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Monday, 23 November 2009
Page: 12536

Ms REA (4:55 PM) —I too rise to speak on this very important report of the Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs entitled Everybody’s business. As previous speakers have already said, and indeed as has been said by people from the Prime Minister down, it has been made very clear from day one that this government is committed to closing the gap on Indigenous health. We are also committed to attempting to redress some of the wrongs of the past in the treatment and policies that have very clearly affected Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in this country. It began with the apology but it did not stop there; it continues. This particular report, Everybody’s business, is a key document in terms of the government’s attitudes to and development of policies towards closing the gap on Indigenous health.

We all know that, regardless of where you come from or who you are, the health and prosperity of any community is shaped by the health and wellbeing of the individuals within that community. Indeed, if we are going to address some of the very serious health problems that affect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people today we have to start with addressing the health of those communities and the health and wellbeing of individuals within those communities, particularly those people who are living in remote communities that do not have the equity of access and the nearby support and resources that so many people living in larger populations benefit from. I must make particular reference to the children in those communities. If we are going to create well-functioning and prosperous communities we have to ensure that the children in those communities are well cared for and, indeed, achieve all the nutritional needs that they require to grow up to be healthy, positive and active human beings.

Whilst remote community stores may seem a very small and specific topic to look at, the issue actually has massive implications for the way that we and future governments develop policies for Indigenous peoples living in those communities. The fact that this report has produced 33 recommendations is a reflection of not just the commitment of the committee and this parliament to supporting improvements in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities but also how significant the community store is, particularly in those remote communities in the north and west of Australia.

The report focuses on two key areas. One is nutrition, with a deliberate emphasis on the importance of nutrition and of providing good-quality fresh food to people in order that they may not suffer from the allied health problems associated with not eating the right food. It requires education and an understanding of diet and the importance that fresh food plays in contributing to your health. But it also involves the logistics of actually providing fresh fruit and vegetables in particular, and fresh food and nutritious food more broadly, to some very remote parts of Australia. The logistics of that, as you can understand, Mr Deputy Speaker, is a major challenge alone, not to mention that of making people aware of this and encouraging them to transfer from not-so-good food to healthier food to improve their lifestyles and those of their families.

Nutrition was a very important part of the focus of this report. As the previous speaker, the member for Leichhardt, said, it is not just about the logistics of getting fresh food to people and getting them to purchase it and eat it. It is actually about how you can create an environment where people are encouraged to buy that fresh food. It is about making sure that you can invest some significant capital funds into the improvement of the store so that it does have good working fridges, a freezer and cold storage areas, so that food does not wilt and go off too quickly. The store must be an attractive place to walk into and the displays and all of the things that are designed to encourage people to purchase certain goods within a store must have been paid attention to. It is about capital investment as well as logistics.

It is also therefore important that we acknowledge the importance of governance, which is the other key focus of this report. The way a store is governed has a significant impact on the community’s attitude towards that store; their sense of ownership of the store and their sense that it is a fundamental part of the community that is providing an important service encourages people to use that store and purchase goods in it. What also emerged very significantly was that a well-run, well-managed store is one thing, but unless there is a level of community involvement and engagement with the running and operation of that store then it does not quite service the community in the way that it should. Particularly in remote communities, where the store is the social economic hub of the community, the people living within that community must be a part of the management and operation of that store. Where possible, local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be employed in the store and training should occur that enables local Indigenous people to end up being the managers of that store. Community ownership of the store has a significant impact on the community’s involvement, engagement and support for that store.

So governance was also the other key factor when it came to conducting this inquiry. The nature of the store is not just about the building. The member for Leichhardt and the chair have already talked about the hub-and-spoke model where it is not necessarily just a big shop that you all rock up to to buy your groceries. If there is a central hub by which delivery can occur to very remote communities, providing fresh, quality food which also has those communities supporting that particular model of delivery, then that will work. That is why the recommendations around licensing are critical to the success of the adoption of this report. There are varying models and ways of managing a store. Communities are different; they have different dynamics and different governance arrangements. The way the community store operates should reflect the differences in the communities, many of which we had a great opportunity to visit.

At this point I would like to focus on the experience that I had and I am sure other committee members had in conducting this inquiry and indeed visiting some very remote, very different parts of this country. It was an incredible, overwhelmingly positive experience that I had, whether it was engaging with elders and members of remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities or sitting in a capital city, like Darwin, Melbourne or Brisbane, listening to people who had come a very long way to present evidence on what they saw was a very important, indeed vital, topic for the success and the future of their communities.

There are some amazing people out there doing some amazing things in circumstances and conditions which I know many people would probably baulk at. There are leaders within the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community who are bringing their communities with them and are taking the negative experiences of the past and trying to turn those experiences around into positive ones for their communities and the children—the future—of their communities. There are some amazing women out there in many adverse circumstances who have struggled to provide their children and their families with the basic essentials that keep them going. They provide them with the essential nutrients—in food, including vegetables—that they require and they have also built up around them a very positive community that is not just healthy in body but healthy in spirit.

If I can recommend anything, it is that, whilst this report raises many concerns that we need to address if we are going to support people living in those remote communities, it also highlights the incredible strength of character and strength of leadership coming from many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people out in their communities. I want to pay tribute to them and to the incredible commitment they have to improving the lives of themselves, their family and, indeed, their people. So it is important that we get that balance right and understand that this report is not advocating a top-down approach; it is advocating working with those leaders within each of those communities who we know can, with the right support and infrastructure, manage to bring about great improvements in those remote communities.

In closing I acknowledge both chairs of the committee, Mr Richard Marles and the Hon. Bob Debus, both of whom, in very different ways, have brought great strengths to the conduct of this inquiry. I particularly acknowledge the committee secretariat: Anna Dacre, the secretary; and Susan Cardell and Rebecca Gordon, who travelled with us everywhere, organised everything on time and tolerated us when we were late but made sure that we did manage to get those planes. We appreciate them for that. I also acknowledge Loes Slattery and Claire Young, who provided such incredibly important information and backup that really made the conduct of this inquiry so much more pleasurable and informative. They gave us background that enabled us to ask the important questions, not just the ones that we thought were important. I thank them for that.

I also acknowledge my fellow committee members. This was an enjoyable inquiry. When you are travelling with anybody in remote parts of Australia it can often be a challenge, but I am happy to say that from both sides of the fence, in terms of the political divide, we all got on very well. I think that as a result of all of our individual contributions we have come up with a report that is well worth reading and that I know will have a very positive impact for the future health and wellbeing of the Indigenous people of this country.

Debate (on motion by Dr Jensen) adjourned.