When Pat Anderson and Rex Wild, QC, visited dozens of Aboriginal communities across the NT as part of their inquiry into child s-xual abuse, they were surprised that so many people were willing to share their stories.

As Wild says, one of the reasons that s-xual abuse of children so often stays in the closet – in any community, white or black – is that it is such a difficult and sensitive issue to talk about.

But Aboriginal people have shown their willingness to own the problem of child s-xual abuse. And, as Anderson told the recent Indigenous health forum at the Garma festival, they now also need to own the solutions.

This is not about being politically correct. It is about being effective. The HIV/AIDS epidemic has taught the world that it is essential to involve affected communities in developing and implementing responses to complex health problems.

It is why the very first recommendation by Anderson and Wild in their report, Little Children are Sacred, stresses the importance of “genuine consultation” with Aboriginal people when designing initiatives for their communities.

The lack of consultation that has ensued (not only by the Federal Government but also by mainstream medical organisations in their responses to the Government’s plans) is not only arrogant; it is a guarantee of failure.

Politicians and policy makers should be listening to Aboriginal people, whether tackling child abuse or related health and social problems, because they have valuable contributions to make.

This was blindingly obvious at the Garma forum, which heard of some gains in Aboriginal health, as well as many examples of effective programs developed by Indigenous people themselves. A recurring theme was that many of these failed because of the impossibility of securing long term funding and the inability of different government departments and agencies to work together.

The forum, held under a rough shelter with sweeping views of bush and sea, was an example in itself of how the rest of Australia could learn from the Indigenous approach to health.

At most medical conferences, the complexities of people and their lives are reduced to discussions about diseases or body parts. The discussions, like medical consultations themselves, often increase rather than bridge the distance between health professionals and the communities they are meant to serve.

At Garma, a genuinely holistic approach was evident. It was there in the way that community members shared the podium with professors and public servants. In the way that children played in the sand alongside power point presenters. In the way that the mesmerising movements of traditional dancers expressed the same message as was heard over and over again at the forum: that connection to land and culture are important for good health.

The health and medical industry has a history of doing things to people, rather than with or for them. It often pays lip service to the notion that environment, community and culture, along with individual’s own behaviour, are important influences on good health.

Those principles, relatively recently “discovered” by western medical research, were embodied in the way the forum and festival integrated professional and community knowledge and culture.

Non-indigenous Australians are also belatedly discovering the importance of the environment for good health – climate change and obesity are just two examples of major environmental health problems.

Australia’s failure to listen to Indigenous people is not only about to devastate NT communities. It also means the rest of us are missing out on some important health lessons.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey