A guest post by Bernice Balconey
Lancet Editorial Volume 369, Number 9570, 21 April 2007
Australia: the politics of fear and neglect
Australian clinical and public-health research is an emblem of excellence across the Asia-Pacific region. That enviable position is being put at risk by Prime Minister John Howard’s indifference to the academic medical community and his profound intolerance to those less secure than himself and his administration. The latest example of his complacency was a comment he made on a Melbourne radio station last week. He said that people living with HIV should not be allowed to enter and live in Australiaââprima facie, noâ?, he asserted. Australia already has tough immigration rules for those with HIV. All hopeful migrants aged over 15 years are tested for the virus. Their applications stumble if they are found to be positive.
To any visitor, Australian culture feels progressive and inclusive. This attractive exterior belies a strong undercurrent of political conservatism, which Howard is ruthlessly tapping into. As the Australian columnist Janet Albrechtson wrote recently, âthe Australian polity is inherently conservativeâ¦a conservative coalition has ruled for 42 of 58 yearsâ?. 2007 is an election year for Australia. How the country interprets its past and sees its hopes for the future will be critical not only for the health of its people but also for the contribution Australia makes to world health. At present, Australian politicians are scoring well below their potential.
Take Aboriginal health. The current health minister, Tony Abbott, recently insulted Aboriginal peoples by claiming that those who spoke up for indigenous health were simply âestablishing politically and morally correct credentialsâ?. On climate change, environment minister Malcolm Turnball apparently sees little new in the latest alarming assessments by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Reviewing the effect of successive Howard administrations on Australia’s academic community since 1996, the respected scientist Ian Lowe has written that âthe present government has gone to extraordinary lengths to silence independent opinion within the research communityâ?. This year provides an opportunity at the ballot box to bring a new enlightenment to Australian health and medical science.
This is the full text of a just published editorial in The Lancet, a British-based medical journal, the second most cited medical journal in the world. The Lancet has not been shy to criticise governments, NGOs or international bodies such as the WHO when it deems it necessary. This was reported in Australian papers with little comment, though The Australian saw it as a direct call to vote for Labor at the upcoming Federal election, as did The Age & SMH.
Abbot was reported in The Age in the following manner:
Health Minister Tony Abbott said through a spokeswoman yesterday that the editorial was “just a slag-and-bag job, not backed up by evidence”.
“British doctors know a lot about medicine, but not much about Australian politics.
“Australia’s health system is universally renowned as being world-leading and, in particular, our record on indigenous health and medical research is unparalleled by any other previous government,” he said.
I suspect they do know enough about Australian politics to be alarmed. Abbott’s comment about world-leading practice are at best disingenuous and at worst outright lying. Indigenous health could only be said to be an improvement on previous efforts, given that Aboriginal health issues have been appallingly handled for decades, by both federal and state governments. An audit of funding some years ago found that over 60% of directly allocated funding for indigenous health programmes disappeared into bureaucratic structures of both state and federal governments, faling to benefit the communities it was aimed at.
A political climate that has seen ATSIC destroyed, however imperfect that model of some degree of self-determination was, has also had an effect upon the development of indigenous health services. Models of service delivery and clinical practice that may work satisfactorily in suburban Melbourne or regional centres are less than successful when applied to remote communities battling epidemics of diabetes, coronary disease, glaucoma, STDs.
And Abbott has continued to paint the picture of indigenous health as being solved. There are programmes in place that are fantastic but there are many gaps. And one of the most glaring is the failure of both state and federal governments to provide communities, remote or otherwise, with infrastructure that you and I take for granted.
Brough & his predecessors’ bullying tactics of withholding benefits or using vouchers etc etc conveniently overlooks the shirked responsibility to provide culturally & climatically appropriate housing, sanitation, reliable running water of drinking standard, and indigenous staffed and managed medical services on the scale required.
Instead they have pursued bodies such as ASTIC, bodies that may have been critical of government performance, a pursuit that also appeared driven by an ideological need to eliminate models of self-determination as viable.
But Abbott’s response is also yet another act of sophistry from a government who seems to keep a copy of Goebbels’ handbook of misinformation and propaganda under its collective bed.
Ian Lowe is correct to say that the ten years of control of research funding and tertiary education has been disastrous for Australian scientific research. The current assessment body for ARCs has political appointees from Howard’s political elite, who bring no scientific training or rigour to their deliberations, but instead so much conservative baggage with which to trawl the applications looking for projects to reject that fail some god-given morality test of their own making.
Researchers and academics are worried. And have been leaving the country in droves to pursue research overseas without the concern about poor or uncertain funding, and a political climate where their work is judged not by scientific standards but ideological ones. The last annual conference of the AAAS in the States, reported to members (pdf) that:
“AAAS expressed strong concerns about a Congressional inquiry that sought to intimidate climate-change scientists”
A familiar climate of intimidation and restriction of research deemed apposite to the requirements of government, which in the US has also seen federal funding of intelligent design (sic) propaganda, restrictions upon environment & epidemiological research, and even pressure from conservative groups upon NGO research funding bodies such as the Getty Foundation for bio-technological research.
As is often the case, it would appear Howard has learnt his lessons well from his American conservative compatriots. And Abbott is as always the Happy Parrot. But my major concern is the failure of any media outlet to investigate the substance of The Lancet’s editorial. To provide us with the necessary information to answer the question for ourselves – has the Howard government become so toxic for our society, our culture and our environment, that the very values & material prosperity that Howard uses to bolster his reign, will be undermined and threatened by allowing his apparently incompetent government another three or four years of reckless governance?
Cross-posted at Bernice Balconey’s Baloney