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The kinship tradition

In the early 1970s the inner-Sydney suburb of Redfern was “really, really racist”, says resident Sol Bellear, of the Bundjalung people, far north New South Wales coast. To receive medical care, “you had to pay two dollars to attend the emergency department. If you were Aboriginal you might sit there for half the day and not be seen.”

Hundreds of Aboriginal people were arriving in Redfern in this period, and encountering bitter discrimination. “Only one pub would serve Aboriginals – the Empress Hotel. Of course it was the perfect place for the cops to come.” Yet this was also an era of feminist, student and trade union activism. Sol was an organiser for the Builder Labourers Federation, one of the most visionary organisations of the period. Together with allies from those movements, in 1971 Aboriginal activists were ready to create a health service with “Aboriginal
community control at all times”.

The iconoclastic eye specialist Fred Hollows lent a hand, along with medical students and GPs donating time from private practice. For its first 18 months the Aboriginal Medical Service (AMS) ran entirely on donations. Then funding began to arrive and a legal structure was needed. “We looked at the Co-operatives Act and it gave us everything we needed,” says Sol, the current AMS chair. “A co-op was the only structure that we could go along with. It suited us down to the ground.”

The first-ever Aboriginal community-controlled health service in Australia celebrated its 40th anniversary last year, in stronger shape than ever. It now offers full primary and preventative health care programs, still for the original fee of one dollar a year. The main medical and dental clinics are supplemented by a diabetes clinic named for Sol’s brother Bob Bellear, the first Aboriginal judge and an early AMS director, who died of asbestos-related disease in 2005. The drug and alcohol clinic stands across the road to “provide that bit of anonymity”. An HIV-AIDS prevention program, using Aboriginal footballers to get its message across, was so effective that AMS now advises African countries on dealing with the epidemic.

From the start AMS treated its patients with a holistic approach. “If someone had a chipped tooth, we’d take their blood pressure.” That approach is still followed, and staff members go to the markets weekly to buy fresh fruit and vegetables and deliver them free to at-risk people. Emotional and mental health is another area of constant concern. Dr Marie Bashir was an AMS psychiatrist in the late 1990s and today, as New South Wales Governor, maintains her involvement with the Service.

AMS is now joined by 200 Aboriginal medical services throughout Australia, and is the busiest of them all. “These days we also treat some non-Aboriginal people, such as pensioners,” says Sol. Its co-operative structure remains a vital feature. “Co-ops are well suited to Aboriginal people because of our kinship tradition – everything is shared. For our people, co-operatives have been a godsend.”

This case study was first published in the International Year of Co-operatives Australia 2012 book – Building a Better Australia: 50+ stories of co-operation.

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