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Guest Editorial: Dr Tom Calma

Dr Tom Calma is a Kungarakan Elder from the Northern Territory and has a long record of achievement in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs with a career spanning more than 38 years as an academic, public servant, political adviser and diplomat. He is founder and co-Chair of the Close the Gap Campaign Steering Committee and was the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner and Race Discrimination Commissioner from 2004 to 2010. Most recently Mr Calma was appointed as the inaugural National Coordinator for Tackling Indigenous Smoking, where he leads and mentors the $100.6 million COAG Tackling Indigenous Smoking initiative to reduce smoking in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

The goal of the Close the Gap Campaign for Indigenous Health Equality (CTG) is to close the 10 to 17-year life expectancy gap between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and non-Indigenous Australians within a generation (by 2030).

CTG has its origins in 2005 when, as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, I released my Social Justice Report calling for the governments of Australia to commit to achieving health and life expectancy equality for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples within 25 years, supported by a genuine partnership between all levels of government in Australia with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and their representatives.

The campaign was formally launched in Sydney in April 2007 with about 20 peak health and related bodies forming a CTG Steering Committee to guide the campaign. Led by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peak health bodies and key stakeholders, the campaign has achieved unprecedented levels of public support. National Close the Gap Day is held each year with 2011 being the biggest yet: nearly 900 community-based events attended by 120,000 Australians took place. The National Rugby League has also dedicated an annual round of matches to the campaign, ensuring our message reaches millions.

Our major achievement has been securing the agreement of almost all Australia’s governments and opposition parties (including the Greens) to commitments contained in the 2008 Close the Gap Statement of Intent.

The main commitments are to create a comprehensive national plan for the achievement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ health equality by 2030, supported by a genuine partnership. This partnership is on a different basis from the way business has been done in the past, when politicians and bureaucrats tried to dictate to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people what was best. In fact, empowerment and partnership are a vital part of the CTG approach – not only do we believe that we are best placed to make decisions about our health and the health of our communities, but numerous studies demonstrate that empowerment is in itself a contributor to better health outcomes. It’s vital for our social and emotional wellbeing that we are in control of our lives and the life of our communities.

The CTG and the Statement of Intent were also formative influences on the funding of $5 billion for ‘closing the gap’ programs that Australian governments have announced since 2008, including $1.6 billion in new funding for health through the National Partnership Agreement on Closing the Gap in Indigenous Health Outcomes.

Late in 2010, the CTG Campaign leadership group joined with the Lowitja Institute and the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples to provide a specialised lobbying voice, complementing the work of CTG, as the Australian Government took the first steps towards developing a national plan for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health equality, as it committed to do in the Close the Gap Statement of Intent.

This brings me to my role as National Coordinator for Tackling Indigenous Smoking. Smoking contributes to between 17 and 20 per cent of smoking-related diseases experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people so it is clearly a vital area to focus on if we are to achieve the COAG target of closing the life expectancy gap by 2030.

The Tackling Indigenous Smoking workforce effectively started on 1 July 2010 and began recruiting an anti-tobacco workforce in October 2010. The program will run for a little over three years, during which time we’ll be rolling out a workforce in 57 locations around Australia. Each location will have six staff including a Regional Coordinator, three Tobacco Action Workers and two Healthy Lifestyle Workers. This allows us to implement a multi-pronged approach, getting the communities to understand the dangers of smoking, working with them to identify ways to give up smoking and to promote the anti-smoking message to both current and non-smokers. The message is particularly important to get through to our young people because smoking is an addiction best avoided in the first place.

All the regions have total flexibility in how they go about reducing smoking. One of the really good things is that once a community has come up with an action plan to combat smoking, we can provide them with $110,000 a year to implement the program without them having to jump through any more hoops. This new way of doing business involves a recognition that combating smoking is not just a responsibility of government; it’s an opportunity for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as individuals to get involved and to take ownership of issues at the local level. Everywhere I go now people are thanking me for doing something about smoking. We’re raising awareness and we’re getting a lot of support.

Our target is to achieve by 2018 the same levels of smoking among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations as currently exists in the non-Indigenous population. We’ll see those impacts as our campaign starts to work, especially by not having young kids take up smoking.

All the work I do is focused on trying to create opportunities where the voices of Australia’s Indigenous peoples are heard at the highest levels, and to try and foster an ethos of partnership between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, organisations and government. If we can have a common vision and we’re able to present that, we can have a significant impact on our health, wellbeing and prosperity.


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Created: 14 June 2012 - Updated: 07 August 2012