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Good morning and thank you Professor Milroy for the welcome.
Thank you also to the Board and staff of Gayaa Dhuwi for your continued leadership in First Nations social and emotional wellbeing, mental health and suicide prevention, and for the opportunity to speak with you today.
I’d like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet - and pay my respect to their Elders, past and present.
I extend that respect to all First Nations People who are here with us today.
In doing so, I recognise the disparity in health outcomes faced by First Nations people, especially in remote communities.
I also want to acknowledge the individual and collective contributions of people with a lived and living experience of mental ill health and suicide.
And of carers and supporters of people living with mental ill-health, and in particular family members, who are also making valuable contributions to improving mental health care in Australia.
Improving the mental health and social and emotional wellbeing of our First Nations people is a priority for the Australian Government.
We recognise it’s not a simple task.
The “Ways Forward” report, summed it up.
“Any delineation of mental health problems and disorders must encompass a recognition of the historical and socio-political context of Aboriginal Mental Health including the impact of colonisation; trauma, loss, and grief; separation of families and children; the taking away of land; and the loss of culture and identity;
“plus the impact of social inequity, stigma, racism and ongoing losses.”
That report was penned in 1995 by Pat Swan and Beverley Raphael.
When it comes to mental health, while I believe that collectively we have made progress, I think we all acknowledge that not enough has been done, and of the progress that has been made, it has not happened quickly enough.
Our Government is committed to turning that around.
Central to our approach is partnerships.
One year and one week ago the Joint Council on Closing the Gap approved arrangements to establish a Social and Emotional Wellbeing (Mental Health) Policy Partnership, under Priority Reform One of the National Agreement on Closing the Gap.
The Partnership brings together First Nations representatives, the Australian Government, and State and Territory Governments.
Gayaa Dhuwi and the Department of Health and Aged Care share administration, and the chair.
The Partnership’s second meeting was a few weeks ago in Darwin on Larrakia Country.
It started work on refreshing national action, with First Nations people being fully involved for the first time.
That’s a long overdue but positive step.
At the same time, our Government is already working with Gayaa Dhuwi to lead and advocate for system-wide changes to improve outcomes in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mental health, wellbeing and suicide prevention - with priority given to community-led services and responses.
We are also working closely with First Nations partners to make sure mainstream services consistently and reliably provide culturally safe responses that are trauma-aware, and provide pathways to healing.
Recently I had the pleasure to attend the opening of the new Head to Health Centre in Western Sydney. It is one of 61 we are rolling out across the country.
I was pleased to note that deep involvement of local first Nations People in the development of the new service. As a central part of their service they employ Aboriginal Liasson Officers alongside their clinics and peer worker staff.
It is that kind of staff profile, in the right kind of service, that will lead to the real change that we are all seeking to realise.
And while we look to support those with mental ill health, at the same time, we are also seeking to strengthen communities and reduce rates of suicide.
Today, the rate of suicide among Indigenous Australians remains twice as high as for non-Indigenous Australians.
We also need to be addressing the immediate drivers of distress and suicide.
Contributing factors like family breakdown, financial insecurity, homelessness, family violence and social isolation.
These are all areas that across our Government we are focussing on. They are front and centre.
Central to that approach is supporting local solutions, that are safe, effective and importantly designed in close partnership with communities.
But, while we continue to support local programs, we will also require national reform to address national challenges.
This year we have the opportunity to do something that is long overdue.
That is, recognition in our Constitution of the 65,000 years of shared history and continuous connection to this land for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.
It’s about recognition through a voice – enshrined in the constitution
A voice that can speak to those 65,000 years of history and the collective aspirations for our future, a voice that will inform policies and programs that impact First Nations Australians.
I know in my role as Assistant Minister for Rural and Regional Health and Assistant Minister for Mental Health and Suicide Prevention that contribution will be invaluable.
We must close the gap on every measure—life expectancy, child mortality and disease, over representation in custody, suicide.
The Voice will make a genuine difference.
Earlier this year I had the opportunity to visit Yarrabah in Far North Queensland.
While I was there, I met with Mayor Ross Andrews.
What Mayor Andrews told me then was the same as what he told the parliamentary inquiry into the Voice referendum—that is, that enshrining the Voice would provide security to First Nations recognition and listening.
It will mean future governments will not simply be able to push aside the voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.
In Yarrabah, they have persistent issues that must be addressed—housing, water security, digital connectivity and opportunities for education.
The Voice will mean communities like Yarrabah are properly heard.
For a long time, governments with good intentions have spent billions trying to deal with these issues.
But they haven’t achieved lasting improvement because they haven’t listened to people on the ground.
The current approach is broken and the Voice is our best chance to fix it.
No-one thinks the Voice will instantly solve everything - but we will finally have the right approach in place.
Because we know that when we listen, we get real results.
Take the community-controlled Aboriginal Medical Services that employ local Indigenous people.
They run clinics and visit remote areas, providing essential services like child immunisation.
In South East Queensland, the local Aboriginal Medical Service and the community worked together to hugely increase the number of annual health checks, from 550 to over 20,000 over 10 years.
The Voice will be focused on improving results just like that.
This referendum will be a unifying moment, a historic moment.
This is about making sure voices in remote and regional communities are heard.
It's about making sure local communities have a representative body that will be consulted on policies that affect them.
It's about making a practical difference in areas like health, education, employment and housing. That's what the Voice will help deliver.
Before I go, I want to thank you all for the work you do.
It has been a difficult time for our health professionals. We know that.
But what I want you to know is that you are valued.
Without you, none of the work we are undertaking is possible.