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The link between health and wellbeing and constitutional recognition

Romlie Mokak
Med J Aust 2015; 203 (1): 1. || doi: 10.5694/mja15.00643
Published online: 6 July 2015

The Lowitja Institute is Australia's national institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health research. It is an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisation, named in honour of its patron Dr Lowitja O'Donoghue, AC, CBE, DSG. The Institute was established in 2010, emerging from a 14-year history of cooperative research centres.

The Lowitja Institute has led an initiative called Recognise Health, which promotes understanding of the important link between health and wellbeing and constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The initiative has brought together a coalition of 125 leading non-government organisations across the Australian health system in support of constitutional recognition. These organisations have signed the following statement (https://www.lowitja.org.au/recognisehealth/statement).

We call on all Australians to support recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Australian Constitution.

We look forward to a time when all Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander people can fully participate in all that Australia has to offer, enjoying respect for our country's first cultures and leadership, and the dignity and benefits of long healthy lives.

Australia's First Peoples continue to die far earlier and experience a higher burden of disease and disability than other Australians. This is a result of long term economic disadvantage and social exclusion, among other factors. Constitutional recognition would provide a strong foundation for working together towards better health and social wellbeing in the hearts, minds and lives of all Australians.

Recognise Health was launched at Parliament House in Canberra on 5 March 2015, with parliamentarians, medical and health leaders and community representatives present, in a strong show of commitment to the initiative.

The Australian Constitution, the main law that guides the operation of the Commonwealth of Australia, took effect in 1901. At that point in time, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people had lived on this land for thousands of generations, keeping alive the world's oldest living continuous cultures. However, Australia's founding document does not recognise this first chapter of our national story.

Following the 2012 report of the Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Indigenous Australians, all major political parties declared their support for recognition. Subsequently, the Prime Minister announced that the government intends to work towards a referendum. For the referendum to pass, the people of Australia need to understand and support the case for change, and there needs to be strong leadership from across the political spectrum, business and community sectors, and, of course, by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders. Part of the work required for a successful referendum is to engage key community organisations — such as health organisations — in the national dialogue, thereby engaging their membership and the broader public to support the referendum.

Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people would acknowledge their powerful sense of identity, pride, history and belonging to this land. It would promote opportunities for full participation in all that Australia has to offer and would be a significant step towards equity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia.

Recognition, participation and equity would, in turn, have profound positive consequences for wellbeing, and therefore health. There is significant evidence from health research to indicate that being connected to the wider community, having a strong identity and feeling socially supported all have significant positive impacts on health.

The role of social and economic factors in determining health status is well understood; health does not exist within a vacuum. It is intricately connected to education, employment, housing, and more. Cultural factors also have a profound impact. Having a strong sense of identity and pride — individually and communally — has a supportive, protective and healing influence. Unfortunately, how we experience the great benefits of modern medical science has become disconnected from cultural, community, social and economic contexts.

As Aboriginal singer and performer Archie Roach stated at the launch of Recognise Health: “I really believe that being recognised within the Constitution has a lot to do with how we feel about ourselves, that we are worthy and we can be proud of my people” (http://www.recognise.org.au/blogs/ourstory).

The Institute has worked closely with Recognise (http://www.recognise.org.au), the people's movement to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Australian Constitution, on this initiative. More information, including a short film featuring five health leaders, is available at https://www.lowitja.org.au/recognisehealth.

  • Romlie Mokak

  • The Lowitja Institute, Melbourne, VIC.


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