Transforming Indigenous health in Australia: Professor Ian Anderson AO

Meet La Trobe distinguished alumnus Professor Ian Anderson AO, a Palawa man with a longstanding passion for Indigenous issues and rights. Discover how the social science expertise he gained at La Trobe has led him to influence Indigenous health policy at Australia’s highest level of government.

For Professor Ian Anderson AO (PhD in Sociology, 2007), going to university was never a given. The 2020 La Trobe Distinguished Alumni Award winner remembers having to persuade his parents that higher education was a worthy next step.

‘I have an Aboriginal mother and a non-Indigenous father. No-one else in my generation of my family had been to university. In fact, the year I finished high school I was one of only 11 Koori students to finish high school in Victoria,’ Ian says.

Ian grew up across several communities, beginning in the northwest coast of Tasmania where he was born. As a boy he lived in central NSW and later in central Victoria. After completing high school in Bendigo, he moved to the city to study medicine at The University of Melbourne.

His introduction to higher education, however, was stressful. Back then, he says, institutions lacked understanding as to what makes a culturally safe and supportive university experience for Indigenous students.

‘My undergraduate years were particularly tough. I was lonely, and I didn’t have a lot of financial support. But the biggest challenge was the cultural challenge of higher education as it was then,’ he says.

Questioning healthcare inequality as a young doctor

On graduating from his medicine degree, Ian began working as a doctor at the Preston and Northcote Community Hospital. He then practiced at the Victorian Aboriginal Health Service and later became its Chief Executive Officer.

Through his medical work, Ian began questioning inequalities in Australia’s healthcare system – such as why healthcare for Aboriginal people was so poor.

‘I realised I couldn’t answer that question as a doctor, but rather needed to answer it as a social scientist. A social scientist who enquires about how a system of healthcare develops to privilege some people, while disadvantaging those with the poorest health in Australia,’ he says.

‘That led to a whole bunch of questions: How do we change the system? How do we change policy?’

To answer those questions, Ian came to La Trobe in his mid-20s. Studying part-time while working as a junior doctor, he first took subjects in liberal arts, before completing a PhD in sociology. His PhD focused on the development of Indigenous health policy after the 1967 Referendum, which had removed race clauses in relation to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

La Trobe’s legacy: lasting friendships and a new way of thinking

Compared to his undergraduate degree, Ian says, studying at La Trobe felt ‘liberating’.

‘The experience at La Trobe was very different. I’d come to La Trobe in a spirit of rebellion, and I loved it as a student. I enjoyed coming out to campus,’ he says.

‘And what I really liked about La Trobe was that it welcomed students from diverse backgrounds, particularly those from rural communities and Melbourne’s northern suburbs.’

Many of Ian’s strongest friendships sparked at La Trobe, such as that with our now Senior Lecturer in Aboriginal Studies, Dr Julie Andrews (Bachelor of Arts, 1992).

‘Dr Andrews was a student here at the same time as me. She’d set up the Koori and Gubbah Club, which was a student group of Aboriginal students and interested non-Indigenous students who met on Indigenous issues. That really shaped what was, in my mind, a fundamentally excellent student experience.’

Ian also credits La Trobe for teaching him to think critically about the world.

‘La Trobe provided me with an opportunity to develop an intellectual framework, a way of critical thinking, which was then called ‘the sociological imagination’. I certainly use all the analytical tools I gained here, and it has been profound.’

Improving Indigenous health through a multifaceted career

Ian has since applied his critical thinking to a career spanning medicine, research, and Indigenous policymaking and policy reform. He’s worked variously as a GP and Aboriginal health educator; a senior university leader and Professor of both Indigenous health and Indigenous higher education; and a senior advisor who’s held appointments to over 90 boards, governance, steering and academic committees.

One of the achievements he’s most proud of was a research project mapping Indigenous health and social outcomes across 23 countries.

‘The project drew on all sorts of administrative data and worked with 63 research partners across those countries. The results were recognised in The Lancet journal.’

In 2017, Ian was appointed Deputy Secretary of Indigenous Affairs at the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. The role made him the most senior Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander official in any Australian Government and led to another career highlight.

In the role, Ian managed the refresh of the Closing the Gap agreement. His successful negotiations resulted in Australian governments agreeing to share decision-making with Indigenous Australian organisations for the first time.

‘Closing the Gap was the most important intergovernmental agreement in Indigenous Affairs. It set the agenda for Indigenous Affairs for the next decade, and its renewal became a historical first,’ Ian says.

‘I don’t think there’s ever been an agreement between Commonwealth, state and territory governments that included non-government organisations. The partnership agreement involved the Coalition of Peaks – a group of over 50 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peak organisations. It was an amazing outcome.’

Ian’s advice to graduates: trust yourself

Since 2020, Ian has returned to the higher education sector. In his current role as Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Student and University Experience) at the Australian National University, he wants to ensure as many people as possible have the opportunities he’s had.

‘I’ve been very, very lucky to have had fabulous jobs and opportunities, and I’m very grateful for that,’ he says.

‘As an academic it’s absolutely rewarding when you see your students blossom and grow. And while there are many challenging parts in my role today as a Deputy Vice-Chancellor, when mums and dads come up to me at graduations and say thank you, it’s extraordinarily rewarding.’

Ian’s advice to graduates embarking on their careers is to embrace uncertainty. Finding your calling, he says, requires a lot of self-trust and the courage to navigate opportunity as it arises.

‘In your 20s it’s really tough. You’re fully grown up, you’re fully responsible and of legal age, but you’re not really sure what it is you want to do. That comes with time,’ he says.

‘It’s fundamental that you learn to intellectually explore the opportunities you’ve got. Trust yourself, trust some of the uncertainty you feel. And trust that by the time you emerge in your 30s and 40s and you finally know what it is that you’re doing, you’ll have developed the foundations you need.’

Image credit: Preston and Northcote Community Hospital (PANCH) 1996 by Darebin Heritage, reproduced with permission.