The Prime Minister’s announcement of her new Ministry last Saturday provoked an anxious response from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health sector. Without explanation, the Indigenous Health Ministry had dropped off the list.
The sector was left wondering whether this signaled a downgrade in the priority accorded to Aboriginal health under the new Gillard Government.
A number of organisations, including ANTaR, publicly expressed their concerns about this change and the shift it seemed to signal.
The Health Minister, Nicola Roxon, has ultimate responsibility for all aspects of the health portfolio. Importantly, she is also a member of Cabinet. However, the appointment of an Indigenous Health Minister under the Rudd government sent a clear and positive signal that achieving Aboriginal health equality was a key priority for the government.
Practically, it also facilitated much better access to a responsible Minister, opened dialogue between government and the sector and ensured that the Close the Gap health rights agenda maintained momentum.
Nicola Roxon’s announcement on Lateline on Monday night that the government had reconsidered its decision, with Warren Snowdon to continue as the dedicated Indigenous Health Minister, was therefore welcome news.
It is difficult to know what to make of this episode.
The initial omission of the Indigenous health portfolio could have been a clumsy oversight, a deliberate policy to mainstream Indigenous health or a tactical decision to elevate the portfolio within the general health portfolio by cutting out the middleman.
Without further explanation from government, it is impossible to know which.
However, the reversal of the decision should be seen as a positive sign that the Gillard Government is listening to stakeholders and willing to admit mistakes.
Warren Snowdon is well regarded within the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health sector and has built constructive, respectful relationships during his time as Minister.
The challenge now is for the two ministers with responsibility for Indigenous health to work collaboratively to ensure that the Aboriginal health issues are not sidelined from the mainstream health reform agenda. At the same time, they need to recognise the specific needs and aspirations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and organisations.
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