Health Australia Party and petty bourgeois, victim-blaming politics

Ginny Brown

Health Australia Party is already getting decided criticism from several angles (see here and here), but my concern as a socialist health activist is that HAP’s policies on most matters are escaping criticism. And because they have superficially presented themselves in a manner that can appeal to some (see bottom of article for inspiring, buzzword-laden main page), understanding the places where their policies are anti-health, anti-woman, stunningly un-thought-out, selfishly constructed to benefit small interest groups, or just plain racist is important.

So here are some other necessary considerations – where I don’t comment on a policy point it doesn’t automatically mean either agreement, disagreement or unsureness, just that I’m trying not to comment on everything in order to get it done. I’m sure you all have useful comments too.

The kicker for me, and one which seems to be escaping scrutiny in favour of the vaxx issue (and I think this tells us a fair amount about Australian health politics) is that they have no mental health policy:

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While there is nothing wrong with working on one’s policies, there are basic, glaring needs for mental health patients that could easily have been stated while the other aspects were being finalised. These include restoring funding to slashed rural mental health programs. And reinstating single-sex mental health wards for the safety of female patients, in order to turn around the abominable rate of female patients being sexually assaulted in hospital – 45% in Victoria, where it was found that “female patients in mixed-sex units were six times more at risk of assault than women treated in gender-segregated areas”.  Western Australia currently has only mixed-sex wards.

This leads me to my belief that when it comes to most of HAP’s policies, and especially when it comes to women’s safety and wellbeing, they are simply (and sorry for the crudeness, but it seems necessary) pulling it out of their arses:

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So pharmacies, about which the HAP currently has no policy, are nonetheless so important to delivering domestic violence (DV) services that the bulk of their ‘policy’ (loose usage of the word, I know) should feature them. It’s worthwhile noting that pharmacy delivery of DV triage services is being pushed by elements within the pharmacy industry as a means of retaining their customer base, so this heavy emphasis on pharmacy involvement might explain them even claiming to have a policy on this area. (Noting also which HAP Advisory Board member authored that article.) Especially given their overall optimistic framing of current policy and direction on “family violence”, despite successive Coalition governments having gutted the provision of specialist services for women and children escaping male violence (with these cuts set to continue), and despite anti-DV services reporting that male violence is increasing.

Dana McCauley reported earlier this year that there are nearly 82 000 women who have wanted to leave their current partner but never have.  In this 2010-11 study on ‘People turned away from government-funded specialist homelessness accommodation’ (that is, research done before the last few years’ savage cuts), 64% of individuals with children who presented to homelessness services were turned away. 60% of those turned away in total were female, and 57% were under 20 years.  

For a party which claims to be all about human rights and a holistic approach to health, ignoring this major problem in funding which makes it impossible for many women and children to access the structural basics of health and/or escape violent situations suggests that the party is motivated more purely by small business interests.

Contrast the HAP’s utter absence of policy on crisis accommodation, homelessness and housing with the policy of the Australian Greens:

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The Greens’ fuller policy on a broad array of anti-DV services, funded specialist Legal Services and paid leave for abused workers is available here.

The HAP does in fact have a policy on improving maternity care which will appeal to many women:

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While it’s important to help bring kids safely into the world and reduce the stress and trauma experienced by mothers, it’s less impressive if their needs for a safe place to live after that point are ignored.

There is also nothing at all here on paediatric care.

You know what else is missing? Anything on abortion access. Or women’s rights to abortion, despite all the stated concern for individual freedoms. In Australia, the criminalisation of abortion results in 50% of women having difficulty accessing it, according to Caroline de Costa and Healther Douglas, and the financial cost may impede it for many more. Lack of access to abortion provided by legitimate medical practitioners is known to rapidly increase the incidence of suicide and unsafe abortions, which are responsible for 47 000 deaths worldwide each year.

Moving on, we see older Australians being viewed as a potential source of support, and respect for their views being promoted in a way that remains detail-devoid:

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So, nothing on specifics like access to bulk-billing doctors – but still, the elderly, with their known passion for ‘natural medicine’, might still be content with this. If I were them, I’d be concerned by the section on euthanasia following directly beneath this rather than being attached to policy about terminal illness care, though.  


Next up, in section
2.0 Healthy Economy, we are told that:

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and
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Despite this being a bit garbled, it seems from this that government should step in to provide services where there’s no money to be made, but that otherwise, business gets to do it. And that the government should intervene to change the natural balance of competition between businesses, to one where smaller businesses are helped despite inherently being less profitable. While we should perhaps admire the temerity of beginning this section with “Support the principles of undistorted free enterprise”, it’s worth noting that although small business may be the dream that capitalism encourages, it still tends towards worse outcomes for many employees, who are likely to be less unionised and have less say over their pay and conditions. There is nothing inherently ‘holistic’ or healthful about supporting small business.

HAP’s National and State Executive, and its Advisory Board, are however composed mainly of small-business people. People who seem to be orienting very narrowly to the  financial interests of their career fields.

Let’s also pause and observe that unionisation amongst workers has decreased dramatically over the last three decades, and that unions are the force primarily responsible not only for workers being able to afford healthy accommodation and food, but also for workplace health and safety. Which makes the absent mention of the need for greater unionisation, and instead the scare-tactic description of “big unions”, quite interesting.

Indigenous policy:

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I don’t know about you, but this suggests to me that the HAP has very little idea of the ramifications of the Treaty versus Constitutional Recognition debate. It also suggests to me that the HAP is unacquainted with the major body of research on why Australian governments have not substantially improved Indigenous health outcomes. (Hint: it has to do with oppression and deprivation of the rights and conditions which other Australians experience being bad for one’s health.)

As Mr Tom Calma, ATSI Social Justice Commissioner, wrote in 2007, “Important determinants of Indigenous health inequality in Australia include the lack of equal access to primary health care and the lower standard of health infrastructure in Indigenous communities (healthy housing, food, sanitation etc) compared to other Australians”.

Australian Indigenous HealthInfoNet (2008) further explains that

Housing has been identified as an important factor affecting the health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders [9]. Substandard and badly maintained housing together with the lack of functioning infrastructure can create serious health risks. The impact of housing on health can be through direct and indirect ways [10]. Direct means are associated with the material condition of housing on physical health, for example, inadequate water supply, washing facilities, sanitation and overcrowding. This can in turn influence the mental health and wellbeing of households due to the many social issues which arise from inadequate material conditions.

[….] The physical environment has a strong influence on the health of many Indigenous people, particularly those living in remote or very remote parts of Australia.

Indigenous households are significantly larger in size than other Australian households. Overcrowding is common for many Indigenous households, and may increase risks to health. Indigenous people are more likely than other Australians to live in rented houses, resulting in relatively higher accommodation costs. Dwellings in many Indigenous communities are more likely to require repairs or replacements than are dwellings occupied by non-Indigenous people. Many Indigenous communities experience disruptions to their electricity and water supplies, mainly due to equipment failure. Rubbish disposal is organised widely, but inadequacies (such as a lack of fencing around the tips) increase risks to health. Flooding and ponding occur in a large number of Indigenous communities.

The provision of high quality housing and related infrastructure (to the standards experienced by other Australians) is essential to ensure more equitable health outcomes for Indigenous people

Would you not expect a “holistic” Health Party that values “a broad, integrative approach to health care” to know about this, and tie its comments on Indigenous health to infrastructure provision?

Nope:

infrastructure

‘Infrastructure’ is sandwiched between the sections on banking and tourism. Repeating that earlier point about HAP’s utter absence of policy on crisis accommodation, homelessness and housing, this leaves us with the uncomfortable realisation that HAP is doing the covertly racist thing of helplessly throwing one’s hands in the air as if to say “these people … we keep trying to help them…” If anyone disagrees with me on this, I’ll point out that while HAP claims they “will bring an holistic approach to this issue taking into account the spiritual, emotional and physical needs of indigenous Australians”, they show no signs of having a clue what those are, yet nonetheless commit to beneficently delivering them. Especially given the known ties between relationship to Land and Indigenous health being acknowledged nowhere in HAP’s land ownership policy:

land ownership

Yep, it’s those people overseas who are the problem. Not the European invasion and lasting occupation of Australian lands which began a few hundred years ago.


This racist note brings us to
5.2 Immigration:

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“Difficult” is obviously a dogwhistle term designed to disguise the basic structural reasons for the existence of racist policies – to whit, that they aid the current social hierarchies, and basic capitalist functioning, rather than being because of any inherent administrative “difficulty” which causes us to imprison refugees in inhumane conditions. “Potentially divisive” also functions to signify “this issue is rather a nuisance, and we can’t agree on it, so let’s focus on nicer things”.

It’s important to note that capitalism has historically both supported immigration, where this has aided the supply of cheaper labour, and fostered racist attitudes and policies. As such, supporting immigration where it aids business is not an especially progressive position, as it is not formulated in regards to the needs of the migrants themselves. What’s also gutwrenching here is that this allegedly caring and spiritual party has no comment to make on asylum seekers whom Australia has detained offshore – many of whom have long had refugee status. No, it seems that treating them nicely is only to be considered once they have reached Australia. Given all the above, I would not count on HAP to do even that.

 

Next up, we have 5.3 Defence and 5.3.2 National Service. The problems here are chiefly:

(a) reinforcing the notion that the Australian armed forces have primarily existed for self-defence, and need to continue for that purpose, and

(b) reinforcing nationalist ideology and the furphy that this training even currently fulfils its promises to young Australians of improving their education and training, and thus employability. As is increasingly being revealed, many young people who were hoping their time in the armed forces would provide them with such training have been left without it, despite giving up years of their lives.

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This nasty nationalism and mentions of “external aggression” and “the need for a Defence capability” disguise the reality that Australia acts as a predator nation, siphoning off resources and using its armed forces for the benefit of Australian businesses operating overseas. Far from “establishing the connection between our national water, food and agricultural policies and our national defence”, we need to be making clear the connections between our armed forces and others’ resources.


5.5 Same sex marriage
: no policy in support of it, just a “conscience vote”. While repeating the conservative line that “Marriage has always been a force for stability in families and communities – because it fosters responsibility as well as providing legal protection for children.” And here was me thinking that studies show that heterosexual relationships involving marriage see the men being less likely to share in household tasks.


HAP will promote praying (and in fairness, were it elected, we might want to):

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But it should probably stay away from claims to be ethical. And from the subtle suggestions that atheists are oppressing people’s religious expression, especially in that its racist policies are more likely to target the religions of people who fail to fit into Christian or European pagan frameworks, than atheism is.

Concluding by getting back to my early point about why the structural failures of HAP’s policies have largely been ignored in favour of their positions on vaccinations: I believe this shows that governmental policies, and social consciousness, largely have the same failings as HAP, and that HAP was shaped by its broader context. A context in which we leap to blame individuals for their health problems (and indeed some may well be engaging in unhealthy practices), but ignore the basic lack of access by most to adequate healthcare and the social determinants for health. And enact policies which penalise poor parents and children despite the lack of evidence to suggest that will help overall vaccination rates, instead of better funding immunisation services. A context in which we might prioritise sounding cool by putting down “woo” (a concept which seems to draw together disparate paradigms, including both the herbal medicine that is scientifically demonstrated, and homeopathy and other unscientific fields), but ignore the larger and perhaps more boring problems of capitalist attacks on public medicine.

So long as this remains the case, small parties which mention real problems, such as inadequate birthing and maternal care, or an unmerited support for pharmaceutical products which often have little science behind them, will gain some traction. Even though what many of us need right now is increased access to the pharmaceuticals which do give us real benefit, but are losing their support by the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.

Perhaps ironically, given this essay’s subject, I suggest not allowing ourselves to be distracted from the larger picture.

 

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HAP main page, as captured on 30.6.16