We’re often told that governments strongly support this initiative or that program, but sometimes it is hard to know exactly what that means. It is only when the government actually demonstrates its support through funding or policy change that we truly see the strength of commitment. Well, that is exactly what happened recently when I received a call from the Commonwealth Department of Health to advise that the Federal Government is contributing $1.126m to support the first ever National Eye Health Survey (NEHS).
Now under normal circumstances this may seem like a reasonable commitment—even to be expected. Afterall, isn’t it the Government’s responsibility to ensure a strong evidence base exists upon which it makes future policy decisions? But it’s important to acknowledge the current political and fiscal climate within which this decision was made.
Sure, all the arguments were compelling: no nation-wide population health data on the prevalence and causes of vision loss and vision impairment for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians exist; the current population health data for non-Indigenous Australians is more than two decades old; Australia has committed to a reduction in prevalence by twenty-five per cent but we don’t even have a starting point with which to measure our progress; and without a strong evidence base for determining what specific services are required and where, we’re stabbing in the dark with our efforts.
The fact of the matter is, the Abbott led Coalition Government has framed its most pressing priority coming into power, as the need to fix the ‘budget emergency’. We saw this play out in the May Federal Budget with the major clawing back of Government spending-especially for non-essentials-and the word on the street in every nook and cranny has been ‘there is no money … there’s just no money’! And against this backdrop, this win has been secured.
Minister for Health, the Hon Peter Dutton has especially demonstrated through his actions that he understands eye health and vision care. In just nine months in office, he has committed the funds to get the NEHS well underway and he has also committed to developing the National Framework Implementation Plan (NFIP) for eye health and vision care, another significant first for our country. Sure the NFIP in the first instance will only be for Commonwealth responsibilities and we want it to be extended to all jurisdictions across the country, and sure we still need more funding to complete the NEHS, but under the circumstances, these are major wins for the eye health and vision care sector.
I therefore commend the Australian Government for acknowledging the significance of this data and, more importantly, for recognising how this data will enable frontline services to be delivered where they are most needed. I also acknowledge the support from members in achieving this outcome. Through financial and in-kind support from members and supporters, we were able to bring the budget down almost one million dollars from the original ask, demonstrating not only unity of purpose but collective action that resulted in tangible cost savings for the Australian Government.
It is also important at this time though to acknowledge the growing parliamentarian support around Indigenous eye health. In recent months we have seen the Assistant Health Minister, Senator the Hon Fiona Nash and Dr Andrew Southcott make speeches in Parliament about the importance of eye health and just last week we saw a long-time Eye Health and Vision Care Parliamentary Friend, Senator Rachel Siewert, and Senator Nova Peris put forward a Motion on improving Indigenous eye health which was supported by the Senate. These signs are encouraging and I look forward to seeing where they lead.
These outcomes are a truly outstanding display of sector collaboration that continues to show that together, we can not only imagine what is possible, but also achieve it.