On October 23, the chair of the Indigenous Advisory Council, Warren Mundine responded to this publication’s sustained coverage of the horrific suicide crisis among First Nations people and to my research. Mr Mundine committed the Indigenous Advisory Council to the urgent need to address the pernicious and endemic crisis. But 150 days later nothing but a mix of flurries of just talking and mostly silence is all that the Indigenous Advisory Council and the Government have come up with – all the while suicide is claiming more lives, 100 more lives lost, children as young as 12 years old.
The Government which has been selling itself on improving conditions for First Nations people has in fact done nothing thus far for First Nations people. It is failing, and abysmally so, First Nations people. Lots of committees and more and more high profile people seconded but all talk, no real action.
This Government has prided itself on a Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs but nothing of any significance has been mapped out or delivered to reduce extreme disadvantage nor inspire new heights. It has been 200 days of talking about “job training, job creations” and “education” but no jobs have been generated and no economic and social development have been grafted into the dust bowl communities that for far too long have been neglected by one Government after another – these communities that now have the highest suicide rates in the nation. Standalone these communities reach up to 100 times the national suicide averages.
Recently, I travelled with Mr Mundine and the Federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs Senator Scullion throughout the north and the east of Western Australia. We discussed the suicides crisis and Senator Scullion said it was on his radar. Mr Mundine said he was waiting for reports from psychiatric and psychological experts to be tabled at his February 14 to 15 Indigenous Advisory Council meetings.
“We will sit down and consider these reports. I have seen them. The Council will make recommendations from these to the Prime Minister. I have to go to Treasury and see how much in funds we can get,” said Mr Mundine. One week after he said this to me, the Indigenous Advisory Council met. My sources told me that the reports were included in “a brief” and that they discussed the “brief” but in less than an hour on February 15. During the two day IAC meeting Prime Minister Tony Abbott sat in. It was to my horror I learned that after all the promises to me, and to the nation by Mr Mundine that less than one hour was spent on discussing the suicide crisis among First Nations people.
During our trip I said to Mr Mundine that there is no greater legacy that he can achieve as the Chair of the Indigenous Advisory Council than to save lives – to significantly reduce the suicides crisis. “If you do this, and you do nothing else, you will never be forgotten,” I said this to him as we stared into each other’s eyes, and he gently nodded.
During the last three weeks, The National Indigenous Times, The National Indigenous Radio Service and The Stringer have been met by silence to all our requests for a status update on the response by Mr Mundine and his Council to the suicides crisis.
In the Kimberley alone – where some of the spates of suicides have in recent years exceeded 100 times the national average – there have been six suicides in the last several weeks, one of a 12 year old child. Nationally, in the 150 days of inaction by the Government since the October 23 promise on their behalf by Mr Mundine, there have been another 100 lives lost.
On Friday, the Federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Senator Scullion responded.
“This is a critical issue.”
“Absolutely fundamental to tackling this issue is ensuring that young people are engaged with education and with work. That’s why my focus on getting children to school and adults into work is vital to re-engaging with those people who have become disengaged from education, work, their family and communities,” said Senator Scullion.
“My approach is to work with communities and allow them to determine the solutions that suit their particular circumstances. I want to ensure communities are supported through Government action that supports the approach of communities, rather than imposing a programme or programmes that are another one-size fits all.”
For myself, as a researcher on the suicides and premature deaths and as the journalist who has sustained the coverage on the crisis for the last six months, this is a distressing statement and flies in the face of everything I have proposed and written about. We cannot risk a “one-size fits all” programme nor merely support various community approaches. I have been vocal about various psychosocial supports that must be grafted into communities and for a crack team of experts who must go to every at-risk community and identify trusted leaders, respected Elders who can be assisted to work with their at-risk youth and young adults and the families – to guide them to ways forward and to the reclamation of hope. If Senator Scullion and Mr Mundine do not understand this, if the Indigenous Advisory Council, if the Prime Minister of Indigenous Affairs does not understand this then we are doomed to cheap end failed policies rebadged and recycled.
But Senator Scullion said, “The Government will certainly have more to say on this issue (the crisis).”
As I understand from my sources, no, the Government will not have much more to say, just more of the same and that there will be no significant allocation of funds despite what Mr Mundine said to me in person and maybe what he forlornly hoped he could achieve.
The Chair of the peak First Nations health body NACCHO commented that “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people experience suicide around twice the rate of the rest of the population. Aboriginal teenage men and women are up to 5.9 times more likely to take their own lives than non-Aboriginal people.”
“This is a crisis affecting our young people. It is critical real action taken to urgently address the issue.”
“For any strategy to be effective, local community-led healthcare needs to be at its core.” Mr Muhammed said that so far “we have not heard from this Government.”
Western Australian Kimberley parliamentarian and Kija Elder, Josie Farrer said that Governments have failed to provide any real funding to support long overdue community services.
“There is not enough funding for adequate suicide prevention programs, next to nothing for supporting grieving families, and just nothing for communities to better themselves, empower and find their way to hope.”
“The pressures on our vulnerable are enormous, they are kept in poverty and they cannot keep up. Governments are not looking in the right directions. I have been trying to draw attention to the crisis as a parliamentarian, right from within my maiden speech,” said Ms Farrer.
According to my own research, for there to be any semblance of lifesaving narratives and for ground breaking restoration of hope in people thus far neglected in extreme poverty and the ordeal of aimlessness and subsequent multiple traumas reduced, the Government has to make happen at least $100 million as baseline funding to ensure true hope among the most at-risk First Nations people throughout our nation. Settling for anything less will mean accepting the avoidable loss of life. It will mean that the notion of money matters more than the reality of people.
From 2001 to 2010, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) confirmed 996 suicides of First Nations people. That is 1 in every 24 of First Nations deaths by suicide. But my research argues that if we include estimates for unreported suicides and other unnatural deaths that should be identified as suicides, that the tragic tally is closer to 2000 suicides for the ten year period.
There is no ABS data on suicides since 2011, but I have been record keeping reported suicides and various unnatural deaths – through the media, community organisations and other sources – for my own academic research on premature deaths. In the three years, 2011 to 2013 there have been nearly 400 suicides – child, youth and adult. The average of 100 suicides per year over the ten year period from 2001 has increased to 130 per year in the three years since 2011.
There are 170 at-risk communities without adequate funding or no funding at all to implement substantive suicide prevention strategies and empowerment programs. This is an indictment of the whole nation, not just the Government.
The rate of suicides nationally for all Australians is 10.3 per 100,000, and among the 14 to 18 year old teenagers it is our biggest killer, taking more lives than cancer does. But for First Nations people the statistics are outrageous, and the silence around it all even more outrageous. Nationally, suicides among First Nations people are 22.3 per 100,000. But in Western Australia it is worse than anywhere else – 35.9 per 100,000. For 14 to 18 year old First Nations youth they suffer suicide at six times the rate of their counterparts. For 25 to 29 year old First Nations males they are the most at-risk, 91 per 100,000.
Time is ticking by, lives are being lost. Our Governments are failing to prioritise people. I have been to more impoverished communities throughout our nation than most Australians. The suicide crisis will only get worse as social ills continue to get worse in these communities now without any sense of hope. The bedrock of their hope that I suggest may have been the case ten and twenty and thirty years ago when I first visited them is no longer there.
If Prime Minister Abbott, if Senator Scullion and if Mr Mundine do not make happen $100 million in funding and meet the types of challenges in honest ways, in the methods I have been writing about for now six months, then all three should step down from the argument that they represent the best interests of First Nations people – Prime Minister Abbott should remove from his title, Prime Minister of Indigenous Affairs, Senator Scullion should step down from Minister for Indigenous Affairs and Mr Mundine throw in the towel as the Chair of the Indigenous Advisory Council, and the whole Council call it a day.
March on Federal Parliament from Tent Embassy in May