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Closing the gap in mental health and justice

Speeches in Parliament
Penny Wright 12 Feb 2015

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (17:31):  I rise to add my remarks on the Close the gap: progress and priorities report 2014 too, and I want to start by saying that I feel proud and privileged to live in a continent where the first peoples have one of the longest continuous human cultures on this earth.

All senators in this place, as leaders in this country, have a shared responsibility to address Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander disadvantage in a real and meaningful way. If we fail, we must share that shame. While some progress has been made, it is clear that there are still significant and distressing differences in health, education, employment and social outcomes between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and other Australians. Given that reality, this government's funding cuts to a broad range of Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander services and organisations are baffling and, more than that, seriously damaging. If we are all committed to closing the gap, we should be able to agree that taking huge amounts of funding-over $500 million-out of the sector is not only illogical but unconscionable. Add to this the fact that this is being done in a way that has left many in a state of continuing uncertainty and anxiety about the programs they are to administer, the jobs that are available and when the certainty will be clarified, and I have to say: don't judge us by what we say; judge us by what we do.

I also say that, despite protestations of some who would say it is not polite to name these realities or get too angry about this, when we are talking about these matters which are indeed a matter of life and death, the time for politeness is over, and I think it is really important that we actually say: look at what is happening and let us actually act and not just speak.

As the Greens spokesperson for mental health, I am glad to have the opportunity to speak about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mental health specifically and I am heartened to see that addressing mental health and suicide prevention has been included in the Close the gap report as a new priority focus. Poor mental health has huge costs-human, social and economic-for the whole nation. The levels of mental ill health and suicide among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are absolutely distressing. The statistics tell us that and the stories tell us that. The grieving grandparents, aunts and uncles, mothers and fathers tell us that their young people are losing hope and ending their own lives before their lives have really begun. Some even speak of a contagion effect or suicide clusters in particular communities, which broadens the ripple of grief and has a devastating and enduring impact on the lives of so many people. As the Close the gap report states, mental health problems, including self-harm and suicide, have been reported at double the rate of non-Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people for at least a decade. Over the two years from July 2008 to July 2010, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander males were hospitalised for mental health related conditions at more than twice the rate of non-Indigenous males. Over the decade from 2001 to 2010, the overall Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicide rate was twice that of non-Indigenous Australians.

While travelling in rural Australia to consult about mental health, I spoke to people about particular challenges for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mental health, and those I met with talked about the importance of culturally appropriate care and the desirability of growing their own mental health workers-that is, training and skilling people from their own communities to work in mental health, because they are more likely to understand the needs and experiences of their clients and to stay and provide continuity for clients and service providers. I also heard that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health workers are instrumental in breaking down barriers and developing community acceptance of non-Indigenous mental health professionals. We need so many more of them, and that will require skilling, training and supporting those people in communities. There is so much that can be done, particularly in rural areas, to start addressing the mental health crisis among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

The funding uncertainty plaguing the mental health sector at the moment is also deeply troubling and something that is directly within the government's control. Releasing the National Mental Health Commission's Review of mental health programmes and services report must be a priority, as must subsequently consulting respectfully and fully with the mental health sector and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mental health sector in particular about the recommendations of this report. Instead of using the review to justify cuts to critical mental health services as this government has done across other policy areas, they must be willing to canvass more funding within a system that enhances mental health and wellbeing rather than only reacting-and inadequately-to manifestations of mental ill health.

One important aspect of this is to acknowledge the trauma and intergenerational trauma that underpins patterns of mental ill health that we are seeing today.

Dispossession and stolen children-so many wrongs lie beneath the surface and they must be acknowledged and addressed if we are to have real change.

In a different policy area I note that incarceration rates-and this has been discussed by many other contributors today-are soaring. Yet the government has cut legal aid to Aboriginal legal services and family violence prevention legal services. My questions at estimates have revealed $42 million will be cut from Indigenous legal aid, yet there has been no modelling by the government as to the likely and logical consequences of this in terms of incarceration rates. I welcome recommendation 8 of the report, which recommends that Closing the Gap targets to reduce imprisonment and violence rates be developed and activity toward reaching the targets be funded through justice reinvestment measures. The need for justice targets-to name the size of the problem, to track it and to reduce the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in prison in Australia-is long overdue. Along with many others, the Australian Greens have advocated for both justice targets and justice reinvestment-investing in communities to reduce crime rather than investing in prisons-for many years. Earlier this year Indigenous Affairs Minister Scullion backflipped on justice targets, even as the Overcoming Indigenous disadvantage report revealed a horrifying 57 per cent jump in imprisonment rates for Indigenous Australians.

We cannot truly close the gap anywhere without confronting this issue head on. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians make up only 2.3 per cent of the adult population in Australia but make up more than a quarter of the adult prison population. The statistics for Aboriginal young people are even more shocking, and now the imprisonment of Aboriginal women is rising. The establishment of national justice targets will provide a clear framework for all governments to work with Indigenous communities. It will ensure Indigenous incarceration is not swept under the rug and it will force our governments, and us, to be accountable. I urge the federal government to adopt this recommendation without delay.

I would like to finish by acknowledging the strength and agency of this nation's first peoples. I do not profess to stand here and pretend to have all of the solutions. In so many ways Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander individuals and communities are leading and showing the way, taking charge of their lives and communities. They know what they want and they know what they need. I think of the Aboriginal women of Fitzroy Crossing who have done so much to protect their children and culture by addressing the pervasive alcohol abuse in their community. Indigenous leader June Oscar has spoken of the tsunami of funerals which prompted their response-50 alcohol related deaths in a year and 13 suicides in as many months. By restricting alcohol and raising awareness about the risks of alcohol consumption, the women achieved a 45 per cent reduction in hospital admissions, a 27 per cent reduction in alcohol related violence, a 14 per cent increase in school attendance and 88 per cent reduction in takeaway alcohol sales. In South Australia, the Aboriginal women elders known affectionately but respectfully as 'the Grannies Group' visit young men and women in prison, offering them support, connection and humanity. And in their strong, proud and persistent way they are changing the culture of the prisons they visit, both for the prisoners and the custodians.

Community responses are powerful and effective. They must inform and be an integral part of closing these shameful gaps in Australia's social fabric.

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