Australia really does seem to be the lucky country. A strong economy has given us unprecedented wealth and when the Federal Budget is handed down next Tuesday, politicians will congratulate themselves over the burgeoning multi-billion-dollar surplus at our disposal.

But despite all this good news, indigenous Australians experience the same health conditions that exist in the Third World. When an Aboriginal baby is born in Australia, that child is likely to have a shorter life than a child born in rural Bangladesh or Mozambique.

The good news is, we can use the fruits of our successes to remedy that sobering statistic. Currently, spending for the indigenous population makes up only 2.8% of the national health budget (for 2.4% of the population with three times the disease burden). If apportioned on the basis of need, spending would approach $1300 per capita, compared with current spending of only $300 per capita.

The Australian Medical Association has identified a $460 million shortfall. An increase in additional annual funding of that amount (relatively modest when compared with the last Federal Budget’s tax cuts), can achieve health equality within a generation.

The strategy for doing so is outlined in the policy briefing paper ‘Close the Gap’, prepared by The National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation and Oxfam Australia. More than simply throwing money at the problem, it provides a framework of targeted policies that best address this inequality.

The $460 million would be spent on improved access to culturally appropriate health care; increasing the number of health practitioners (and indigenous health workers); responsiveness of mainstream health services to indigenous needs; focus on maternal and child health; awareness and availability of nutrition, physical activity, fresh food, healthy lifestyles, and adequate housing; and measurable national targets.

The public will support such a commitment as well. A GetUp petition has already gathered 14,000 signatures in less than one day — an unprecedented response. We can, in Tony Abbott’s words, “certainly expect” additional spending to be announced in next week’s Budget, but it is essential the gesture is more than token — government spending has been increasing, but sluggishly, on a par with overall health spending, and too slowly to close the gap.

The need has been identified and costed, there are demonstrated small-scale successes, and the people have thrown their weight behind addressing this issue, including Cathy Freeman and Ian Thorpe. All that remains is the political will to fund and implement the strategy.

The economic success of this country is not a success in and of itself; it merely provides the Government and the community with the means to improve our quality of life, and adds weight to the onus on those responsible to make this wealthy nation a healthy nation. Only then can we truly call ourselves the ‘lucky country’.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey