SUBJECTS: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues; remote communities; health; education; housing.

KELLY GUDGEONS, HOST: Late last year a group of MPs and senators visited Roebourne and met with a group of women there and discussed a number of issues the women had concerns about. The group included Federal Labor MP Linda Burney and WA Labor Senator and Deputy President of the Australian Senate, Sue Lines. Well there is now a draft report that has been produced, addressing those issues raised with recommendations on how to start addressing them. I caught up with Senator Lines to find out more about it.

SENATOR LINES: It’s a draft report at this stage Kelly, and if we hadn’t had the intervention of the pandemic we would have got a final document. But we will be coming back to the Pilbara, back to Roebourne, at the earliest opportunity, now that the restrictions for travel have been lifted, to talk to the women and get final sign-off of the document. They’ve obviously worked on the draft all the way through and we want to have a final document that is presented back to the community and for the women to then work out a road map for taking the document forward, so that we can really get some actions on the recommendations they’ve made.

GUDGEONS: Can we just go through some of those issues and some of those recommendations that have come out of that process? One of the big issues is around housing and homelessness and the way tenants can access housing. Can you go through what some of the recommendations have been in that?

LINES: I can. And what I would say about all of the recommendations across all of the issues is that they’re very practicable and that they’re very easily implemented. And I guess what I’d say is that what the pandemic has shown to us is that governments and indeed bureaucracies can move very quickly when they need to and find resources, whether that’s people or dollars, very quickly. We’ve seen that response from the fabulous WA response and indeed in remote communities and across the Pilbara. So we think these are definitely solvable, but certainly people want to understand and be better educated about how you get on what they describe as a black list, so that you’re someone who prospective owners won’t rent a house to, so they want to understand that. Of course this came out in all the groups, information provided in language and also in culturally appropriate ways, not just to have the language, but to have it culturally appropriate. And that was a very clear message across all of the issues, about being culturally appropriate. An easier to access appeals process that’s more accessible for people in the regions and remote areas, and I’m sure that this is not just for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and families, I’m sure that’s for everyone, the appeals process needs to be more accessible. They really wanted to have an Aboriginal and Torres Strait liaison officer to speak and be involved with real estate agents and government to provide that support and feedback and an education role around face to face visitations at home and for that to be place-based. And also there’s a concern from not just this community, this comes out in all the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities that I have contact with and that talk to me, is that the need to really put support back to Aboriginal-run organisations at that point of tendering and not to have services given out to organisations aren’t Aboriginal run. And the need for ongoing tenancy support, and I would imagine in the Pilbara that is an issue for everyone.

GUDGEONS: You talk about that culturally appropriate approach in housing, that’s also issue that was raised in regard to healthcare for Aboriginal people as well, can you talk about that?

LINES: So that was a big issue and I was quite shocked at some of the responses that came out on the first day when we listened to what the women had to say, particularly in relation to when people come down to Perth for treatment, that there’s a view that they get labelled as just this Aboriginal person who perhaps abuses alcohol and drugs. And they really feel that’s the framework through which the entire health community, they didn’t say this level of professional is better, that that’s how they feel they get treated. They just get put in this box, yep not healthy, abuse alcohol or drugs. And I was really shocked about that, that came out from a number of women, it wasn’t prompted certainly by us, we were there to listen. So I think that’s something that the Health Department needs to work on in their hospitals, to make sure they are culturally appropriate, that they look at the person as an individual and where they’ve come from and so on. So that was a big issue. The second issue is the PATS scheme works to an extent but they felt that when they got down to Perth, you were left on your own. And you can imagine coming down for treatment, you’re not quite sure what’s the matter with you, you’d be quite anxious about that. And then you kind of just get dropped at the door, there’s no other support provided. So women were saying that is absolutely stopping people from taking that next step to manage their healthcare. Now of course now that we’ve seen with the pandemic a greater use of telehealth and telehealth opened up to all sorts of health professionals, hopefully that’s something, I know you’ve had some of that already in the Pilbara but hopefully that can now be expanded. And people are now able to be treated in their home towns or at least get medical advice in the first instance before they’re sent to Perth for further investigation. So let’s hope the telehealth stays, you can’t take it back I think.

GUDGEONS: Absolutely, the telehealth has been something that’s very popular up here.

LINES: That might actually resolve some of these issues. I mean inevitably people still have to come to Perth for treatment, and that’s whether you’re Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander or not. But there’s certainly this feeling of racism and preconceived notions of who people are and what they represent.

GUDGEONS: The other theme that came through the draft report is around education and youth and attendance in schools is obviously a big issue there. What have you found out from that theme?

LINES: Well they were saying, and this came out as rather a frustration. There’s a number of services around town, there’s patrol services and others. But they’re all kind of siloed into, well this is what we’re funded to do, we’re only funded to do X, we can’t do Y. So it’s really about how we look at all the services being provided and who can for example pick kids up and take them to school other than the school bus, because there are other services there. So that was a bit of a frustration about how you can utilise services to provide additional support to community. I’m not quite sure how the current school bus runs, there was this view that school bus service should be accountable to the school, and to also pick kids up and drop them home, which was what they are doing. But accountability back to school was a key point. Again enrolments, it was a big issue. And we had a big discussion both at the first meeting and the second meeting about how that’s done. And it was generally felt that a lot of people weren’t able to communicate with the school and not that anyone’s at fault here, it’s about the systems that are set up. So they felt that an Aboriginal liaison officer to help people navigate the forms and make the process of enrolment a bit easier. I mean they were talking about things like the production of birth certificates, I mean if people have a MyGov account, those issues about who’s got custody, who’s the carer, have already been sorted out. So a greater link up between those departments so that you don’t have to keep producing material over and over again. And again that doesn’t just benefit Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families, that benefits everyone. If we were able to have a one-stop-shop to do that. So that came out very strongly.

GUDGEONS: Absolutely. So what are the next steps?

LINES: So what we’ll do now is we’ll talk to our committee about when we’ll come back to the Pilbara and then what the women wanted to do is sign off on the report and then together set out a process to making sure the report doesn’t sit on the dusty shelf, that it actually gets to people who can make decisions about how we can take this forward. Because the women were very clear, they were very happy to come together and be listened to, but they wanted more than that. And that’s fair enough, they didn’t want it to be just, yep, done that, tick, we’ve produced a report and it just sits somewhere and everyone’s just forgotten about it. But to keep this a living document, because it is so practical and there’s lots that can be achieved and how we then check to make sure that we are making progress on the sorts of recommendations that the women say will improve their lives, and indeed improve their access to health and education and housing.

GUDGEONS: Senator Sue Lines there.