Mick Gooda: Closing the health gap is a non-negotiable issue

For Mick Gooda, achieving health equality for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians within a generation is not a mere possibility - it is a non-negotiable issue.

“[Australia is] a first world country. We’ve got some of the best health systems and research in the world [and] we are a rich country, so achieving those targets gets down to the will of people,” says Gooda, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner. “That’s both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people, [both] government and non-government people, to make it work. It’s in the hands of people to make it work.”

Gooda is discussing the targets for Close the Gap, the ongoing campaign for Indigenous health equality. A descendent of the Gangulu people of central Queensland, Gooda has been involved in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander advocacy for over 25 years. He became Social Justice Commissioner with the Australian Human Rights Commission in February 2010. It was his predecessor Tom Calma’s 2005 Social Justice Report that was the catalyst for the Close the Gap campaign, which was launched in April 2007.

The campaign’s goal is to close the health and life expectancy gap between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous Australians within a generation, with targets set for 2030. Close the Gap is the largest campaign to address Indigenous health equality and it draws together Australia’s peak Indigenous and non-Indigenous health bodies, NGOs and human rights organisations to achieve its targets.

Managing such a long-term campaign comes with specific challenges, and reports on progress and implementation are released each year by the campaign and the government. These reports show the health disparity gaps are declining, but there is still plenty of work ahead to achieve the targets.

Gooda says that the initial framing of the campaign as one addressing human rights issues rather than just health issues has been crucial to its ability to receive widespread organisational and public support.

“By framing the campaign in those terms we were able to advocate and pull together a group of people in a unique way, in that we gathered around a concept,” explains Gooda. “The Close the Gap campaign wasn’t arguing for money. What we were arguing for was a way forward, with a multi-level approach that looked at community development, looked at a strength-based approach, looked at approaches based on evidence on what works and what doesn’t work.”

This strength-based approach is at the centre of a significant policy shift for many organisations that are working in their own ways to address Indigenous disadvantage, including World Vision Australia.

“It’s almost intuitive that we should be using a strength-based approach when addressing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander disadvantage,” says Gooda, “[as] that means working with the strengths people have rather than focusing on what’s going wrong.

“A community development approach overrides everything [and] within that approach we’re giving people the capacity to develop their own solutions. In an Aboriginal context, we are building the capacity of people based upon what they know about their country. The culture we have around family coming first, for instance. People look at a large extended family as somehow being a deficit, but extended family negates the needs for child care and old people’s homes because family are there to look after them. Rather than people saying an extended family presupposes all these obligations, why don’t we look at the benefits you get from an extended family?”

Gooda believes the inability to invest in the inherent strengths of Indigenous people and communities, and to listen to and trust in their decisions, has been a major failure of previous approaches to addressing disparities in Indigenous health.

“People and organisations constantly want to do the right thing, but the problem has been in doing the right thing according to them and not according to the people for whom the programs are meant to deliver outcomes. It might seem counter-intuitive to say this, but I think one of the faults we’ve had is never letting people make mistakes. Every time people look like they might be heading down a particular path we’ve always felt the need to intervene and stop it, when in fact that solution might have worked.”

He adds: “Government has all the resources, but they don’t have all the knowledge. Noel Pearson said years ago that the problem is that the people [and] the communities, who have 80% of the knowledge, only have 20% of the power, [whereas] government, who has 80% of the power only has 20% of the knowledge. Somehow we have to recalibrate those figures so there’s real power sharing.”

For Gooda, the continued and growing support for the Close the Gap campaign indicates things are moving in the right direction. This year more than 12,000 events took place on National Close the Gap Day in March, 300 more than the previous year, while over 200,000 people have signed the Close the Gap pledge to call on the government to achieve health equality for Indigenous Australians for good.