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Indigenous constitutional recognition – more than symbolism

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The AMA takes its commitment to closing the gap in Indigenous health outcomes seriously, and this involves engaging regularly with Indigenous leaders and communities, and with others committed to addressing social disadvantage.

The Garma Festival, which is held in Arnhem Land each year, brings together a diverse group of people to discuss Indigenous rights and culture, including health, education, and other social issues. I was fortunate to attend this year.

Garma is an opportunity to engage with Australia’s Indigenous leaders and to hear from Indigenous peoples, in their own words, what is needed to improve the health and lives of Australia’s First people.

One of the most important features of the program is the key forum. Sitting in the traditional meeting place of the Yolngu clan, high on an escarpment looking out to the Arafura Sea, it seems a long way from Canberra or the SCG. However, topics of constitutional recognition and racism towards Indigenous people in our society, including footballers, were among those most discussed.

The Aboriginal concept of ‘health’ centres on social and emotion wellbeing – a concept that applies to anyone. Indigenous people face racism on a daily basis. The treatment of Adam Goodes raises an important questions for the nation, for non-Indigenous people, and our commitment to issues such as raising the standards of health, education, and economic outcomes of Indigenous people.

There was clearly anger, which was well articulated by Noel Pearson’s speech on the topic, in which he asked “how well do we know our fellow Australians”? He called on the better parts of ourselves and this nation to triumph over racism.

The AMA is a supporter of Recognise – the campaign for constitutional recognition of Australia’s First Peoples. This is more than about symbolism. It is an important part of reconciliation and about the value that this nation places on Indigenous members of the Australian community. While there is bipartisan support for this process, the next step is for Indigenous people to agree on what form the change should take, and subsequently the specific wording of the question that should be taken to any referendum.

There was palpable disappointment at Garma at the response from the Prime Minister in rejecting a proposal for a series of Indigenous meetings to come to an agreement before wider discussion. It was pointed out that Indigenous people are often asked to take responsibility. There was a significant consensus around the need for Indigenous people to take this role.

Perhaps there is concern about the results of that process, and the model that is offered. Whatever the reason, unless there is unity behind the proposal, the referendum risks failing – and that would be a grim day for all Australians.

Many of the most important legal battles for Aboriginal land rights involve Arnhem Land and the While at Garma, there was also time to discuss some of the more concrete health issues. I sat with Professor Alan Cass, Dr Paul Laughton, and Senator Nova Peris discussing the high rates of renal failure in the Northern Territory, the role of prevention in addressing chronic kidney disease, the impacts of dialysis on patients and their families, along with the need to increase the rate of kidney transplantation.

As most chronic kidney disease is preventable, our discussion again highlighted the need for good primary care, particularly in Indigenous health. The Aboriginal community controlled health system is so important, particularly in the Northern Territory. It is one of the reasons why the AMA campaigned so strongly on the Government proposals that threatened funding for primary health care, such as the co-payment proposals and the freeze on Medicare indexation. These proposals all effectively defund primary health care.

While there was time for discussing health, in line with the Government’s Indigenous Advancement Strategy, there was a lot of discussion around education and employment. There is good work being done but, as was highlighted in some of the conversations on the sidelines with people working in schools and communities, health has to underpin these strategies. There cannot be any relaxing of our commitment to Close the Gap.