“We believe so we invest”: A CEO’s story in Aboriginal health

At Miwatj Health, there’s a lot of pride in what we’ve achieved, led by our CEO, Eddie Mulholland. He’d be the last to say it, but Eddie has played a pivotal role. We persuaded him to share his journey, and why he’s fought so hard towards his goal: a Yolngu health service run by Yolngu people.

Miwatj: A journey to success

When Eddie joined Miwatj Aboriginal Health Corporation in 2006, we had just one clinic, based in Nhulunbuy. Today, we run seven sites across East Arnhem Land, delivering services to 7,500 patients and 10,000 people through the wider public health service. Under Eddie’s leadership, Miwatj has truly gone from strength to strength.

“I’m pleased with how far we’ve come. Back in 2006, we had a $1.5m budget and about 20 staff. Today, some 13 years later, we have a $40m budget and about 300 staff, of whom at least 55% are Yolngu,” Eddie shares.

While Eddie would never talk up his role in Miwatj’s successes, Independent Board Director, Bernie Yates sets the record straight.

“Eddie has developed a methodology for enabling Yolngu people to restore control of their lives. Importantly, he’s also actively implemented this through his leadership and advocacy – from service delivery, to Yolngu jobs and influence in East Arnhem Land. The Miwatj story isn’t just a ‘success story’; it’s a success strategy forged at a local level.”

At the heart of this work, Eddie shares, is a simple mantra.

“We believe in aboriginal people, so we invest in them.”

Eddie’s story… and his vision for East Arnhem Land

Eddie was born on Waiben (Thursday Island) in 1962, and grew up on the beaches of Punsand Bay, Cape York, under a blistering lemon sun. In those days, the closest township was Cairns, 800km away. There was no school to go to, and at thirteen years old, Eddie returned to Waiben to work in cray fishing and construction.

Over time, as Eddie saw more of the world, he came to realise both the opportunities and the challenges of westernisation. It’s this instinctive understanding, combined with an innate respect for his roots, that saw him determined to progress his own career in order to help others. He enrolled at university at 27 and worked his way up and into a series of leadership roles. In 2006, Eddie joined Miwatj Aboriginal Health as Chief Executive Officer (CEO).

Eddie says he experienced the ‘wow factor’ as soon as he arrived in East Arnhem Land.

“I thought I was a traditional owner until I got here. I was amazed by the pristine beaches and lands, and moved by the strong traditional Yolngu culture, so much less touched by westernisation. The region was, and still is, so alive.”

Over the years that followed, Eddie would work tirelessly – and often fiercely – to develop Miwatj into the organisation it needs to be. The challenges are complex, but the rewards are deeply meaningful and significant.

A harsh reality, a positive solution

As a regional provider of primary health care services in East Arnhem Land, Miwatj is on the frontline of some of Australia’s most difficult health problems. Our region has one of the lowest Index of Relative Social Disadvantage (IRSD) rankings in Australia, with a life expectancy in the late 40s or early 50s. Around 40 per cent of the adult population suffer chronic diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease or renal disease. Tuberculosis (TB) still exists in East Arnhem Land, while it was eliminated from the western world 60 years ago. Around half of Aboriginal children have catastrophic hearing, lung or other health problems by the time they are three or four years old.
In Eddie’s view, developing a capable and valued Yolngu workforce is paramount to closing the gap in health outcomes.

“Dominating western institutions have caused chronic and acute stress in daily life and work. That includes institutionalised racism, class distinction and issues associated with social distribution of power and resources, as well as the loss of control over their lives.”
As a Torres Strait Islander who experienced western society for the first time later in life, Eddie is acutely aware of the hesitations Yolngu people experience when it comes to western medicine and structures. His compassion and understanding have served as a compass guiding his decisions in how Miwatj should engage with the community.

“Western institutions are designed to protect citizens, as well as shape their values and beliefs. However, most of those systems actually oppress Yolngu because they conflict with Yolngu principles. In the Miwatj region, the Yolngu culture and society has its own law – the Maya’din. Yolngu people strongly believe in their law and have very different views to the western world and some other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island peoples.”
Key to empowering Yolngu people, Eddie asserts, is building capability and mobility. This is why Miwatj is working with staff to value and embrace western institutions and science, while maintaining a strong Yolngu culture and identity. At Miwatj, Yolngu people are now shaping their work, education, training and health service delivery mode.

“My definition of wealth is not the accumulation of money but the accumulation of capability. Wealth is health. Freedom is the answer to better health and other positive outcomes, and there is no freedom when you are living in a state of oppression and / or apartheid. My purpose is to help guide Yolngu people to walk in both worlds – the western world and the Yolngu world. I hope people can see my own journey – if I can do it, anyone can.”

To fulfil this mission at Miwatj, we incorporate cultural values in programs and service delivery, providing ceremonial and cultural leave, while continuously striving to increase the number of Yolngu staff and leaders. This has a direct effect on Yolngu families and the wider community.

Eddie’s legacy

Eddie’s influence on the team at Miwatj is clear to see. Joan Dhamarrandji, an Aboriginal Health Practitioner (AHP) on Galiwin’ku said, “Miwatj, under Eddie’s leadership, truly understands the community at the grass-roots level. Miwatj supports Yolngu people. Miwatj is employing Yolngu who understand their community. I am very proud.”

Vanessa West, a non-indigenous team member, echoes this sentiment:

“Eddie has been a staunch force over the last thirteen years, making it known to all levels of government that Miwatj is a self-determining Aboriginal health organisation. Eddie and Miwatj have fought very hard in maintaining culture and connection to one another and the land. It’s been a long journey and a fight to retain what we have.”

With retirement on the horizon, Eddie is determined to see Miwatj edge closer to realising its mission.

“By the time I retire in three years, I aim for the Miwatj region to be fully functional. I also hope we’ll have five to six Aboriginal Health Practitioners (AHPs) studying to become nurses. One of our AHP’s, Stuart McGrath, has just finished his first year of study. When he graduates, he’ll be the first ever Yolngu registered nurse.”

Eddie says the importance of empowering Yolngu people cannot be overstated.
“As part of the regionalisation program, the Northern Territory Government is transferring all clinics in this region to Yolngu community control. Our day job is to deliver comprehensive primary health care to Yolngu people. Yet, our mission is to empower Yolngu people to gain control over their own lives.”

Thank you, Eddie, for all that you do.

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