EMMA MCBRIDE, ASSISTANT MINISTER: Good morning. I'm Emma McBride, the Assistant Minister for Rural and Regional Health, and I'm so pleased to be here in Wagga this morning at RivMed. RivMed is an Aboriginal Medical Service that was established back in 1988. Today it employs over 80 staff, of which 60 per cent of First Nations. What RivMed is, is an example of when we've listened to First Nations people, when they have a say in the policies and programs that impact them, the real difference we can see in closing the gap. As Assistant Minister for Rural and Regional Health, this is what I've seen right around the country, including in Yarrabah in Far North Queensland, the results that they saw in COVID vaccinations during the global pandemic. Today I met with some of the First Nations workers that are part of the Medical Research Future Funded project that's focused on First Nations lead, culturally safe, lactation. We all know the benefits of breastfeeding, in terms of child development in terms of immunity, and in terms of their development through life. What we know is that this has been a cultural practice that women in First Nations communities have had for over 65,000 years. But, the impact of colonisation has impacted that practice and this project, and I'll hand over shortly to Simone Sherif who is the lead researcher, this project will demonstrate that listening to First Nations women, and also the elders that support them, and the difference that can be made to women, to families, in providing wraparound holistic support. And as we head to the polls on referendum day on the 14th of October, and I've been down at pre-poll in Wagga Wagga today hearing from the volunteers, I know that Australia is big hearted, and I know that the difference as a health worker myself, as the Assistant Minister for Rural and Regional Health, the real difference we can make in closing the gap by listening to First Nations people, by them having a say in the policies and programs that impact them, and there is no better policy area to demonstrate that, than health, and the fantastic practitioners that I'm here with today at RivMed. I might hand over to Simone Sherriff, and then we'll take questions.
SIMONE SHERRIFF, RIVMED BOARD: So the community here, we wanted to be able to do a project, to be able to support local women, Aboriginal women through their breastfeeding journey better. We know the current breastfeeding supports that are around are not supporting our women. And so through this project, we wanted to be able to speak with local Aboriginal women and elders to hear their views on the challenges and barriers they're facing with their breastfeeding journeys and what kind of support they feel would be able to better support them to be able to initiate and maintain breastfeeding. So through this project, that's the first step is just to speak with local women and have them inform the project, a project by Aboriginal women for Aboriginal women. Then the next stage of the project, we're going to develop Australia's first Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander lactation training program, which will have lactation consultant training for Aboriginal women to be able to upskilled to support women formally in lactation care.
JOURNALIST: You mentioned that it's a project for women by women? Can you tell me why it's so important that First Nations women are the ones leading the narrative for this kind of project?
SHERRIFF: Yeah, I think it's important because we continue to see programs that are developed away from community and then when they come to community, they're not relevant, and they're not responsive to the needs of community. So by having a program that is developed by local women, for local women, they're part of the community, they know what the community needs and wants. A community led program is responsive to local needs and is going to be more relevant and more likely to be successful in supporting Aboriginal women and breastfeeding.
JOURNALIST: How long has the project been going for?
SHERRIFF: So it's only just started, and we're going to be speaking with the local women shortly. It'll be a two year program, and by the end of that, we'll have the framework for the lactation consultant training program and then after the two years we will implement the program.
JOURNALIST: You mentioned before that a lot of these programs are developed away from community. The Assistant Minister was also talking about the closing the gap targets and particularly for the early development, that those are actually going backwards with the most recent data. Do you think that's because of these programs not being developed with your say?
SHERRIFF: Yeah, I think so, and I think we see governments at multiple different levels, saying that they co design programs. And I think that often it's not a genuine co-design with community, you know, they come with an idea, and they will have a consultation with community. But the name is co-design. So, yeah, I think that's an issue that we keep seeing is. Governments are talking about codesign but it's not genuine codesign, coming in speaking with community, you know, this is the health issue that we're wanting to target, what are your ideas for being able to, you know, what kind of policies or what kind of programs would you like to see, or actions to be able to address that? It's on the latest scale, but you know, this is the program. Do you like that? Yes or no, that's the consultation. It's very tokenistic, I suppose.
JOURNALIST: Is it fair to say that I guess Wagga is really leading, or the Riverina more broadly, is leading the way in that sense, in terms of addressing some of those challenges?
SHERRIFF: Yeah, I think so. And I think the Aboriginal community controlled health sector in Australia more broadly is leading the way in health care and holistic care for community. I think the Wiradjuri country that we're all in the Riverina, are leading the way, and we'll be part of designing Australia's first Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander lactation training programs. I think through this project, we'll be able to gather the evidence and knowledge to better inform breastfeeding programs for our women, that are responsive to the needs of our women.
JOURNALIST: I'm just wondering, I know you did touch on these. But can you elaborate a little bit on the challenges that our First Nations mothers are currently facing?
SHERRIFF: As Emma mentioned before, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women have been breastfeeding and nurturing our children through breastfeeding for over 65,000 years. And then, through colonisation, and the continuing impacts of colonisation that we see today, we see high rates of our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children still being forcibly removed and put in out-of-home care. And if your babies removed, you can't breastfeed your baby, obviously. And then the injustice is that we continue to see in high rates of Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander people being incarcerated and the socioeconomic impacts. Food insecurity is a big issue impacting our communities. And so obviously mothers who are, quite stressed about not being able to afford and access enough food for their families, that puts stress on mothers and then stress impacts your ability to be able to breastfeed and produce milk.
JOURNALIST: So obviously, you're hoping to see change come about, I guess, with the referendum, I suppose. So I know, you don't want to talk about it specifically, but will this help?
SHERRIFF: Yes, I think through this project, being able to give a voice to local Aboriginal women to inform a program that is responsive to their needs, I think that's going to lead to good outcomes and improving breastfeeding for not only the local Aboriginal community here, but hopefully to inform policies and programs on a national level.
JOURNALIST: Is this the kind of thing that you would, you know coming to regional communities and addressing First Nations communities, something that you would ramp up if the Voice were to get up?
MCBRIDE: think what RivMed demonstrates, and this is an Aboriginal Health Service that's been running since the late 80s, it demonstrates that when First Nations people have a real say in the policies and programs that impact them that's when you can see real changes in health outcomes. And as a government we are determined to close the gap. A First Nations young man is more likely to go to jail than university. The rates of suicide amongst First Nations people are twice that of non-Indigenous Australians, the rates of infant mortality and low birth weights, in many of the closing the gap targets, we're going backwards, despite the best efforts of governments over decades, and despite strong investment. I think that what RivMed demonstrates, we will then be able to see, on a larger scale, we'll be able to see nationally, we'll be able to see local solutions that are responsive, and culturally safe, led by First Nations people. And the example today about this really innovative project for First Nations women and lactation is one example where we make a practical difference to women, and families and communities. And it's what I've had the chance and the privilege to see, when I've been in other First Nations communities, whether it was in the Northern Territory in Alice Springs hearing from First Nations women about birthing on country, or whether it was Cairns in Far North Queensland, seeing the evidence of their vaccination program, listening to people leads to real results. And that's what the referendum is, when it's successful will be, it'll be an advisory body where First Nations people right around the country will have a say in the policies and programs that impact them. And that's how I believe we'll be able to close the gap and have a more unified country that is better for everybody.
JOURNALIST: Do you think that it's crucial for us to have more support for places like RivMed so that we have more medical field catered towards First Nations needs, like they're different to other Australians, I suppose. Do you think it is important that we have the appropriate medical care for both?
MCBRIDE: And this is something that I've had the chance to discuss with the staff members of RivMed today. And as I mentioned earlier, there's more than 80 staff, of which 60 per cent are First Nations. What they were telling me about this morning was those opportunities for First Nations people to be able to have their particular cultural skills and knowledge recognised, and that to then inform our clinical practice. It's something that is absolutely crucial. It's something that we've strongly invested in. In our health team in the Federal Government, we have Senator Malarndirri McCarthy, who is the Assistant Minister for First Nations Health, we made a big investment in the May budget in First Nations Health, with a strong focus on it being community-led, local solutions, that are the right solutions to the challenges, the unique challenges that communities face. And I think that's where we're going to see real results and where the Voice will really be able to amplify that. We've seen now pockets of success, what we want to see is that then scaled up and impacting right around the country. So wherever you live in Australia, you'll be able to get the right care provided in a culturally safe way that's responsive to your needs within your local community.
JOURNALIST: Just on mental health, with farmers around the region, they're really doing a tough at the moment, especially with, you know, climate change and meat prices, what can the federal government offer to help with that in terms of them?
MCBRIDE: So we've listened to farmers and farming communities, and one of the projects that we've supported is Taking Stock. And Taking Stock is a program that was designed by farmers, for farmers. It's available online, you can listen to a podcast while you're in your tractor, and you're out in the field. And what we know is that when we listen to farmers, that it helps to break down the stigma, that it can really overcome those barriers that would stop someone to seeking help. It also means that we're then offering the right kind of help that is tailored to their needs. So Taking Stock is an example of a particular program that was developed, co-designed with farmers and farming communities, and that we're seeing really good results from. I know that you're also having a focus on tradies, and we know that a lot of tradies are under a lot of pressure. And there's a national program called Mates in Construction. And if you're a passing a building site, and you see a Mates sticker on a helmet or a flag on a building site, you know that building site, that the workers there upskilled that they've got their mental health toolbox, and that someone can come up to them and say, ‘hey, okay? or, ‘I'm needing some support.’ And I think that's, again, evidence of practical solutions that are led by people in that industry that know how to talk to other people in that industry to be able to get the right outcomes.
JOURNALIST: I heard you talking elsewhere as well about the Birth Trauma Inquiry this morning. There have been a lot of local calls from you know, physicians, the local member, and amongst themselves and just, you know, birthing parents for a national probe. From your perspective, would that be fair to say that that is really needed to address the systemic issues?
MCBRIDE: I'm really keen to see the outcomes of the birth trauma inquiry, and I want to recognise and commend all of the women and families who've really bravely shared their stories. I think it will be through this process that we'll be able to see genuine change, and I was with Minister Ryan Park, the New South Wales Health Minister yesterday and I know that he's made public comments about the inquiry and the government's determination to be able to turn this around. I think it is something that there are national implications for, and where the federal government will be able to show leadership. At this point in time, I'm really keen to see the outcomes of the New South Wales inquiry, to see the recommendations, how they're implemented, but I'm sure there'll be lessons learned from the New South Wales inquiry, which will be able to have broader implications.