Skip to main content

Site navigation

Aboriginal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice

Picture of a boomerang

Australian Indigenous Doctors’ Association
Yaga Bugaul Dungun

Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission

LAUNCH OF THE SOCIAL JUSTICE REPORT, 2005

Mr Romlie Mokak, Chief Executive Officer

Australian Indigenous Doctors’ Association
Museum of Sydney
31 March 2006

Picture of 2 young Indigenous girls smiling

Thank you Tom, for inviting me to speak today. Firstly, I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners, the Gadigal People of the Eora Nation, and thank Uncle Charlie for his generous welcome to country.

As the late Oodgeroo Noonucal once said, and I quote:

I don’t hold the present generation responsible for the past but I will hold it responsible for the present and the future because it is its responsibility and mine to change things for the better1

In my life time, I want to see the poor health of my people become a thing of the past.   I want to see our children fulfilling their dreams and living happy, healthy, proud and successful lives. Oodgeroo’s statement gives me the strength to beli eve a better life for our mob is not just possible, it is imperative. I have the determination to take an active role in making it happen and I hope that other Australians will also rise to the challenge.

As Associate Professor Helen Milroy, the first Aboriginal medical graduate in Australia, and now a practicing Child and Adolescent Health Psychiatrist in Western Australia has said, ‘Aboriginal [and Torres Strait Islander] children can and should be proud of their truly unique identity. As they grow and d evelop and struggle with a society full of contradictions and double messages, they will see themselves reflected in the responses of those around them. We must therefore ask ourselves as a nation, what do we really want them to see?’2

My people are Djugun from Western Australia, but I spent most of my childhood growing up in Darwin. I am the Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Indigenous Doctors’ Association (AIDA) and am very proud of the work of our doctors and our organisation.

As you would have heard, one of our doctors, Professor Sandra Eades (who is both a doctor of medicine and has a doctorate in philosophy) was recently awarded the 2006 NSW Woman of the Year. Another legendary colleague in health, who is beli eved to be the first registered Aboriginal nurse in NSW is Dr Sally Goold. She was awarded the 2006 Senior Australian of the Year. While accolades are not everything, I cannot emphasise enough how important it is for our young kids to have role models and mentors such as Sandy and Sally to help them beli eve that ‘they too can do it.’  

Unfortunately though, the undeniable truth today is that so many of our kids are still living in such extreme l evels of poverty, poor health and other disadvantage.   Genuine opportunities to go to and stay at school, get a decent education and fulfil their dreams of becoming a doctor, nurse, dentist, or what ever they may choose, are still fewer than others.

As Tom Calma notes ‘it is a simple fact that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples still do not enjoy the same opportunities to be healthy as non-Indigenous Australians’3.   This also goes for education, employment and social and emotional well being. In fact, the latest WA Aboriginal Child Health Survey, released last week, found that 57% of Aboriginal students have low academic performance compared with 19% of non-Aboriginal students, a disparity of 38 percentage points.4

You all know the facts so I’m not going to repeat them in detail: our babies are dying at three times the rate of non-Indigenous babies, our old people are dying s eventeen years earlier than non-Indigenous Australians, and a prominent cause of death for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are chronic diseases—most of which are entirely pr eventable. And all of this is occurring to under 3% of the population in a country that otherwise enjoys one of the highest standards of living in the world. As Professor Michael Marmot states in the Social Justice Report ‘ Australia has an impressive health picture, except for its Indigenous populations.’5

We, the first peoples of this nation, will not let this situation continue unnoticed. We must and have taken up Oodgeroo’s challenge – of bearing responsibility for future generations - and we do it because these are our children, our brothers and sisters, our aunties and uncles, our parents and grandparents. But the simple fact of the matter is that we need the rest of Australia to take up this challenge as well. We must do it together in ways that strengthen, not impede and blame our people.

Tom Calma’s report proposes a campaign for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health equality within a generation. What resonates for me in this report is the emphasis that ‘human rights require more than rhetorical acknowledgement of the existence of inequality and general commitments to overcome this situation at some unspecified time in the future’6.

The time for a step by step, incremental, patient approach is over. Targeted, achievable, comprehensive, sustainable and well resourced action is needed, and now.

We have to be ambitious—anything short of this sells out the next generation. There will be debates about where the best investments and allocation of resources can be made. AIDA commits to being engaged in determining the necessary actions and finding solutions. We will do this in a way that is strong from a professional and clinical perspective, strong and true to our cultural integrity, and ultimately strong for our mob.

In his recommendations, Tom notes that ‘an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health workforce is an essential first step’ towards achieving health equality for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. AIDA has set targets in relation to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander medical workforce in our Healthy Futures report.7

The Australian Medical Association states that 928 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander doctors need to be trained to reach l evels equal to non-Indigenous doctors. This requires 50 doctors to be trained for the next three years and 100 for at least the next six years after that8. While this sounds like a lot, the AIDA Healthy Futures report indicates that this would mean that each medical school in Australia would only need to enrol three Indigenous students each year for the first four years and s even each year after that.9

The Healthy Futures headline targets are that by 2010:

  • Australian medical schools will have established specific pathways in to medicine for Indigenous Australians.
  • CDAMS Indigenous Health Curriculum Framework be fully implemented by Australian medical schools.
  • There will be 350 extra Indigenous students enrolled in medicine.

We also strongly advocate for the urgent need to recruit and train more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in to all areas of the health workforce. And we advance the appropriate recruitment and training of non–Indigenous people in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health.

As the sole national body for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander doctors and medical students, we think our doctors and students are pretty solid! Our message is one that says to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kids – aim high – you can do it – you can be a doctor, you can be anything you want.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander doctors are saving the lives of our people.

Dr Noel Hayman was the first of two Indigenous medical students to graduate in 1990 from the University of Queensland. He is now the Clinical Director at the Inala Indigenous Health Service in Brisbane. In his first year at the clinic, 890 patient consultations took place. That number has now reached more than 6000. Noel is also Vice President of the Australian Faculty of Public Health Medicine.

Dr Mark Wenitong worked as a pathology technician for el even years before giving medicine a go as a mature age student. He is now the Senior Medical Officer at WuChopperen Medical Service in Cairns. WuChopperen is an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisation providing culturally safe primary health care to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Mark is also the President of AIDA and participates on many high l evel health policy bodies.

These doctors, as do many of our mob, work tirelessly to improve the health of our people. Not only are they the clinicians caring for our people and our complex health issues on a daily basis, they are our blood. This is the unique and valuable place our people occupy in the health system.

Our strength comes from knowing that we are part of a tradition of healing that has been practiced for thousands of generations and continues today. We draw deep comfort from knowing that we are continuing in the healing path of our ancestors. Ngangka ri like Andy Tjila ri and Rupert Peter continue in their work today, alongside the western trained Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander doctors.

Ngangka ri is the Pitjantjatjara word for traditional healers. Ngangka ri have for ever been a part of Aboriginal culture. Andy Tjila ri says thatNgangka ri use their own mapa npa or sacred tools, to do their healing treatments’ on people. Ngangka ri also work at night when all is quiet, gliding among people’s sleeping spirits similar to the way an eagle soars. He says ‘I realise this sounds very different to all you doctors and nurses who have studied so hard at school to get where you are today. You have studied so many books. But consider that we are still, n evertheless, working towards the same goal of healing sick people and making them feel better in themselves. In that way we are equal. We are the same.’10

The United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights says that ‘it is important to distinguish the inability from the unwillingness of a government to comply with its obligations. A government which is unwilling to use the maximum of its available resources for the realisation of the right to health is in violation of its obligations.’11

Can we really look in to the eyes of these old men, who have devoted their lives to healing and helping our people, and say that we must be patient? Do we say to our kids and grandkids that things in the future will be better, while deep down being uncertain of the truth of this statement? The answer to both is no! We must act now, in a targeted way, to achi eve equality of health for our people.

I commend Commissioner Calma for his commitment and leadership on this front.

Photo of Dr Helen Milroy, Mr Andy Tjila ri, Mr Rupert Peter, Dr Mark Wenitong, 2005

Dr Helen Milroy, Mr Andy Tjila ri, Mr Rupert Peter, Dr Mark Wenitong, 2005

Picture of boomerang

The Australian Indigenous Doctors’ Association
Yaga Bugaul Dungun

PO BOX 3497 MANUKA ACT
Ph: 02 6273 5013 Fax: 02 6273 5014
Email: aida@aida.org.au Website: www.aida.org.au

Media contacts: Mr Romlie Mokak: 042778 6153, Dr Mark Wenitong: 042889 2962


  • [1] Watson F, 2006, ‘Indigenous Australia – Cultural Awareness’ Public Administration Today, January – March, pp. 7.
  • [2] Zubrick SR, Silburn SR, Lawrence DM, Mitrou FG, Dalby RB, Blair EM, Griffin J, Milroy H, De Maio JA, Cox A, Li J, 2005, The Western Australian Aboriginal Child Health Survey: The Social and Emotional Wellbeing of Aboriginal Children and Young People. Perth: Curtin University of technology and Telethon Institute for Child Health Research, Volume 2, pp. xxvi.
  • [3] Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner (2005) Social Justice Report 2005, Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, pp. 71.
  • [4] Zubrick SR, Silburn SR, De Maio JA, Shepherd C, Griffin JA, Dalby RB,   Mitrou FG, Lawrence DM, Hayward C, Pearson G, Milroy H, Milroy J, Cox A, (2006),   The Western Australian Aboriginal Child Health Survey: Improving the Educational Experiences of Aboriginal Children and Young People. Perth: Curtin University of Technology and Telethon Institute for Child Health Research, Volume 3, Summary Booklet, pp. 26.
  • [5] Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner (2005) Social Justice Report 2005, Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, pp. 28.
  • [6] Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner (2005) Social Justice Report 2005, Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, pp. 48.
  • [7] Minniecon, D & Kong, K (2005) Healthy Futures: Defining Best Practice in the Recruitment and Retention of Indigenous Medical Students, Australian Indigenous Doctors’ Association, Canberra.
  • [8] Australian Medical Association, 2004, Healing Hands: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Workforce Requirements, Discussion Paper, Canberra. pp 4.
  • [9] Minniecon, D & Kong, K (2005) Healthy Futures: Defining Best Practice in the Recruitment and Retention of Indigenous Medical Students, Australian Indigenous Doctors’ Association, Canberra. pp. 17.
  • [10] Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Women’s Council Aboriginal Corporation, 2003, Ngangka ri Work – A nangu Way, Alice Springs. Pp. 34.
  • [11] Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner (2005) Social Justice Report 2005, Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, pp. 68.