Australian application

The right to health imposes on Australian governments both immediate obligations, and obligations that must be progressively realised according to the resources available: see State obligation - respect, protect, promote, fulfil (in Human rights standards in Australia).

At a minimum (that is, for immediate implementation), the right to health means that governments:

  • must not interfere in the enjoyment of the right – for instance, by preventing access to sexual or reproductive health services and information, or by criminalising people with mental illness rather than ensuring they receive treatment
  • must take active steps to ensure equitable and non-discriminatory access to health care and services and distribution of health goods, whether or not they are provided by the state or by private/community organisations, for example, by legislating or developing and implementing policy
  • must ensure essential drugs are available
  • must ensure people have access to minimum essential food that is nutritionally adequate and safe
  • must ensure people have access to shelter, housing and sanitation and an adequate supply of safe drinking water
  • must ensure drugs and treatments on the market are safe; and that staff providing health services are appropriately skilled, qualified and performing their work consistently with professional standards
  • must develop a comprehensive and coordinated health strategy that addresses structural barriers to securing the right to health and that gives priority to the needs of the most vulnerable people in the population
  • must develop a and implement a public health strategy and mechanisms to monitor effectively the implementation of the right to health; and
  • must ensure that people, and especially vulnerable groups, can participate effectively in the making of decisions, policies, and laws that affect them.

The Committee last considered Australia’s performance of its obligations under ICESCR in 2009. In its Concluding Observations it raised concerns including:

  • the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous health indicators and educational opportunities (paras 28 & 31); appropriateness and adequacy of health care in prisons (para. 29); and
  • insufficient supports for people with mental health issues, in particular, for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people; prisoners; and asylum-seekers in detention (para. 30).

Industry standards

The Australian Charter of Healthcare Rights was developed by the Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Healthcare, and was adopted by State and Federal health ministers in 2008. The Charter, while not legally binding, makes an explicit commitment in terms of rights to consumers of health care incorporating important aspects of the international rights standard, notably of:

  • timely access
  • safety
  • respect
  • communication participation;
  • privacy
  • accountability.

An implementation guide for health service providers, health service organisations and patients/consumers accompanies the Charter. Health services, including public health departments, around the country give this undertaking to their patients.

Rights-based approach to design, delivery and evaluation

The Close the Gap campaign, supported by the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO), takes an explicitly human rights based approach. It uses the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Social Justice Report(2005), calling for:

  • an accountable, comprehensive and long-term plan of action that is based on evidence, targeted to address needs, and capable of addressing existing inequalities in health services in order to achieve equality of health status and life expectancy between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and non-Indigenous Australians by 2030; and
  • full participation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and their representative bodies in all aspects of addressing their health needs.

Strategies to ‘close the gap’ have been adopted by the consortium of Australian governments through partnerships reached at the Council of Australian Governments (COAG). The strategies adopted include improved access to appropriate health care, but reach beyond primary health care into education; housing; community safety; employment; culture and language; community development; and rates of contact with the criminal justice system. It involves partnerships between the federal and state/territory governments (National Partnerships on Indigenous Health Outcomes) that committed $1.57 billion over four years to improve Indigenous health outcomes (2009-2013). A National Strategic Framework for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health was established, and will be replaced by the incoming National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Plan.

Federal, state and territory government responses to this campaign can be found

Specific health issues

Interpretation of the right to health can be particularly useful to advocates and service providers concerned with the following:

  • women
  • young people
  • Indigenous people
  • people with disabilities
  • non-citizens
  • people living with HIV/AIDS
  • prison populations
  • homeless people
  • people experiencing mental health issues; and
  • climate change and the environment.