Health professor calls for more recognition and respect

Prof Lesley Barclay 'Croakey' 4 April 2013

Most Australians do not appear to realise how poorly as a nation we behave towards the original Australians - for example, ill-informed claims such as made in the media by Rolf Harris and repeated in various forms and ways by others.

I have just returned from New Zealand where I spoke at two meetings. The first was a conference held by the Rural Health Alliance Aotearoa New Zealand (RHANZ). This was their first conference and was associated with their first annual general meeting.

I went representing the National Rural Health Alliance of Australia to continue assistance that has been provided by this organisation to RHANZ in the past. The second meeting was the New Zealand Rural General Practice Network conference.

Both meetings were preceded by a formal Maori welcome. This began at the larger meeting with a conch shell invitation to enter the meeting area. The welcome was conducted in Maori language and included mixed gender led singing.

The response from the organisers of the meeting and their invited guests was led by a Maori Elder who works with RHANZ to ensure that Maori cultural requirements are met.

The New Zealand General Practice Network's chair also had a Maori Elder with him as an adviser; the Elder lives in the area where the general practitioner practices. The Elder also participated in the ceremony and was able to speak on the Chair's behalf, which gave cultural legitimacy to the leadership.

So where does this lead? To my embarrassment in being Australian because we do so little as a nation to recognise and value the original people of our country.

While we have made some steps to doing more to acknowledge the First Australians, such as acknowledging Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ownership of land, often this is done in a tokenistic way

If we are in a big meeting, we may have an Aboriginal Elder provide a traditional welcome. It appears, compared with my recent New Zealand experience, that we fall far short of the inclusivity and respect shown in New Zealand. For example, an organisation or leader there will have a cultural advisor to make sure their work is mentored and guided culturally.

The power, strength and respect engendered by the use of Maori symbolism, language and the spirituality of these ceremonies in New Zealand increased my awareness and shame of the lack of recognition given to Aboriginal peoples in Australia.

Most Australians do not appear to realise how poorly as a nation we behave towards the original Australians - for example, ill-informed claims such as made some years ago in the media by Rolf Harris and repeated in various forms and ways by others.

Ignorance is no excuse. It does not justify why many Australians do not recognise or value our Aboriginal or Torres Strait antecedents, nor respect and make this recognition manifest in our culture and ceremony.

Aboriginal Australians have persisted with courage and huge effort to keep language and culture alive. Many languages and traditions have almost been lost through the destructive and insensitive behaviour of the rest of us.

Aboriginal leaders show incredible strength in persisting and resisting the loss of their traditions. Too few are in leadership positions that enable them to compel this respect from the rest of us.

It is not surprising that Aboriginal leaders become exhausted. They require boundless stores of courage, patience and energy.

Their efforts reduce my shame as a non-Aboriginal Australian, but this shame will not and should not disappear in my lifetime. Unfortunately, this shame is my heritage.

The problems faced by Aboriginal communities are multiple and interconnected, making them seem at times insurmountable.

At the very least we can begin by acknowledging 'our' Elders and the original owners of Australia through recognising and empowering, without appropriating, Aboriginal cultural protocols.

It also means according leadership and respect, and taking direction when we need this.

For me as a researcher, this means working with Aboriginal leadership, who help define problems, guide my work, and 'manage' me to make sure our work is both beneficial to Aboriginal people and does no harm. I cannot make this judgement myself.

• I acknowledge the contribution of Aboriginal and other Indigenous and collegial input into this brief commentary.

Introduced on croakey by Melissa Sweet,
Health Journalist and 'Croakey' Coordinator, 4 April 2013
Professor Lesley Barclay

Professor Lesley Barclay is an educational leader, health services researcher and systems reformer whose projects have improved maternal child health services in urban and remote Australia and internationally. Much of her recent research has been rural, remote or indigenous focussed. Her current position is Professor and Director of the Centre for Rural Health (Northern Coast) for Sydney University.

Lesley Barclay is known for her mentoring and training. This is exemplified by 12 of the 28 PhD students she has supervised over the last decade who have been appointed associate or full professors in midwifery or maternal child health. Professor Barclay has edited 2 books, written 3 book chapters and 49 refereed papers in the last years and numerous government or agency reports.