SPEECH: TCICA Chair Robbie Sands at Health and Wellbeing Queensland Symposium 3 November 2022


My name is Robbie Sands my traditional country is Gimuy (Cairns) our clan group is Gimuy Walluburra Yidinji of the greater Yidinji tribe of far north Qld, from my Mother’s side. And from my Fathers side I am Gurrugulu Gunggandji of Yarrabah. According to life expectancy research identified in the early years of the Closing the GAP strategy. My life expectancy on average is only about 5 or 6 years away from coming to an end.

I am the Mayor of the Kowanyama Aboriginal Shire Council. Besides our Shire area we own 2 Pastoral leases on Central Cape York, on traditional lands of people who now call Kowanyama home after being sent there from the areas of the 2 pastoral leases we own. Kowanyama itself is situated on Qlds West Coast of Cape York or the eastern side of the Gulf of Carpentaria, which ever way you want to look at. Kowanyama meaning Place of Many Waters in the local Kokoberra Tribe was established in 1908 when the old Mission of Trubanamun established in the late 1800’s by Anglican Missionaries had to be abandoned by rising saltwater inundation. From then like many of our Brothers and Sisters after the exposure to western foods and processes did our health start to deteriorate to levels where we are at now today. We were given tobacco, sugar, flour and tea as rations and alcohol. These rations like tobacco were forcefully given to our old people. Some of the stories told by my grandmother growing up in Yarrabah confirms that even though some of them old woman didn’t want tobacco they had to take it. Let’s think about that for a minute. The introduced 3 food staples Alcohol and Tobacco that were given to our old people are the determining factors of the Chronic diseases we talk about. Tobacco is linked to cancers, chronic diseases, heart diseases. Sugar and flour (high carbs) are links to Diabetes and heart problems. Alcohol the same. Tea, well on its own and pure it is apparently good for people’s health. But sweetened that is an additional link to sugar in our diets. We never had sugar or refined sugar, we had native bee honey or sugar bag we call it. We never had wheat we had native seeds like wattle seeds. Our people of Kowanyama like many other Cape York people ground native seeds in Coolamons. Kowanyama doesn’t naturally have rocks to ground the seeds, so how did we get them, we traded goods. Indigenous Cape York people done trading, so that myth is busted the one about our people before colonisation didn’t trade or farm etc, the basis of Terra Nullius. Our people down south made eel and fish farms and channels, only now the complexity of this aquaculture technique is finally being recognised. We had Charles Darwin visit Australia and he had so many influences on our Indigenous Society impacts. He said we Australian Aboriginal people were the most primitive existence and were the closest man to apes and primates. Darwin informed the powers that be of the day. Don’t worry we gonna die out due to our primitiveness. But hey we still here after 230 plus years of colonisation. We have survived, as one of our famous indigenous songwriter wrote and sang in his song from the late 1970’s. We not going anywhere. We are growing as a society compared to other Australians. Hopefully the latest ABS data reflects my assumptions.

Although, we still struggle for equity in the health space. Only a few weeks ago I as the mayor of Kowanyama had to contact TCHHS Cairns to inform them that our people were still having to sit outside in 40-degree heat waiting to be consulted. Cairns initial response was that only a week or two before all restrictions of social distancing etc were lifted and maybe it was an oversight by the local Health Clinic staff. My answer to that was, it shouldn’t take a phone from me as the mayor to fix it. We have Nurses triaging people over a loudspeaker phone, with no consultation or obs being taken. Well how? But this happens being honest with you all. We’ve had the Doomadgee Coronial Inquest. The voices of concerns from all other of our communities like Doomadgee needs to be heard as well. Today, now, presently our health outcomes and expectations are all centred around when and not if we/me becomes one of the new additions to our already huge number of our community with Chronic diseases. This is reflected across all of our discreet indigenous communities of Qld.

Kowanyama currently don’t have Kidney Dialysis unit fixed in our Primary Health Care Clinic, but the great news is that we will have a unit functioning in kowanyama in 2023. This is so critical to our future. Kowanyama has one of the highest levels of Diabetes in Qld. Without a Kidney Dialysis Unit many of our people would have to live in Cairns just to survive. The untold mental health impacts our people suffer is unknown. But we see our families forced to live in Cairns to survive are longing to be home with loved ones beside them. Our older family members who live in Cairns say things like we don’t want to die here we want to die in our country and be returned to country after death. We have Environmental Health impacts that more often than not leads to scabies and related kidney problems, rheumatic heart disease etc. Some of the Environmental health issues are as they were in the 1950’s and 60’s. we have running water, we have proper sewerage systems, we have waste management strategies, we have sealed streets, but for this infrastructure like keeping our town streets well maintained etc we need funding to upkeep them to get the health of our people made better. Some people may say, they are looking for a handout again. But where we have come from to where we are now is so similar. Remember we are the one society in Australia that have suffered the most and will continue to suffer. We are the most disadvantaged people of Australia. But these issues still exist today. The closing the gap strategy started off well and is well intentioned but obviously not working. Not now that today we are learning about the emerging Obesity epidemic and the impacts on younger people. Indigenous Australia will be affected just as much. So, the Gap is widening instead of closing.

We need functioning school tuckshops to provide healthy alternatives in the school setting. We need principals and regional office managers to make this happen. We need the school community to be strong to say now that we have an operating tuckshop offering good healthy food to our kids. The school should not let their students leave the school grounds for lunch without written consent. We had that rule in place before, why can’t we do that now. The work required in working with families and mum and bubs is engaging with our women and men for that matter when our mums are carrying their babies for the better options that can then lead to healthier Kowanyama families and community in the long run. Some of our mums who become pregnant but have chronic diseases themselves, identify what support mechanisms/safety nets can be put around these families to support them. Kowanyama funded and sustained our Mothers and Babies Centre. Funds generated by our Liquor Licence, but then we had the imposition of Alcohol Management Plans, Indigenous Council were not allowed to operate a liquor licence, so with that our Mothers and Babies Centre funds dried up. But now they call it Corporate responsibly through Social reinvestment. A-poon-e-peema received health funds to promote healthy food baskets to pregnant mums and families, these ideas need to be expanded to say up to 6 months of age of the infant, so that mums can be taught to provide to these kids healthy options of solid foods such as infant milk formula, proper baby food etc introduced into their diets. Another program they had funding for was subsidised cleaning kits. Available for purchase through our local Store. Things like pine-o-cleen, chuxs, bleach, mops, buckets, brooms etc. Kits for of towel, face washers baby bath shampoo and lotions etc were also tried. These alternate options were well received by our community. These basic programs work, they were funded but need to be funded again and sustained for the long term. At a senior level within the QHealth Dept. Torres and Cape Indigenous Councils Alliance, the organisation that I chair have been doing some exciting works in regard to the TORCH project. In these meetings Cape York and the TCHHS health district has annual health funding of over $200M. through a spiders web of funding sources. It is complicated and will be hard to unravel. The TORCH project is investigating at this very very early stage of how we can implement a reform process where a Cape York Commissioning Body has all of this money channelled through it. Because of the intricacies of the funding and its source, we need senior political assistance from Australian and Qld Govt to clear the pathway to these opportunities. We are fully aware that this idea may not grow to fruition but hey we need to try something different, investigate this opportunity that is identified.

We need collective responsibility through taking ownership, strong leadership from community, elders, elected politicians, including mayors like myself. We need corporate or NGOs to invest. We need not for profit liquor outlets like ours in Kowanyama to fund their obligations of Corporate responsibility through Social reinvestment. There may be foundations and philanthropic donors that may work in partnership with us to fund some of those things I mentioned, which are real grassroots, practical in-house, real-life benefits that we identified in our Communities as possible solutions.

Help us close the gap on our tracks to treaty pathways, which betterment of the health of our people is one of many of these tracks.

Thanks for allowing me, a small fish in a big pond to tell you a little bit of our plight today. Hopefully this truth telling can assist our people’s health to become better for our next generation. We as a people that are part of Australia are the most disadvantaged, that in itself must mean something. To the wider audience. Why should we accept anything less and ‘Please don’t forget about us’.