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Reflections: Our Health, Our Way conference

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice
June Oscar and presenters at AMSANT smiling at conference cake

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner June Oscar AO addressed the AMSANT Our Health Our Way Conference in the Alice Springs on August 7. The topic was 'Personal Reflection'.


Jalangurru maninga balanggarri. Yaningi yatharra ngindaji yuwa muwayi ingirranggu Arrente yani U.

I acknowledge the Arrente people, and all of you and your families and elders past, present and emerging.

I want to give a special acknowledgment to all of my Kimberley mob here tonight.

What a great gathering. It is wonderful to come together on this 25 years anniversary and see so many familiar faces that have been part of on the journey for all these years. This is our collective celebration. I know many people here, close friends – you’re my colleagues and allies in this social justice work, my sisters and brothers.

For a great number of us we have certainly done the hard yards and we keep on, keeping on! I look around and see remarkable leaders in this space who deserve so much recognition – you’ve been my inspiration and life-long teachers, – Pat Anderson, Pat Turner, Barb Shaw, Olga Havenen and others and those I walk beside.

We carry much responsibility, but we carry it together. And let’s have faith that while we’ve got years, maybe even decades in us, there is a whole new and wonderful generation(s) with new imaginations and hope coming up, following in our footsteps and making their own unique tracks.

It has been a long and full day, so I don’t want to add too much more to our plates when we’ve had/got a good feed in front of us.

But I do want to spend some time reflecting on the major themes that have arisen throughout the day. And for me, an anniversary is an important opportunity to look back, to take stock of our achievements, to understand why we do what we do, so we can move forward with renewed vigour and determination.

And I want to deliver a clear message, that health done ‘our way’, is unique.

It is a holistic system grounded in truth, lived realities, our culture, law and country.

I was reminded today that we have all gathered in the red-hot centre of Aboriginal activism. This is where so many community-controlled organisations began with great and entirely appropriate ambition. Demanding our Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander equal rights, recognition of our nation-hoods and our right to self-govern to determine our futures.

We stand on this Arrente land with fire in its belly, energising us to raise our voices, to be public policy activists, and do the work that needs to be done. There is no better place to celebrate this milestone for AMSANT than here in Mbantua on Arrernte country.

I do want to say at the outset that health, and the management and frontline work of AMS’s and ACCHOS is not my professional area, but health of course belongs to all of us, and I have been a part of the broad context of health in all the work that I have done on the ground.

The absence and presence of good health defines our lives and our societal existence.

We know what it means to have lives characterised by poor health and illness, many of which are entirely preventable. Lives unjustly and cruelly cut short. In our intimately connected society, the sickness of one is often a sickness of many. We know it first-hand, I’ve heard it today, that poor health hurts us all and cripples the human body, as much as it does the body of our society.

As the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner I am acutely aware that dismally poor health outcomes and health inequality experienced by our people is unacceptable. We all know the statistics, I won’t outline them, what they tell us though, is that our fundamental human rights have been violated. The right to health was first set out in the International Convention on Economic, Cultural and Social Rights. Since then it has been mentioned across many international human rights instruments. Pat Anderson, in her wonderful historical overview, also reminded us that it is contained within the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

This is the most comprehensive tool outlining our unique Indigenous rights, in which health like housing and all other foundational rights, essential to a life well lived are understood as part of our right to control our own organisations, decision-making and governance bodies grounded in our culture. Good health and wellbeing in this sense is premised on the development of community-controlled organisations and institutions that can reconstruct our Indigenous nation-hoods to restore our societal and cultural practices, protocols and knowledge systems. It is this societal restoration that brings us all, the human and the non-human and the surrounding ecology back to full health and wellbeing.

You said Pat Anderson, that our approach to health had shaped the national agenda, but you and others have clearly set the international standard for how good health should be understood and achieved for Indigenous societies across the globe. I believe that a substantial change is afoot in the way that we work that will ensure we recognise and realise our rights in full, and meet this standard.

My predecessor Tom Calma understood the all-inclusive nature of the right to health. That many rights had to be realised for our good health to be achieved. In his 2005 social justice report he set out a call to action – that governments commit to achieving equality for our peoples in health and life expectancy. This was the beginning of Closing the Gap.

It took some years, but governments committed. When they did, they invested heavily. But there was a fatal flaw, as Pat Turner stated, we were not included as equal partners. Without our inclusion at all levels of program design and policy making, the repercussions of government decision-making can be disastrous on the ground.

As if the machinery of government acting alone without our voices could deliver the changes, we need to restore our society to full health and wellbeing. It hasn’t been able to. Instead, targets have been designed at the top, without us in mind, that ultimately have not reflected our lived realities but have been determined by western measures of success.

Last year I travelled the country as part of a national engagement project I led listening to our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and girls, called Wiyi Yani U Thangani, meaning women’s voices in my language Bunuba. The report will be tabled in Parliament later this year. Women told me that it is this type of top-down, siloed decision-making approach that has fundamentally failed us which must end.

As we fail to meet targets that do not reflect us, our peoples continue to be narrowly framed in the deficit, as if we are a problem to be solved.

Women and girls have also said that some of the major themes that are emerging that underpin all issues like health, housing and education are the structural conditions of poverty, huge economic inequalities, trauma, and the pervasiveness of institutional discrimination and racism, all of which are intergenerational. This structural reality is the cause of entrenched disadvantage in our lives. It manifests appalling health outcomes and yet Closing the Gap did not confront these structural and interconnected conditions.

We all know that health is everything. For us, as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander societies health is holistic. We must always look at the underpinning factors, these are the determinants of health.

Let me return to grounding our approach to achieving good health in this very clear truth: as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples we know good health like no other society, we know it better than any western liberal democracy. The evidence is in the years – not in one generation’s life-span, not in single western indicators – the measure of our success in health is the tens of thousands of years of our continuous civilization. There is no way that an unhealthy society could have existed for 60,000 years and counting!

Women have spoken to me of needing a system that reflects this measure of success – grounded in our culture and lived realities and our knowledge. A system that supports a holistic way of living where education, regional economies, jobs, housing, childcare and mental, spiritual and physical health are all interconnected.

This might sound like a big agenda, but I know we can do it. We have had enough of business as usual, we cannot pretend that real long-term and meaningful success can be found in a system that is focused on crisis intervention and not prevention.

I believe a new system is emerging, built on the work we’ve done for the last 25 years and beyond and all the learnings that we’ve carried with us from a time immemorial.

When I travelled the country with Wiyi Yani U Thangani I could hear a momentum for change rising up in our women’s voices. They have said that the system is failing us and this does not have to be, because if you put control back in our hands, we hold the solutions and we will make change happen.

That flame of self-determination is igniting in our communities across the country. Because we know that self-determination was never a policy era, it is an inherent right that belongs to us as a distinct peoples and it never ends. I was in Garma over the last few days and I heard it there too.

We want a voice enshrined in our constitution our leaders are united around that. But there is more, we seem to be gaining some consensus across divided political lines. Irrespective of whatever political party is in government it doesn’t matter there is a momentum in society for change. We do not need to be dependent on a political moment. Our position can no longer be ignored or tolerated.

Beyond the Voice I also heard:  

the young people put forward an imagination declaration for Australia that sees this nation embracing the genius and millennial wisdom and intelligence of Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander peoples. They see our voice contributing to all forms of ecological sustainability and technological innovations.

On the ground there was Miwatj transforming community-controlled health to be trauma-informed, grounded in culture and focused on healing and wellbeing.

There was discussions about regional governance structures determining our economic and infrastructural development.

We talked about homeland education, two way learning, and bush schools.

Then there was the northern territory treaty presentation by professor Mick Dodson and the process that should be embedded to ensure effective treaty negations and layers of agreement making.

And then there was the presentation by Pat Turner, who also gave us an overview this morning, of the partnership agreement with the coalition of peaks and the commonwealth government for Closing the Gap.  This partnership that defines a new relationship between our national Aboriginal peak organisation with the Commonwealth government is unprecedented. It is paving a new way forward in how we can begin to have a dialogue between our peoples and the Australian nation state. I feel it is the beginnings of understanding what a truly equal partnership can look like. That deserves a huge round of applause.

From true community-controlled health services on the ground to health partnerships between our community-controlled sector and the commonwealth, state and territory governments, these are the ingredients for change.

When people ask how are we going to be heard, how are we going to make the difference that we want to see? This is how.

And all the AMS’s and ACCHOS in the room you are essential to making this change real. You can bring these ingredients together, utilise changing structures and relationships to design the culturally informed health models and work programs our people need. It is the way that we deliver our work from the ground up that informs the best policy and legislation. We have to seize this moment. As the Partnership takes effect we have to organise on the ground and become the policy activists that was discussed earlier today. Organise, collaborate and reignite the flame of the torch that we have been carrying for years and all of us, particularly our staff on the frontline, will hold in our hands that change that we all want to see. This moment of change is ours – to own, control and make happen. So go for it!

Thank you  


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Ms June Oscar AO, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice