future.
Listening to an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament will give us clearer insight into the of taxpayer money that goes into First Nations health - getting better outcomes and better value for money.
Year after year, we hear the same reports of the yawning gap in health outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. There is an eight-year life expectancy gap between Indigenous Australians and non-Indigenous Australians.
We need to do better - and this is our chance to make sure we do.
I am confident that Voice would help me, and future Health Ministers find better, more effective, practical ways to close the gap and allow Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to live longer, healthier, happier lives.
- MARK BUTLER
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