Assistant Minister for Indigenous Australians, speech - 1 May 2024

Read Assistant Minister McCarthy's speech at the WA Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Sector in Fremantle.

Senator the Hon Malarndirri McCarthy
Assistant Minister for Indigenous Health

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Firstly, I want to acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the lands we are on today, the Whadjuk Nyoongar people.

I offer my respect to Elders, past, present and emerging.

I acknowledge the Aboriginal Health Council of Western Australia and the CEO, Vicki O’Donnell, for hosting today’s event.

I am so pleased to be here with you all. 

We got in about midnight last night. We’ve spent some time in the Torres Strait, seeing how families and organisations are going over there and then Yarrabah and Cairns.

So it’s really lovely to be able to get here, on the beautiful red-eye flight!

Can I begin by saying from the outset, that the Albanese Labor Government is committed to keeping our promise, to improve the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

We are deeply committed to Closing the Gap.

Thank you Dawn for your keynote speech, and reminding us of the journey so far.

And we know this will only be possible through strong partnerships. 

And working much more closely in partnership with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sector.

That’s the only way we’re going to make change. 

We may not have won the referendum, but we did not lose our courage, our determination and our resilience to keep going as a people in this country, to keep finding better ways to improve the lives of our people and enabling the voices of our people.

It is you, through the community health sector, that really do lead the way across the country. Everywhere I travel, in every state and territory jurisdiction. And I certainly learned that, throughout the referendum, that the model of governance that each of you provide, individually in your communities, in the health sector, guided us as a government, as a parliament, knowing and believing it was very possible. 

You live it, and you show it every day, in the regions across Western Australia and indeed right across the country.

We know that more First Nations-led services are needed to drive improvements in health and wellbeing. 

And we understand that, for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, good health and wellbeing is more than just the absence of disease or illness. It’s about the social, emotional, spiritual and the cultural wellbeing of our people. Connection to land, to sea, culture, spirituality, family and community.

These are essential to our sense of wellbeing and our overall health.  

And that’s why organisations such as Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations are so absolutely important. 

You are essential partners in going forward – in achieving further change.

You already know the issues. 

You already know the challenges. 

You certainly know what solutions will work and what won’t.

And that’s also why conferences like this are so important. 

Sure they’re an opportunity to network, to catch up and see one another. But there’s a deeper reason for the collective gathering here. And that is to continually push our country to a find better way for our people in the health sector.

To share the lived experiences that you have.

To advance solutions.

And reflect on progress we’re making. 

I also know it's about the deep discernment on when we're not making progress. On the tragedies and the sadness, the despair and the oftentimes sense of hopelessness. That's equally as important as reflecting on the positive change.

I think we know as First Nations people, and where I've come from and that’s Borroloola in the Gulf of Carpentaria, we are known as Li anthawirriyarra which means our sense of who we are. And Li anthawirriyarra means our spiritual origins come from the sea country, our sense of being and purpose and a sense of knowing who we are, where we are in different moments. In our sadness, in our tragic moments, in our desires to find a better way but to continually try to do that together. 

One of the areas that the Albanese government is working on, and we did hear Dawn touch on it, is the workforce.

The National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Workforce Strategic Framework and Implementation Plan is about increasing the number of First Nations health professionals to population parity by 2031. 

It’s a roadmap for policy and investments in health workforce at national, state and regional levels, across professions and locations throughout the system.  

Within this framework, governments at every level are required to develop, implement and evaluate cultural safety initiatives in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

A range of tailored Australian Government-funded workforce programs include training and increasing the First Nations workforce, and helping to ensure culturally appropriate care in the broader health workforce.

So what do these efforts ultimately mean?

More First Nations health workers in every part of the health system.

Care that is culturally safe, in every part of the health system.

It is achievable.

Less racism, or in my view no racism.

More understanding.

Better health for people in all our communities.

One of the areas that I visited in the Torres Strait was on Thursday Island, with the gathering of Torres Strait doctors. The Australian Indigenous Doctors Association, with the Elders of the Torres Strait, welcomed back to TI, Torres Strait doctors.

20 years ago when they first did that, there was one Torres Strait doctor in Australia. Now there are over 127 Torres Strait doctors in the country. And that’s just the Torres Strait.

Imagine about our Aboriginal doctors as well, because Australian Indigenous Doctors Association represents exactly that - Aboriginal and Islander doctors.

So 20 of those Torres Strait Islanders returned to the country to immerse with the Elders. The Elders call them back and said we'd like you to come back. And some of these Torres Strait Doctors haven't been to the Torres Strait, some of them had grown up in different parts of Australia working their craft. Some of them were medical students. But it was a way for them to reconnect, to reaffirm the cultural space, belonging and sense of kinship with the Torres Strait. 

And it was a really beautiful, beautiful thing. In fact, it's continuing for the whole week, where they will travel out to the different islands and work with some of the children and I would love to speak further with NACCHO and others in the health sector to see how we can do that as well. 

Because as they then go back out across Australia, living on land that is not their country, but they can still perform to the best of their ability, and care for fellow Australians and weave in the sense of strength of a culture and identity through their practice.

It was really beautiful thing, strong thing. And I know it's something I'd like to have further conversations across the broader health sector about.

Here in Western Australia, the government's investment in First Nations Health through our election commitment is already delivering benefits. 

The First Nations Health Worker Traineeship Program, which is being delivered by NACCHO, will support up to 500 First Nations trainees to get their qualifications as Aboriginal Health Workers or Aboriginal Health Practitioners.

The numbers are promising.

Across the country more than 250 students are already enrolled in the program with 40 completing it so far. And we only began 18 months ago.

It’s something I’m very excited about, because we know that workforce is a critical issue and we’ve got to keep growing our own with our mob.

Here in WA, Marr Mooditj Training Aboriginal Corporation delivers training for the Certificate IV in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Primary Health Care Practice. 

Eight trainees have completed their qualifications, and another 31 students are now training.

The Kimberley Aboriginal Medical Services has 9 trainees who have completed their qualifications, and another 37 now training.

Another election commitment is providing rolling funding arrangements for ACCHOs delivering comprehensive primary health care under the Indigenous Australians’ Health Programme.

A total of 120 ACCHOs will have these arrangements, giving them funding certainty to plan and grow.

Our First Nations health infrastructure election commitment provides: 

  • $4.7 million to Derbarl Yerrigan Health Service for a health clinic in Midland
  • Nearly $946,000 to Ngaanyatjarra Health Service for a solar power system, 
  • $322,000 to Yura Yungi Medical Service, also for solar.

This is our commitment to Western Australia – to you as our health professionals.

WA is also sharing in the improved access to care being provided by our network of 58 Medicare Urgent Care Clinics around the nation.

This was also an election commitment and is part of our efforts to strengthen Medicare for future generations.

Medicare Urgent Care Clinics have been one of our most successful initiatives, since coming to government.

More than 275,100 patients have been through the doors since the first clinics opened in June last year.

38,500 of these visits have been in WA, where we have established 7 clinics.

And we’re looking at establishing more.

Urgent Care Clinics are for when people have an urgent, but not life threatening, need for care. They don’t have to go to the emergency department. They don’t have to go to hospital.

Most patients have been children, with more than 1 in 4 visits.

And one in 4 visits take place at weekends or after hours.

Medicare Urgent Care Clinics are GP-led, established in existing general practices, also in ACCHOs and community health centres.

They are a great illustration of how working together with local experts can get the right result.

For instance, the establishment of the Broome Medicare clinic required extensive consultation and collaboration between WA Primary Health Alliance, the Department of Health and Aged Care in Canberra, and the service provider, to enable a clinic to be established in this challenging region. 

I’d just like to turn to renal dialysis.

We are all acutely aware of the crucial need for more kidney dialysis units for First Nations communities.

Ideally we also need to be at the front end, to prevent our people ever having to go on dialysis machines.

But right now, we have to do both.

We have to be able to roll out the care for our people on country, so that those are caught in places that they don’t feel they belong, and they prefer to be back home on country, we have to see what we can do, to roll out those chairs in those places.

But you in the health sector are also working with our people to make sure they don’t have to go these machines in the long run.

Tackling diabetes, tackling good nutrition, healthy living. All the things we know that can give our people a longer chance at life, without having these dreadful machines, but necessary machines.

Cases of treated kidney failure are 6.9 times higher for First Nations people compared to non-Indigenous Australians. 

I’m pleased that we’re providing First Nations communities in WA with three new 4-chair dialysis units for 2 sites:

  • Pilbara Aboriginal Health Alliance for Tom Price
  • Ngangganawili Aboriginal Health Service in Wiluna. 

Funding is also going to Purple House for a dialysis clinic in Balgo. And we’re looking at further sites later in the year.

These Medicare-subsidised services are provided under our Better Renal Services for First Nations Peoples initiative.

They’ll enable First Nations people with end stage kidney disease to remain on Country and connected with their communities, while they get their treatment.

Thank you so much for being here, for listening to what we're trying to do at the federal level. And trying to work with NACCHO and with each of you, our community health organisations right across the state, and indeed right across the country. 

I'm confident that working in close partnerships with First Nations groups like the ACCHO sector, we can together grasp that opportunity and realise that hope for our people. 

Thank you for inviting me to today's conference. 

I certainly wish the conference well in all your discussions and deliberations and presentations and your ability to re-energise in the sector and take that opportunity to network and find the strength to keep going and persevere as we all do, but know that we are we are creating change. 

Thank you

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