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Byron Shire
June 9, 2023

Closing the Gap on Aboriginal health in the Byron Shire

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March 16 was National Close the Gap Day.

Close the Gap aims to reduce disadvantage experienced by Indigenous peoples with respect to child mortality, childhood education, life expectancy and health. Among the 17 socioeconomic Closing the Gap targets are the aims to improve: health and wellbeing, education, employment, justice, safety, housing, land and waters, languages and digital inclusion.

The Close the Gap campaign became a commitment of the Australian government in 2008 following Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s Apology to Australia’s Indigenous Peoples in March that year.

The plan

In 2023, the Closing the Gap Implementation Plan outlined the Commonwealth’s strategic priorities and efforts to close the gap over the next 12 to 18 months. While on almost every measure in the Close the Gap, there has been progress, closing the gap in life expectancy within a generation is not on track to be met by 2031. This demonstrates the importance of a First Nations Voice to inform government strategies and policies for First Nations people.

First Nations people in the Byron Shire and across our broader region, have compounded health and social problems owing to the injustices of the past that have resulted in complex health and social needs with a lack of access to the options that come from intergenerational wealth. Currently there is no funding for Aboriginal health or social services in the Byron Shire. Byron is often grouped with Ballina or Tweed in government funded service delivery, but the approach is ad hoc and there is a lack of clarity for community.

This is a result of statistics that aren’t reflective of First Nations cultural boundaries or experiences on Country, or our real-life demographics in community. ‘The 1967 referendum resulted in our people being counted in the census; now the census data is being used against us in our community. The census Aboriginal statistics data ‘isn’t reflective of cultural boundaries,’ explained Minjungbal community man, Rob Appo, at the Bagwa Bugalma meeting at the Mullumbimby Neighbourhood Centre last week.

Advocating for Indigenous health

The Bagwa Bugalma project has been advocating for over a decade for improved health and social services. The past few years have been particularly challenging with the added pressures of the covid pandemic and natural disasters. The resulting inflation from this cycle has driven many people to the wall and this is intensified for First Nations people who are also dealing with intergenerational trauma (instead of wealth) and institutional racism.

A huge barrier to access health support is that GPs no longer offer bulk billing, though they can bulk bill at their discretion. ‘Every GP in Australia should offer bulk billing to an Aboriginal patient who has identified. It’s on our file and they have access to recuperate the funds through Close the Gap. It’s up to Aboriginal people to request bulk billing – and many of our people are too ashamed! It should be routine practice,’ continued Mr Appo.

Larissa Smyth is another Aboriginal community member motivated for change, ‘Our guys deserve better. All we are asking for is access to the same health and social programs available to other mob around the place. We are asking for accountability and transparency in how our community can access these services, a coordinated approach to outreach at the very least. Right now we can’t even see a GP’. 

Julie Williams, manager of the Mullumbimby and District Neighbourhood Centre, is committed to improving the services for mob in the local area and leading the Bagwa Bugalma project. ‘The inability to close the gap in the Byron Shire is an unacceptable continued failing of government. And the reliance on ineffective censusdata to continue to justify the neglect of an entire local government area is lazy politics,’ Julie stated.

Bagwa Bugalma are hosting a community event on Thursday 15 June at 5.30pm at the Mullumbimby and District Neighbourhood Centre for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community. It will include yarning circles, cultural activities and a free barbecue. The event aims to bring mob together to capture the current barriers and experiences of the community.

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  1. Oh come on, sober up you mob !
    As we all know aboriginals are THE most advantaged group in the country.
    It is ridiculous to blame the country for your own personal failings, it’s time to take responsibility and stop whinging.
    “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink !”
    Cheers, G”)

    • If I said I can’t get proper health care in my area because the doctors are black, what would you call that?

  2. Why don’t you attract Aboriginal doctors into the area that are happy to bulk bill, and setup your own practice?


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