The following is extracted from ANTaR’s Indigenous Health Rights Action Kit (2004), which is based on research by the Australian Medical Association, the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the United Nations Human Development Report, as well as other sources (see reference below).

Long-term global research by the United Nations World Health Organisation shows that living circumstances and quality of life are the fundamentals of health and life expectancy for all people, regardless of their culture or location. The UN research found that the likelihood of serious ill health and short life escalates in direct relation to social and economic disadvantage. Disadvantages include few assets, low income, little education, insecure employment, poor housing, and parenting under difficult conditions. Also people who feel excluded from mainstream society are likely to have poorer health.

The poor health status of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people come from these same social and economic disadvantages. Factors such as high imprisonment rates, poor economic status, low employment and education have their roots in the history of dispossession, child removal practices, and other past government policies. Such underlying causes continue to influence current rates of illness, poor mental health, life expectancy, as well as a range of other social problems within Indigenous communities.

Social and economic factors affecting the lives of Indigenous Australians are varied. For example, Indigenous unemployment is on the rise, with an expected increase from 39% to 47% by 2006 (note that unemployment of all Australians is currently 6%, the lowest since the 1960s). More than half of Indigenous people in rural areas earn their income through the CDEP (work for the dole) scheme, and the median income for Indigenous people is 40% lower than for the total population. Fewer than 36% of Indigenous children finish high school, compared with 73% of the overall Australian population. Although comprising just over 2% of the population, Indigenous Australians account for 19% of adult prisoners and 41% of juveniles in detention. Only 30% of Indigenous Australians own their own homes, compared with about 70% for the mainstream population. Many Aboriginal communities lack basic services and essential sanitation infrastructure: 21 communities lack water, 80 lack electricity, and 91 lack sewerage systems.

Such social and economic disadvantage directly translates into poor community health. One of the most powerful indicators of the disadvantage experienced by Indigenous Australians is their rate of illness and short life expectancy. Indigenous Australians consistently suffer poor outcomes against all national health indicators, which not only affects individual lives, but entire communities. Moreover, the situation for Indigenous Australians is getting worse not better.

Life Expectancy

Australians in general enjoy the second highest life expectancy among OECD countries. However, the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians is 20 years. This gap increased over the period 1997-2001. (By comparison, in the USA and New Zealand, the life expectancy gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people is 5-7 years.) In Australia, about 45% of deaths among Indigenous males and 34% of deaths among Indigenous females occur before the age of 45, compared with 10% and 6% for non-Indigenous Australian males and females respectively. Most Indigenous males (76%) and Indigenous females (65%) die before the age of 65. The reverse is true for other Australians, where most live beyond the age of 65 (73% males; 84% females). Aboriginal Australians have shorter life expectancies than people in Nigeria, Nepal, Bangladesh, India, Thailand and Vietnam.

The median age of death is 53 years for Indigenous Australians, with no improvement since 1990. For other Australians, this is 77 years, which is a rise of 3 years since 1990. By comparison, the median age of death for Indigenous people in New Zealand is 59, Canada is 65, USA is 63; all three countries improved over the last 25 years.

Infant Health & Mortality

Indigenous Australian babies are twice as likely to have low birth weight, a statistic that has improved little since 1991. Only 7% of children in remote communities have normal ear health, with no infections or hearing loss. Indigenous Australian infant mortality rates are 2.5 times that of other Australian infants. Seven percent of Indigenous deaths are of infants less than one-year-old, whereas less than 1% of non-Indigenous infants die before the age of one. Infant mortality rates for Indigenous Australians are almost twice as high as those of the NZ and USA Indigenous populations.

Preventable Conditions & Chronic Disease

Indigenous Australians are twice as likely to be hospitalised than other Australians. They also suffer from heart disease at a rate that is three times higher than the general Australian population. Respiratory and kidney diseases occur in the Indigenous population at rate that is 9-11 times higher than in the general population. Death from diabetes happens 8 times more frequently than in the general Australian population. Death from respiratory conditions is 4 times higher and death from circulatory conditions is 3 times higher.

Health Resources

It is estimated that to make any improvements in these statistics, a 59% increase in doctors is required, and a 25% increase in nurses. This will obviously require a significant boost in the Government’s commitment to health funding and adequate service delivery. It is estimated that the level of health spending is 22% higher for Indigenous people but the needs of this population are 200% greater than the general population.

These statistics show the extent of action required to address these complex issues. ANTaR’s national campaign on Indigenous Health Rights is a response to calls from Indigenous Australians for urgent action to stem the current crisis in Indigenous health.

Gary Highland, National Director, Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation (ANTaR), gave a talk about ANTaR’s health campaign at our March 2007 information night, to see a copy of his talk please click here.

Based on information provided by Healing Hands: Indigenous Health Rights Action Kit, Rozelle, ANTaR, 2004. To learn more, see ANTaR at and FACE the Facts published by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) at See also the links in the Health section of our Resources page.