Tony Abbott might not always get Aboriginal Affairs right, but there is good will there and we should respect that because his commitment to Aboriginal people is the nicest thing about him.

That’s the word from a meeting held in Perth recently which focused on the thing that seemed absent from the Liberal’s agenda prior to the September election: Aboriginal health.

Des Martin (pictured above), Chief Executive Officer of the Aboriginal Health Council of Western Australia, a peak body representing 20 of that state’s Aboriginal Medical Services, says there is truth in that statement because this is the first time Aboriginal people have been so close to the top of the political agenda. Des Martin wrote this report from the recent National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation’s Members Meeting:

When former politician Fred Chaney told a packed room, most of whom were Aboriginal, that Tony Abbott has good will and a genuine personal interest and investment in the needs of Aboriginal people, I wasn’t sure what would happen.

These were risky statements to make, given the depth of mistrust many Aboriginal (and non-Aboriginal) people have for politicians past and present: sometimes due to policy and sometimes down to empty promises and token gestures.

Perhaps though, there is some truth there. We should respect him and if Warren Mundine wants to be Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs then we should let him and more importantly take him seriously.

Mr Chaney has known Tony Abbott for a long time and he openly admits the Prime Minister has changed a lot since those early days of politics.

“His commitment to Indigenous people is the nicest thing about him,” he said when referring to Mr Abbott. “There is good will there and he might not get it right but we should give him a chance.”

Mr Abbott was unable to attend the NACCHO annual members meeting in person, due to Parliament sitting, but he wrote a letter to the delegates about what he hopes will change under his new government: while it is comforting that there have been improvements in life expectancy, the ten year gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people is still disturbing.

It must be our goal to eliminate this gap within a generation. Our health is in many ways a reflection of our communities. That is why we have to ensure that children go to schools, adults go to work and the ordinary rule of the land operates in Aboriginal communities.

When one of his senior bureaucrats was later pressed on what the statement about ordinary rule meant, particularly when he used changed the rule to law in his own presentation, there was no clear definition.

NACCHO Chairperson Justin Mohamed tactfully suggested it would be a good idea to clear that up. Any politician who wants to work seriously with Aboriginal people should know, it matters what that statement means and if the word law is going to be frequently transposed, do you mean law or lore?

Whatever the definition Mr Abbott did explain that a new level of engagement at every level of society is needed, to ensure that Aboriginal people receive better educational, employment, housing and health outcomes and that’s why he has brought Indigenous Affairs under the Department of Premier and Cabinet (DPC).

The move to DPC is one that many in our sector are worried about. There is fear that the attention and momentum we have picked up is going to be lost under a pile of other Aboriginal (and non-Aboriginal) issues that DPC must deal with.

The concern for us still lies with the use of Medicare Locals and what threat that poses to Aboriginal Medical Services.

While Samantha Palmer, First Assistant Secretary for the Indigenous Health Service Delivery Division said that Medicare Locals won’t replace ‘urban Aboriginal Medical Services’ some aren’t so sure. And to get picky, that statement doesn’t include regional or remote services, what about them?

Sandy Davies, a Director of the Geraldton Region Aboriginal Medical Service echoed what many at the conference likely thought: “Unless we prove the strength of the Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Sector, Abbott will utilise Medicare Locals.”

Well I’ll tell you what I know about the strength of our sector.

First, there are 150 Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Services (ACCHS’) around Australia and together we serve nearly half the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population: that’s 350,000 people across the country.

The Redfern Aboriginal Medical service in Sydney was established in 1971 and was the first Aboriginal community controlled health service in Australia and it helped establish others around the country.

Bega Garnbirringu in the Kalgoorlie region of Western Australia recently celebrated its 30 year anniversary and Perth’s first Aboriginal Medical Service: Derbarl Yerrigan Health Service Inc. just had its 40year anniversary.

As a sector, ACCHS are responsible for 75% of the improvements in Aboriginal people’s health outcomes since 2008 when closing the gap began. ACCHS are more than comparable to mainstream services for identifying risk factors, performing health checks, care planning and treating individuals.

It has proven itself as a successful health model. Now we just need to make sure this new government is well aware of that fact.

There are some concerns also that Warren Mundine’s focus is on economic empowerment of Aboriginal people. He’s right in many ways though: having a better economic status can improve the health and wellbeing of individuals and communities and he’s also right to target the mining industry. It is an employer of many in Western Australia, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal.

But the ACCH Sector is actually the biggest employer of Aboriginal people Australia-wide. So not only do we care but we employ.

Having the visibility and level of representation for Aboriginal people at a federal level means that Aboriginal people are at the top end of the political agenda and this has never happened before. Aboriginal people are still facing incredible hardship despite improvements in health, employment and economic status but politically this is an exciting time in history.

I just hope the promises are kept.

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