invitation2010There has been a lot of guff spoken by politicians and commentators over the past few years about “closing the gap” between mainstream and Aboriginal health and life-expectancy outcomes in this country.

But, as my mate Chris Graham noted in a scathing piece over at the ABC’s The Drum, the Rudd Government, while happy to spout endless reams of rhetoric about how well it has done in this toughest of policy areas, was an abject failure at delivering any meaningful closure of the gap.

You can see Chris’s piece at The Drum here. This is a part of what he had to say about Rudd’s gap-closing efforts:

“I’m proud of the fact that we are closing the gap between Indigenous and non Indigenous Australians,” Rudd told a packed parliamentary courtyard. Right. Except that under Rudd the gap widened. Some readers may recall it was Rudd who promised, with a flourish of his hand, that on the first parliamentary sitting day of the year he would personally deliver a report card about the Government’s progress in ‘Closing the Gap’…And then on every single occasion, he missed his own self-imposed deadline. Indeed, the first year, Rudd missed it by almost a month, blaming the Victorian bushfire tragedy for the delay…When Rudd finally did deliver his reports, they always showed the gap between black and white Australians widening across most major social indicators.”

On Sunday evening I had the pleasure of attending the opening of a selling exhibition of Aboriginal art in support what to me is just about the most effective way of closing the gap – helping Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander medical students through their university studies.

A wall of Shorty Jangala Robertson paintings
A wall of Shorty Jangala Robertson paintings

The Shalom Gamarada Indigenous Scholarship Program at the University of New South Wales is supported by the annual Shalom Gamarada Ngiyani Yana art exhibition and sale of work by acclaimed Aboriginal artists from across the country.

Last night, Sunday 27th June I went along to this year’s exhibition at the Shalom College at UNSW.

There was a great crowd and the place was fit to burst – and next year they might need a bigger venue. On display there were hundreds of great paintings and artworks from across the country – all at realistic prices.

There were also some uplifting and inspiring speeches – not least from Jenna Owen, a recent graduate in Optometry from the UNSW and who says of the support she received from the Shalom Gamarada scholarship that:

“…it would have been impossible for me to study Optometry having to live so far away from home because of the financial stress of accommodation, living expenses and travel costs. The Shalom Gamarada Scholarship has made my dream a reality and enabled me to be the first member of my family to attend university.”

Governor Marie Bashir with Shalom Gamarada volunteers
Governor Marie Bashir (centre rear) with Shalom Gamarada volunteers

The exhibition was opened by the Shalom Gamarada Patron – and one of my favourite Australian’s of all time – the Governor of NSW, Her Excellency Professor Marie Bashir AC CVO (to give her her full and well-deserved title), who gave an inspiring and heart-felt speech that not only praised the hard work of those behind and in receipt of the scholarship but also revealed much about the reasons for her own involvement as it’s Patron since its inception in 2005.

In her opening speech to the first exhibition in 2005, Governor Bashir noted that:

“Most of you are aware that national health statistics continue to demonstrate vast and unacceptable differences between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians. Life expectancy for Indigenous males is 56 years compared with 77 years for other Australians, and for Indigenous females 63 years and 83 years respectively. Levels of cardiovascular and renal disorders, as well as high rates of diabetes and premature death from all these problems continue to cast a long shadow across all Aboriginal communities. Distressing variances also occur with infant deaths in the first year of life (four times greater for Indigenous infants), and I am ashamed to tell you that suicide rates are nearly three times that of non-Indigenous people. In particular, this is a tragic loss of young men whom their families, their communities, and this nation can ill afford to lose. It is only right to remind ourselves that a mere 217 years ago when the first fleet, led by Governor Arthur Phillip, arrived in this pristine land, the Australian Aboriginal people were considered to be the healthiest people in the world…It is no accident that this initiative was so speedily taken up by the Sydney Jewish community, the elders of whom are well aware of the impact of great loss and grief, and also of the healing quality of renewed spirit and culture. This program is a strong and eloquent contribution to our journey of reconciliation.”

Shalom Gamarada’s website has this background to the exhibition:

The scholarship is the result of collaboration between Shalom College, a residential college at the University of NSW, and the Muru Marri Indigenous Health Unit, School of Public Health and Community Medicine at University of NSW. From one scholarship holder in 2005, we have 14 scholarship holders in 2010. This is more than half the total number of Indigenous medical students at the University of NSW. Our first Indigenous graduate, Beth Emma Kervin, graduated as a doctor at the University of New South Wales on 1st December 2009. The program was set-up to limit the significant drop-out rate of Indigenous students from university as they find the task of working to support themselves while conducting their studies an exceedingly arduous undertaking. It is well on the way to achieving this goal.

You can see the show – and buy what works haven’t been sold so far – at the Caspary Conference Centre in the Shalom College at Barker Street, Kensington in Sydney, runs from the 27th of June through to the 4th of July 2010 and is open from 11am until 7pm.

I had a great night, saw some wonderful art and had the opportunity to mix with some of the real movers and shakers behind this exceptional program. If you are in Sydney over the next week or so take the opportunity to see some great artwork and help this worthy cause.

You’ll most likely walk out a little lighter in the pocket but you will be able to say that you’ve done more to close the gap than a whole lot of people in Canberra have done of late.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey