Utility stress as a social determinant of health: A study of the increasing cost of public utilities on the poverty and health status of Aboriginal people in urban areas across Australia

This project was a scoping study to develop research partnerships and a research methodology to examine the impact of the rising cost of public utility services on the socio-economic status, and the associated health status, of Aboriginal people in urbanised (major cities and rural towns) locations across Australia. The past two decades have seen significant change in the regulation, provision and management of water, but also other essential services such as electricity, gas and telephone services to the Australian population. Two significant factors in this shift have been the privatisation or full retail contestability of once publicly-owned utilities, such as electricity, water and telecommunications, and in the case of water, a move by the Federal Government to full cost recovery in the interest of sustainability under the National Water Initiative (COAG 2003; Committee for Melbourne 2004). The impact of these moves has been to increase costs for consumers, many of whom are now experiencing hardship in meeting repayments.

This project has so far resulted in:

  • The establishment of a research partnership across two States (South Australia and Northern Territory) with the specific aim of investigating the impact of utility stress as a social determinant of health.
  • The design of a research collaboration process.
  • The identification of funding sources.

Over the longer term, the project aimed to inform the development of strategies to reduce the percentage of total income costs Aboriginal people must allocate to essential services. This would be done by:

  • Identifying the impact of utility costs as a social determinant of health.
  • Developing a familiarisation program on the various concessions available to Indigenous people to cut utility costs.
  • Preparing advice for Federal and State Governments on the impact of introducing full ‘user pays’ policies to Aboriginal communities.
  • Providing advice to public housing trusts, Aboriginal housing authorities and private providers on their obligations under the National Water Initiative to provide energy efficient technology to reduce water (and electricity) costs.
  • Publication of best practice guidelines for providing assistance to low-income Indigenous people to help them meet utility payments.
  • Publication of best practice examples of Indigenous community governance arrangements and methods for meeting utility payments.

This project aimed to extend the research of the Flinders University Water Research team (Aboriginal Communities) beyond domestic water supply in remote settings to take in the full range of essential services in urban and rural settings across three Australian states. Seed funding was provided by CRCAH to bring together key stakeholders (Aboriginal consumer organisations and researchers from universities/institutions associated with the CRCAH) to design the research project. Partnerships were developed with Charles Darwin University and AHCSA (the Aboriginal Health Council of South Australia), and a literature review was completed in early 2008.

Related resources:
  • Willis, E., Pearce, M., McCarthy C. & Wadham, B. 2006, ‘Utility Stress and Health Status in a Remote Aboriginal Community in South Australia’, 4th Biennial International Conference: Creating Healthy Societies through Inclusion and Equity, 11–13 September 2006, Adelaide.
  • Willis, E., Pearce, M., McCarthy, C., Jenkin, T. & Ryan, F. 2006, ‘Utility Stress as a Social Determinant of Health: Exploring the links in a remote Aboriginal community’, Health Promotion Journal of Australia, vol. 17(3), pp. 255–9.
  • Willis, E., Pearce, M., McCarthy, C., Jenkin, T. & Ryan, F. 2008, ‘Cost of Living in four Aboriginal Remote Communities: The impact of CDEP on capacity to cope’, Paper given at the annual TASA Conference, Reimagining Sociology Melbourne, 2–5 December 2008
  • National Water Initiative

Acknowledgement of Country

We acknowledge the traditional owners of the land across Australia and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website may contain images, voices and names of deceased persons.