Reconciliation, social equity and Indigenous health

Sandra J Eades
Med J Aust 2000; 172 (10): 468-469.
Published online: 15 May 2000

Reconciliation, social equity and Indigenous health

A call for symbolic and material change

MJA 2000; 172: 468-469

The current state of health of Indigenous Australians is a cause for national shame, and has its roots in the wholesale exclusion of Indigenous people from Australian society since 1788. A comprehensive approach to improving the health of Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders involves understanding the close relationships between their social and economic status and their health. At some point in our growth as a nation there must be a commitment by all Australians to social and educational equity and economic prosperity for Indigenous Australians. Only then will there be significant improvements in the health of Indigenous Australians.

There is a growing body of knowledge about the social determinants of health,1-3 and evidence that relates disease patterns to the organisation of society and the way society invests in its human capital. Evidence worldwide shows a clear relationship between poverty, deprivation, social exclusion and ill-health. Socioeconomic disadvantage in childhood, inadequate nutrition, poor education, unemployment, and psychosocial factors (such as lack of self-esteem and social support, often associated with addictive behaviours) are causative of ill-health, and this can occur with or without access to good-quality medical care.1-3

Recognition of Indigenous people's prior
ownership of the land is central to their achieving
social and economic equity in Australia

A child raised in an affluent home is likely to succeed educationally, which in turn favours entry to more privileged sectors of the labour market, with financial security in old age. A child from a disadvantaged home is likely to achieve few educational qualifications, leave school at the minimum age, and enter the unskilled labour market, where pay is low, the work often hazardous, and old age means reliance on the welfare system. A number of longitudinal studies confirm these relationships and show that they result in higher morbidity and mortality for the more socially disadvantaged.1,2

There are biologically plausible links between social and economic disadvantage and health. If the biological stress response is activated too often and for too long, there are multiple health effects -- depression, increased susceptibility to infection, glucose intolerance leading to diabetes, and high blood pressure and accumulation of cholesterol in blood vessel walls leading to heart attack and stroke. A life-course perspective views a person's physiological status as a marker of their past social position. Thus, past social experiences become written into the body's physiology and pathology.1-3

The situation for Indigenous Australians is further exacerbated by racism and prejudice, which have marginalised them from various aspects of social and community life, with additional detrimental effects on health.

What evidence is there that this relationship between health and social disadvantage has adversely affected Australia's Indigenous people? Life expectancy at birth, which is an overall measure of health status, is 56.9 years for Indigenous men and 61.7 years for Indigenous women, compared with 75.2 years and 81.1 years, respectively, for non-Indigenous men and women.4 In 1997, fewer than 31% of Indigenous students remained in Year 12, compared with over 72% of non-Indigenous students. In the 1996 Census, while Indigenous people made up only 2.1% of the Australian population, they accounted for 19% of the adult prison population,4,5 and 41% of the inmates of juvenile corrective institutions4 (and the proportion of young Indigenous people in detention has increased further since the introduction of the mandatory detention laws in Western Australia and the Northern Territory5). The unemployment rate for all Indigenous Australians is likely to increase from 39% to 47% by the year 2006.6 Indigenous households are more likely to be overcrowded, but, despite this, have a lower median weekly income. Similarly, other measures of social disadvantage also show an over-representation of Indigenous people.

Understanding the social determinants of health and these disturbing figures and taking the Indigenous health debate to the next level has always been fraught with misconceptions. A common myth concerns the high levels of spending on Indigenous health, and this has been debunked in a recent report showing that, for all health services, recurrent expenditure on a per-person basis was only 8% higher for Indigenous compared with non-Indigenous people. Furthermore, Indigenous people benefit very little from Medicare and the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, with drawing rates only 27% and 22%, respectively, of non-Indigenous levels.7

Another major myth is that Indigenous people do not want to help themselves. It is true that you cannot help people unless they want to help themselves, but, in relation to education, numerous reviews, inquiries and consultations in recent years have reported that, contrary to popular belief, Indigenous people do place a high priority on education: "They want for themselves and their children no less than is afforded other Australians. They expect that educational processes should lead them to acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to realise their individual potential, lead satisfying lives, and contribute actively to the community."6

The current approach to Indigenous health is exemplified by the Western Australian Indigenous Child Health Survey. This is a population survey of an estimated 3150 children, aged from 0 to 17 years, which aims to improve our understanding of the health and educational needs of Indigenous children. The results will be used to develop a planned approach to the desired improvements in this area. For example, the initial WA Child Health Survey resulted in an improved range of State and national programs. These programs placed an emphasis on early intervention and prevention in child and adolescent mental health services, parenting strategies and programs, school programs for students at educational risk and promotion of mental health in schools. These data are also required for Australia to meet its obligations to the United Nations to report on the health status of Indigenous children.

At a national level one of the most significant recent developments has been the establishment of the Office for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Services in the Commonwealth Department of Health. Since it was established in 1995, there has been a more comprehensive planning and funding strategy targeting Indigenous health issues, with improved focus on primary healthcare and Aboriginal community involvement in healthcare delivery.

While these efforts in health and education are encouraging, they do not address the prevailing attitudes in Australian society which marginalise and disempower Indigenous people. T S Eliot wrote:

  "We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time."
Since arriving in Australia, the non-Indigenous population have wanted to believe that this was a "Terra Nullius", an uninhabited land that they could possess and use to their advantage without recognising the rights of the Indigenous peoples.9 Non-Indigenous Australians might gain a better understanding of Australia when they fully appreciate the inherent truth in Indigenous people's claims to land, justice and livelihood in this nation. Recognition of Indigenous people's prior ownership of the land is central to their achieving social and economic equity in Australia.

In March 1999 the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination found that the Federal Government's 1998 amendments to the Native Title Act 1993 are in breach of Australia's obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. It is argued that these amendments fail to respect the cultural identity of Indigenous people and fail to promote the preservation of their culture, as required by the United Nations.10

The Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation continues working to achieve its vision of "A united Australia which respects this land of ours; values the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage; and provides justice and equity for all."11 The cause of reconciliation has been furthered in recent years by improved spending on health services and health programs, particularly by the Commonwealth Government. These efforts need to continue and to become more appropriate and focused. The major challenges of the future centre on the reconciliation process, and the willingness of all Australians to take the actions that bring symbolic and material change. Facing these challenges with integrity and courage will benefit Australia's Indigenous people and the nation as a whole.

Sandra J Eades
Indigenous Health Research Unit, Population Sciences Division
TVW Telethon Institute for Child Health Research
Derbarl Yerrigan Health Service; and Department of Paediatrics
University of Western Australia, Perth, WA

  1. Marmot M, Wilkinson RG, editors. Social determinants of health. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
  2. Keating DP, Hertzman C, editors. Developmental health and the wealth of nations: social, biological and educational dynamics. New York: The Guildford Press, 1999: 25-35.
  3. The relationship between fetal malnutrition and chronic diseases in later life [editorial]. BMJ 1997; 315: 825-826.
  4. Australian Bureau of Statistics. Health and welfare of Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Canberra: ABS, 1999. (Catalogue No. 4704.0.)
  5. Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. Mandatory detention laws in Australia. <> (Accessed 19 April 2000).
  6. Commonwealth Department of Education, Training and Youth Affairs. Indigenous school to work transitions, 1998. <> (Accessed 19 April 2000).
  7. Commonwealth Department of Health and Family Services. Expenditure on Health Services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People. Canberra: DHFS, 1998.
  8. Four Quartets: Little Gidding: V, lines 26-29. The complete poems and plays of TS Eliot. London: Faber & Faber, 1969: 197.
  9. Reynolds H. Why weren't we told? A personal search for the truth about our history. Ringwood: Penguin books, 1999.
  10. Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. Submission to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination: Response to the request for information in relation to Decision 1(53) concerning Australia 1998. <> (Accessed 19 April 2000).
  11. Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation. < car/index.htm> (Accessed 19 April 2000).

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