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Victoria's peak Aboriginal health body urges support for Indigenous organisations to Close the Gap

Dechlan Brennan -

Victoria's peak Indigenous health body says two Closing the Gap agreements in 15 years have brought little change when not backed by significant investment in self-determination and Aboriginal-led approaches.

The Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (VACCHO) used Closing the Gap day on Thursday to note the recently released Productivity Commission report highlighted the consistent failure by governments to prioritise placing Aboriginal health in Aboriginal hands.

This was conceded by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese when he told Parliament last month: "The old ways are not working".

"If we want to close the gap, we have to listen to people who live on the other side of it," Mr Albanese said.

This week VACCHO chief executive Jill Gallagher called on all levels of government to increase their support for Aboriginal community-controlled organisations (ACCOs) for them to not just help communities survive - but thrive.

"The key to closing the gap lies with the dedicated and determined teams at ACCOs who apply Aboriginal knowledge, culture, and innovation to strengthen families and transform lives," she said.

"There has been plenty of goodwill from governments since the first Closing the Gap statement of intent was signed back in 2008.

"Despite the best intentions of many, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Communities continue to suffer, experiencing disproportionately poorer health compared to non-Indigenous people."

The latest data shows a dramatic discrepancy in a number of key metrics for Indigenous people.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women have a life expectancy of 8.1 years lower than non-Indigenous women, while for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men it's 8.8 years.

Disturbingly, the suicide rates for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people also continues to rise, with 212 people dying by suicide in 2022 in NSW, Queensland, WA, SA, and the NT - a ten per cent increase on the previous year.

Across the country, reports have highlighted the vast discrepancy in suicide rates, brought on by factors including trauma, poverty, and a lack of adequate access to healthcare. In the major cities, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people were almost two-and-a-half times more likely to die by suicide than non-Indigenous people.

In very remote areas, 30.8 Indigenous people per 100,000 took their own lives in 2022.

VACCHO said "transformative health and wellbeing outcomes" were achieved when Indigenous communities were given the power to make decisions and deliver services at a local level.

"The success of this approach has been evident through the vital work ACCOs carry out to enhance the health and wellbeing of Communities," the group said in a formal statement on Thursday.

Ms Gallagher said ACCOs provide "holistic, wrap-around care from birth right through to Dreaming. These organisations and their incredible people are healers, life extenders, and life savers".

The Productivity Commission noted governments consistently undervalued the role played by ACCOs which hindered their capacity to address the unique needs of their communities.

"Canberra must be willing to share power with communities; to offer responsibility and ownership and self-determination; to let local knowledge design programs; to trust locals to deliver them and to listen to locals when they tell us what's working and what isn't," Mr Albanese said at the time.

Ms Gallagher said Treaty, which will be negotiated between the First Peoples' Assembly of Victoria and the Victorian Government later this year, was a means for power sharing.

"It's time for governments to release the shackles, share power through a Treaty and create transformative policies that empower ACCOs, and their dedicated staff to continue to apply Aboriginal ways of being, knowing, and doing to support thriving, healthy Communities," she said.

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