University Academic Calls For Bipartisan Approach To Indigenous Healthcare

10 July 2009

A continued lack of consistency towards Indigenous healthcare policy by Australia's major political parties is having dire long-term consequences for remote community residents, according to a top academic.

Professor Stephanie Short from the university's Faculty of Health Sciences says the collective political approach to the issue of Indigenous health is no better than 30-years ago - a conclusion drawn following a study of the policy ethics of Liberal and Labor governments from 1972 to 2001.

Crucially, she says that competing philosophies and ideologies have been the driving factors in policy design, causing the emphasis of Indigenous healthcare initiatives to oscillate radically depending on the beliefs of the incumbent government.

Professor Stephanie Short
Professor Stephanie Short

"There's evidence that Aboriginal health has become something that governments and oppositions use to score points against each other," says Short, who has herself been a member of the Labor Party for 27-years. "As a result, we don't have the results we would expect given the amount of money that's been spent and the attention that's been given to Aboriginal health. We haven't made the progress we've seen in comparative countries such as Canada and New Zealand and even in the US."

Short says that a lack of continuity in approach has had marked detrimental consequences, both for the health and wellbeing of Indigenous Australians and the morale of allied health professionals who work to provide much-needed services.

"A classic example is the Aboriginal Torres Straight Islander Commission, which was a Labor Party initiative," she says. "When the Howard Government came in they disestablished it, so the progress that might have been made was stopped. It's this type of stop-start approach that is completely unproductive. It takes so much time to build up trust within Indigenous communities and very often as soon as they've got something off the ground there's a change of government at the local, state or federal level, and things come to a halt again. It burns people out and saps them of the ability to think and act long-term."

Short says the differences in competing Ideologies between both major parties over the last three decades in relation to Aboriginal health are significant.

"The conservative parties tend to attribute problems to individuals and families, and believe that the solutions lie with individuals and families through improving attendance at school and reducing alcohol and drug consumption," she explains. "In contrast, the Labor Party has consistently taken a structural approach and emphasised big picture issues such as land rights and self-determination."

Short believes the key to addressing vital health concerns (such as closing the current 17-year gap in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-indigenous Australians) is a much-needed bipartisan approach, with the formulation of long-standing policies that remain in place irrespective of prevailing political climate.

"I think we're doing a disservice to our Aboriginal fellow citizens with this stop-start ideological approach to heath policy," she says. "We need a longer-term consultative, bipartisan, evidence-based approach in order to close that gap."