The Voice and the Elders

If you are an Indigenous Australian, you will most likely die 15 years earlier than a non-Indigenous Australian from a preventable disease.

The ‘gap’ in life expectancy stands at around 15 years.

Remarkably, it appears that even in official documents there are two categories of Older Australians. Look at this report by the Australian Government’s Institute of Health and Welfare. 

“ This report focuses on older Australians—generally those aged 65 and over, unless otherwise specified. For older Indigenous Australians, the age range 50 and over is used, reflecting the life expectancy gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians and the lower proportion of Indigenous people aged 65 and over.” 

Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney, in an address to the National Press Club, said that Australia is an ageing country, and “ overall, less than one third of Australians were under 25 years of age, whereas amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait islanders almost half were under 25. 

This is disproportionate because of the significantly reduced longevity of Indigenous adults. Many of them die of preventable diseases. They often die because of dysfunctional health services to Indigenous communities, bureaucratic mismanagement or because of a lack of health services.

Successive Australian Governments have failed to close this gap. This failure remains a fundamental violation of the human rights of Indigenous peoples – the right to life. 

The Voice has the potential to mitigate this situation.

The theme of NAIDOC 2023 was ‘ For Our Elders’.  The Elders are the custodians of Indigenous heritage, culture and knowledge handed down from one generation of Elders to another. They have ensured the survival of the oldest Indigenous peoples in the world for 65,000 years. Elders are respected, honoured and listened to by the community.

The Elders know how best to protect their ageing Indigenous people. They have the knowledge to implement culturally appropriate health care, as well as the skills, the language and the community connections. We saw it happen during Covid. Patricia Turner AM, of Gudanji-Arrente heritage, as CEO of NACCO (National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation ) was at the forefront of the response to the pandemic. From the outset they immediately made protecting the Elders their priority. The measures they instituted were extremely effective and literally saved the lives of most Elders.

Pat Turner believes that “when Indigenous organisations take over the job of improving the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, it will be the end of the grim practice of monitoring failure and calling it Closing the Gap.” 

This year’s NAIDOC Week awards ceremony recognised two female Elders who have dedicated their lives to the advancement of Indigenous health, education, and community rights.

Aunty Dr Naomi Mayers OAM a Yorta Yorta and Wiradjuri woman, is described as a pioneer and was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award for developing and leading “some of the most enduring and fundamentally profound reforms in Aboriginal and Torres Strait health”.

Aunty Dr Matilda House-Williams, a Ngambri (Kamberri) Wallabalooa (Ngunnawal) and Wiradyuri Elder, received the Female Elder of the Year NAIDOC award. She is recognised as a “ strong, kind, yet fierce Blak Matriarch, who has created a legacy by forging new pathways for First Nations Women and our Mobs more broadly “.

These are just three of the female Elders whose lifetime experience and invaluable knowledge can be channeled into the advisory body and amplified through the Voice. If Parliament and Government listen and incorporate such advice, then they can formulate more effective practical policies to drive tangible improvements for Indigenous people. 

No Australian Government is equiped to close the gap without meaningful, informed consultations with the Voice, and that means listening to the Elders.





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