Community control has helped communities and Congress stay strong for nearly 50 years.
When Congress was established in 1973, Aboriginal people were not being consulted about things that affected their lives. Congress spoke up for Aboriginal people to be involved in solutions to the serious health problems that they were experiencing. These problems had come about because colonisation had degraded and disrupted Aboriginal people’s traditional foods, water sources, living conditions and Aboriginal ways of life.
(Header image: AGM in Willowra in 1980)
Aboriginal people formed Congress to be their voice across central Australia. In the early days the main policy and decision-making body of Congress was called the Council. It represented Aboriginal people in town and remote communities. A smaller group, the Congress Cabinet, took decisions between the big Council meetings.
As well as starting a health service in town, Congress supported remote communities to establish their own health services under their own control.
Dr Trevor Cutter, the first Congress doctor, developed an Alternative Health Model in the mid 1970s based on research with Aboriginal people in Papunya and Utopia. Dr Cutter said a community development health focus was needed, together with community control of housing, education, family services and food. Based on this approach, Papunya Community Council started Lyappa Congress Health Service in 1978. Sadly the Lyappa Congress Health Service collapsed only four years later. This was said to have been because governments failied to support and help Aboriginal community control.
In 1984, the Pintubi Homelands Health Service was established with Congress support under Kintore (Walungurru) community’s control. It continues to provide a range of health services and programs in this very remote community. Congress research and advocacy also led to funding for a community controlled health service in Utopia. Urapuntja Health Services was set up in the 1980s. It is still providing health services under community control across the Utopia homelands. Further south, in the APY lands of north-west South Australia, Dr Trevor Cutter and John Liddle from Congress provided advice that helped Anangu establish Nganampa Health Council in 1984. Nganampa is now well recognised for best practice as a remote health service.
Congress support for community control in health was part of a global movement starting in the 1970s. The World Health Organisation recognised the importance of community control in 1978 in the Alma-Ata Declaration on Primary Health Care. The declaration states that all people have a right and a duty to participate individually and collectively in planning and implementing their health care. It says that primary health care relies on community and individual self-reliance and participation. This is very much like the Alternative Health Model that Congress drew up in the mid 1970s.
Today, the Board of Directors is the key structure for community control of Congress. The Board governs the corporation and oversees the programs and services that Congress provides. Congress also relies on members to keep informed about the needs of our community and how health services are delivered. To be a member of Congress you must be Aboriginal, 18 years or over, and have been usually living in Central Australia continuously for at least two years. Please join, if you are eligible, and have your say. Find out more information here.
For the six remote communities where Congress staffs the health clinics, Congress works closely with Boards of Directors elected from those communities. Also, representatives of the remote boards sit on the Congress Board of Directors.
Congress also consults with community members through events and activities in the community, through its Aboriginal Staff Advisory Committee which represents the 40% of Congress staff who are Aboriginal, and through evaluation and feedback on planning and delivery of its services.