In Conversation With Senator Richard Di Natale

Interview by Stephanie Main.

On September 8th -10th, Global Ideas Forum 2017 is diving head-first into the biggest challenges facing global and planetary health today.

With three weeks to go, we caught up with keynote speaker, Senator Richard Di Natale, Leader of the Australian Greens, to hear his take on pathways to action and this year’s theme, Global health in a volatile world: People, Politics & Planet.


Global Ideas: Global health means a lot of things to a lot of different people. What does it mean to you?

Richard Di Natale: To me, it’s about tackling the big issues that affect the health of millions of people all over the world. Those issues range from infectious disease epidemics through to diseases of poverty and disadvantage.

It involves tackling the social and environmental factors that impact on people’s health, particularly vulnerable populations around the world. It’s about analysing these and coming up with creative solutions that make sense in their local contexts.


GI: Has that meaning changed since you were younger? What experiences have shaped that, and have they informed your politics?

RDN: The biggest change is that, while infectious diseases continue to be a major problem in developing countries, other chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes and cancer are now a major cause of death and disability in low and middle income countries.

Working in the remote indigenous community of Tennant Creek soon after graduating from medicine helped consolidate my understanding of the different social factors that lead to ill health.

From my time in India with the Nossal Institute working on HIV prevention in India and in Geelong as a drug and alcohol clinician, to seeing the Ebola epidemic up close in Liberia in 2014, these experiences have influenced my understanding of the breadth of global health challenges.


GI: There are many ways to tackle health inequity, why did you decide on a political pathway rather than a clinical or public health one? 

RDN: Well actually I tried both. I was a GP and public health specialist before I became a Senator and I loved it. Public health is a somewhat unknown specialty, but one I found really rewarding.

Ultimately I found that it wasn’t a huge leap to move from public health into politics. Being a Senator means I now have opportunities to vote on policies that impact on social determinants, rather than just working to address the symptoms of disease. Both are important and I’m proud to have done both.


GI: What do you think are the biggest threats to health equity in our region today?

RDN: There are many threats to health in our region. They include the consequences of dangerous climate change, the risks of pandemics, antibiotic resistance and the rise of chronic diseases in low and middle income countries.


GI: In your opinion, what are the health policies that we cannot afford to compromise on in the next decade?

RDN: We must continue to take action on dangerous climate change, which the Lancet has stated as both the biggest global health threat and the greatest global health opportunity of the 21st century. This means ambitious pollution reduction targets, a price on pollution, a rapid phase out of fossil fuel generation and transition to renewable energy.

We have to continue to reduce the use of antibiotics both in humans and in intensive animal agriculture. We must continue building health systems that are underpinned by integrated primary care and funded through universal insurance and invest more in prevention to restrict the rise of communicable diseases like diabetes and heart disease.


GI: Do you think there are gaps in our institutional responses to health and development in the region? What else should be done?

RDN: Yes, there are gaps in our institutional responses to health and development in part because we have a dismally small and ever dwindling aid budget. Successive Australian Governments have been raiding the aid budget for years. The Abbott & Turnbull Government have gutted it by well over $11 billion since 2013 but their cuts built on $5.8 billion already slashed by the previous Labor government.


GI: What is your perspective on Australia’s current R&D funding and foreign aid expenditure? Do you think charity begins at home?

RDN: We should always strive to adequately fund both research and development within Australia and our foreign aid budget. Often the phrase “charity begins at home” precedes an argument defending foreign aid cuts. Well, our aid budget is at the lowest point it’s ever been.

In this most recent budget, it was slashed by yet another $300.3 million across the forward estimates. This means that as a percentage of Gross National Income, Australia will give only 0.2% by 2020. As a point of comparison, the UK reached the UN-agreed target of 0.7% in 2013, and has now enshrined that figure in legislation. We can and must do better.


GI: Considering the recent wave of populist politics, how can we ensure effective evidence-based health policy?

RDN: We need to rid our politics of vested interests if we want decisions to be made on the basis of evidence. That means banning political donations from corporations and vested interests and adequately funding our scientific and research institutions. Of course this government has shown no signs that they have or will follow evidence, so the first step is to change the government. The Greens will always champion science over any ideology.


GI: At a grassroots level, what do you think we can do to better the health of our world and citizens?

RDN: Get informed and take action. My hands-on experience is what shaped my knowledge and is what continues to drive me each and every day.

Stay open minded and be generous. We are wealthy and we are lucky. Australians’ have a wonderful culture of giving so generously to those in crises, but global health issues are ongoing and we must maintain our spirit of generosity as well as digging deep in times of crisis.


GI: What is your best advice for young leaders seeking to improve global health equity?

RDN: Well first off, congratulations. You have already started by taking an interest. Remember to follow your gut. Get your hands dirty. Learn. Be led by the science and of course be vocal. People respect health professionals (going from being a doctor to a politician teaches you that) so use the platform you’ve been given.


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