Koori History Newspaper Archive

Bigotry makes us sick

Canberra Times: Saturday, April 26, 2008
Author: Karen Middleton

In the Cabinet room on Wednesday morning, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd had one of those light-bulb moments.

It was a meeting of the deliciously nerdy Prime Minister's Science, Education and Innovation Council and two sets of research were being explained.

The combined import of both reports one led by the University of Queensland in conjunction with the National Health and Medical Research Council and the other undertaken through the federally- funded Cooperative Research Centre for Aboriginal Health was what caused the metaphorical illuminated light bulb.

What the researchers told the Prime Minister was that racism can make you sick (literally) and that the adverse impact can even carry down the generations. Persistent racial prejudice can actually affect the expression of the core elements of life. With other studies having found that three-quarters of all indigenous Australians experience racism in their daily lives, that's a lot of people's health at risk from plain old bigotry and ignorance.

The Queensland University research examined the impact of emotional stress on pregnant women and the potential for flow-on physical harm to their unborn children.

Those findings follow separate research by Western Australian child health specialist Professor Fiona Stanley, who examined links between maternal health and the life expectancy of the unborn child.

The research by the CRC, led by Melbourne-based Dr Yin Paradies, was based on studies conducted in Australian and New Zealand indigenous communities.

It found that racism has an impact not only on a person's emotional state (this is the point at which this study's findings dovetail into the other's) but also on his or her physiology. In a discussion paper published late last year, the CRC outlines research which shows racism being ''significantly'' associated with psychological distress, diabetes, smoking and substance use, poor mental health including depression and cardiovascular disease. It also finds that racism adds a second-wave health burden through unequal delivery of services in areas including housing and hospital treatment.

It divides racism into three types: the internalised version, in which people in a particular racial or ethnic group accept or believe they are inferior to others; interpersonal racism, or one group or person's abuse of another; and systemic or institutional racism, in which accepted official policies and practices create inequality and reinforce prejudice.

The discussion paper says that, unlike the Productivity Commission investigations into the community cost of such things as obesity and ageing, there has never been a proper study of the cost of racism in Australia or New Zealand. And it suggests it's time there was.

The issues the discussion paper covers are already sparking public interest.

Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation is taking them up, in conjunction with The Body Shop, in a new campaign launched this week: Racism Makes Me Sick.

In the Prime Minister's council, or PMSEIC as it's known, the research was received with great interest.

PMSEIC is the main advisory body to the executive government on science and innovation.

Meeting twice yearly, it has 12 ministerial portfolios within its scope. The council's membership includes the chiefs of the CSIRO, the Academy of Science, the NH&MRC, the Defence Science and Technology Organisation and other scientific bodies and peak business groups.

Other specialised scientists are also appointed in their individual capacities and, at each meeting, new research is presented.

On Wednesday, the two sets of researchers clearly captured the Prime Minister's attention and he was full of questions.

So, he asked, if racism can cause sustained physiological damage, did it then follow that powerfully positive experiences those which reinforced at the very least acceptance but, better, equality or even respect could do good? Yes, they said. So, he asked further, does that mean the national apology to the indigenous stolen generations might end up having health benefits? The response came back: there's every chance.

On that basis, the combined findings would appear to (potentially) challenge head-on the previous government's assumption that ''symbolic'' gestures of reconciliation have no practical value or benefit.

Arguably, they could also challenge the arguments of those, even within the indigenous community, who say that the ''rights'' agenda (which takes the shape of a push for constitutional reform and, for some, a treaty) is all pointless huff and puff and that ''practical'' action on health and welfare should take precedence.

Last weekend's massive 2020 summit ended with, among other things, a call for legal and constitutional recognition of indigenous people. Within the indigenous and legal communities, such reform is seen as separate from a treaty. Constitutional reform, the advocates say, would recognise the unique status of indigenous people and reflect the true history of Australia. They describe it as being about respect. A treaty would deal with issues of land and ultimately, possibly, monetary compensation.

The ''treaty'' proposal is thornier and wasn't actually included in the final summary of ideas from the indigenous issues committee.

(It's interesting to see indigenous leaders Noel Pearson and Gallarwuy Yunupingu advocating fiercely, suddenly, against an idea which wasn't on the final list. And it's even more interesting, given that Yunupingu's brother Manduwuy led the charge on that particular cause with his band Yothu Yindi and its hugely popular anthemic song on the subject.) Even the word ''treaty'' has a lot of people shaking their heads in uncertainty.

Constitutional reform is considerably less controversial.

If this CRC health research is right, could there be practical, physical benefit down the generations in formally acknowledging indigenous status in the Constitution? On Wednesday, once Rudd had heard the research and discussion, he had one really big question.

''So, what do we do about it?'' The scientists said words to the effect of: ''We'll get back to you.'' And, being scientists and not politicians, they probably actually will.

Karen Middleton is chief political correspondent for SBS Television