Aboriginal health is not brain surgery, declared
The Sydney Morning Herald in 2005. Indeed, as the following timeline of attempts to cure Indigenous ills attests, it’s much harder. According to The Age , there have been a dozen reports, summits and plans relating to the appalling state of Aboriginal health that the Federal Government has ignored. Online Opinion says there have been at least 20 since 1979. So far (and we could keep going) we’ve found over 25 reports dealing with Aboriginal disadvantage that we’ve listed
below* along with media articles about the very same problems the reports are addressing.
Combined, there’s certainly more than enough to set off alarm bells time and time again. So why has it taken so long for them to really start ringing?

  • 1967: “Identifiable Commonwealth expenditure in the area of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) Affairs began with the establishment of the Office of Aboriginal Affairs soon after the landmark referendum in 1967. It was relatively low in the first few years (indeed, the figure for the financial year 1967-68 of $13 000 is too small to include in the table) but increased significantly with the creation of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs (DAA) soon after the Whitlam Government came to office in December 1972” – report by Dr John Gardiner-Garden into Identifiable Commonwealth Expenditure on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs.

  • 1977:
    An Australian Parliamentary Report,
    Final report on alcohol problems of Aboriginals, is released.
  • 1979:
    The HRSCAA (House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs) releases a report titled Aboriginal Health. It notes, the “standard of health of Aborigines was still far lower than the majority of Australians” and that “little progress had been made in raising it”. It also argued that the States had not accepted any “financial responsibility for improving the health of Aboriginals as citizens of the State”. At the time, Chairman Philip Ruddock said: “When innumerable reports on the poor state of Aboriginal health are released there are expressions of shock or surprise and outraged cries for immediate action. However … the appalling state of Aboriginal health is soon forgotten until another report is released.”
    • 1980:
      The Program Effectiveness Report, an internal Commonwealth Government report (never publicly released) considers Indigenous involvement in Indigenous health policy development, the introduction of specific Indigenous health initiatives and the existing arrangements for funding and administration of Indigenous health.
    • 1981:
      The Commonwealth Government initiates a $50 million five-year Aboriginal Public Health Improvement Program in response to an earlier HRSCAA report, focusing on unsatisfactory environmental conditions associated with inadequate water, sewerage and power systems.

      Royal Commission Report of Inquiry into the death of Bruce Thomas Leslie. The Aboriginal man was wrongly diagnosed as being drunk by ambulance officers and was taken to Tamworth Police Station. An X-Ray later showed he in fact had a fractured skull. Leslie died of a brain haemorrhage. (cf 2006, Delmae Barton incident)

    • 1982:
      The HRSCAA releases another report,
      Strategies to help overcome the problems of Aboriginal town camps.

      The SA Office of Crime Statisticsreleases a report looking at the disproportionate number of Aboriginal people charged with minor offences. Findings included the fact that more than 58% of all defendants appearing on drunkenness, vagrancy, offensive behaviour and liquor-related charges in courts outside the Adelaide metropolitan area were Aboriginals, although this racial group constitutes less than 2% of the rural population.

    • 1988:
      The United Nations will be told by a UN official sent to Australia to investigate the conditions of Aborigines that Australia has violated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. – 19 Jan 1988, Hobart Mercury
    • 1989:
      The final report of the National Aboriginal Health Strategy Working Party (NAHSWP), A National Aboriginal Health Strategy (NAHS), is presented to the Joint Ministerial Forum. In 2001, the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Council’s draft National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Strategysaid that whilethe landmark report devoted a chapter to substance misuse, addressing a range of issues including alcohol, petrol sniffing, psychoactive drugs, treatment programs and the link between alcohol, suicide and custody, “there was insufficient commitment to action following the 1989 strategy”.
      • 1991: The final report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (RCADC) is published. The Commission investigated 99 deaths of Aboriginals in custody over a nine-year period, finding first and foremost that the disproportionate rate at which Aboriginal people are arrested was the major and most immediate cause of these deaths. It also revealed a history of racism and state control of Indigenous communities, finding that healing the problem demanded a strong commitment to eliminating Aboriginal social, economic and cultural disadvantage. 339 recommendations came out of the inquiry.

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        The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) commences the National Inquiry into Racist Violence in response to a widespread perception in the Australian community that racist violence was increasing and The Commission’s own experience in dealing with Aborigines and the criminal justice system as well as the work being undertaken by the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. The Inquiry found that: Racist violence against Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders is endemic, nation-wide and very severe.

      • 1992:
        The Commonwealth Government announces a $150 million five-year funding package, principally for the establishment of Aboriginal-controlled drug and alcohol services.
        • 1993:
          Health facilities available for Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders should be completely revamped, according to a report tabled in Parliament yesterday. The report, which was the work of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Policy Unit and the Health Department, finds that Aboriginal mortality is 3-4 times that of the state as a whole, that mortality rates from pnuemonia are ten times that of the population as a whole and that mortality rates from diabetes are nine times that of the population as a whole. The report recommends health strategies that aim towards self-determination. – The Courier-Mail

        • 1994 : The report

          A National Aboriginal Health Strategy: An Evaluation
          is released. It finds that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders face the health hazards of a hostile and inadequate physical environment (contaminated water, poor sanitation, and unsafe housing, transport and work conditions) and and that inequity is manifest in their diminished access to health facilities and health education. It also notes that “setting up committees will resolve nothing” – what is needed is a bold and clear national initiative that will “step over the shambles” of previous efforts.

        The Report to the National Committee to Defend Black Rights:

        Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Custodial Deaths Between May 1989 and January 1994
        is released, finding that the the national rate of Aboriginal custodial deaths has not decreased and that many of those who have died have done so because key areas of reform highlighted by the RCIADIC have not taken place.

        There is a growing scrutiny of ATSIC in the face of conditions experienced by Australian Aboriginals including bad water, stinking open drains, and high infant death rates. – 29 April, The Age

        • 1995:
          The Alcohol Report: Race Discrimination, Human Rights and the Distribution of Alcohol explores issues of alcohol misuse and its impact on Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory. It noted that of real concern was the the lack of consultation between the Northern Territory Liquor Commission and indigenous communities with regard to the issue and content of liquor licenses, and recommended amending the Liquor Act (1978) to allow Aboriginal communites more control over the provision of alcohol to their communities.

        Indigenous people should seek the United Nations’ condemnation of Australia for failing to fulfil promises on human rights, health and race discrimination issues. – The Daily Telegraph Mirror

        • 1996: The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health and Welfare Information Unit (ATSIHWIU) undertakes a review to develop a National Plan for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Information.

        The report Indigenous Deaths in Custody 1989 to 1996 is released. Another follow up to the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths In Custody, it found that of the 339 recommendations made by the Royal Commission, 179 recommendations specifically dealt with proposed changes to the criminal justice and coronial systems. It is these recommendations which are addressed in the report. It was found that an average of 8.5 recommendations were breached in each death. Recommendations were most frequently breached in Queensland and Western Australia.

        Many Aborigines are still fighting for basic services that most people take for granted. – 29 May, The SMH

          • 1997:
            John Howard has had time now to do something about the “brutal, white regime” Indigenous people are forced to endure, but nothing has changed. – 6 April, The SMH

            The first of the biennial reports into The Health and Welfare of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples – a joint publication of the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) and the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) – is released. Among many other findings, it notes: “Almost four in ten Indigenous households were estimated to have either insufficient income to meet basic needs (even before taking housing into account), or not enough income to afford adequate housing.”

          • 1998:
            The Australian National Audit Office concludes its performance audit of the Department of Health and Aged Care and releases its report Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Program. working from the premise that at the time Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people had a life expectancy at birth 15-20 years lower; that for all causes of death combined there were 3.5-4 times more deaths than expected among Indigenous people; and that Indigenous people are 2-3 times more likely to be hospitalised.
            • 2000:
              The House of Representatives Standing Committee on Family and Community Affairs tables its final report on Indigenous health issues, Health is life. The report found there is a “lack of clear delineation of responsibility for Indigenous health” which meant that the parties, particularly the States, indulged “wherever possible” in shifting the onus for payment to the other sector and that “the lack of any real efforts to integrate community involvement into the planning and delivery of health and related services” has been been one of the biggest barriers to progress.

            The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination
            makes observations about Australia’s treatment of its Indigenous population. The committee “expresses its concern about the minimum mandatory sentencing schemes with regard to minor property offences enacted in Western Australia, and in particular in the Northern Territory”. It notes that “the mandatory sentencing schemes appear to target offences that are committed disproportionately by indigenous Australians”. And while the Committee “acknowledges the efforts being made to increase spending on health, housing, employment and education programs for Indigenous Australians” it remains concerned by “the extent of the continuing discrimination faced by indigenous Australians in the enjoyment of their economic, social and cultural rights”. Foreign Minister Alexander Downer’s responds: “We won’t cop it any longer. We are a democratically elected government in one of the most liberal and democratic countries you will find on Earth. And if a United Nations committee wants to play domestic politics here in Australia, then it will end up with a bloody nose.”

              • 2001:
                The National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Council releases for discussion the draft National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Strategy. Its major recommendations are to focus extensive resources on the issue of substance misuse, and related issues such as community violence and suicide.

              Although the Howard Government is committed to “practical reconciliation”, it’s not having much luck boosting the standards of health, education and housing for Indigenous Australians. – 15 June, The SMH

                • 2003 The ABS and the AIHW publish the 4th edition of the biennial reportThe health and welfare of Australia’s Indigenous Peoples 2003.

                The prospects for Indigenous Australians in areas of education, employment income and health have gotten worse. – 16 October, The Age

                • 2004:
                  According to a Canadian study, the quality of life of Australian Aborigines is the second worst on the planet – and the general population of Australia ranked fourth best in the same study – 28 April, The Age

                Inquiry into the death in custody of Donald Keen. The Coroner’s report details Donald’s cries for help: the times he had shown signs of self-harm. It also sets out the chain of events within the system that failed to prevent his death. But, notes Tineke Van der Eecken in New Internationalist, “reports about how Aboriginal people die within the justice system have to date had little impact on the problem. In 1991 – after a five-year inquiry – the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody issued 339 recommendations, and many reports have been written since then.” Says Donald’s mother Linda: “Nothing’s changed. We [Aboriginal Australians] never win.”

                • 2005: The Australian government appears again before the UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, and the UN isn’t happy. The Committee expresses serious concern about the abolition of ATSIC; the lack of genuine progress in native title; the continuing over-representation of Indigenous peoples in prisons; and the extreme inequities between Indigenous peoples and others in the areas of employment, housing, health, education and income. They also asked the government to report back on these issues within a one-year timeframe, instead of the usual three years.

                  The biennial report from the ABS and AIHW shows that “overall, estimated expenditure on health services provided to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples during 2001–02 was $3,901 per person. This was 18% higher (ratio 1.18:1) than the estimated expenditure on services delivered to non-Indigenous Australians”. This was likely due to high rates of care for Aboriginal people “involving dialysis and hospitalisations for other potentially preventable chronic conditions”.

                Health authorities warn that indigenous Australians will keep dying young unless there is the political will to stop it – May, Sun-Herald

                Death rates from chronic disease among Indigenous Australians could be halved in three years by spending $450 million a year on the crisis in black health. – June, Sun-Herald

                      • 2006: The Queensland government

                        launched an inquiry
                        after Aboriginal elder and elder Delmae Barton was “left for dead” for more than five hours as she lay in a pool of her own vomit at a bus stop seat near Griffith University’s Nathan Campus. It’s believed that bystanders mistook her illness for drunkenness.

                        A report reveals that the life expectancy of Indigenous Australians is ten years less than that of comparable populations in NZ and Canada – 13 March, The SMH

                      The life expectancy of Aborigines in the Northern Territory is 20 years below the national average – 15 May, The Age

                      Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough and NT Chief Minister Clare Martin hold a joint press conference to announce $30 million extra funding to improve conditions in Alice Springs town camps – 5 May.

                      For further information see the Indigenous health policy timeline at Australian Indigenous HealthInfoNet.

                      * List compiled by Marika Webb-Pullman, Sophie Vorrath and Jane Nethercote