Margaret Brown lives on a farm in rural South Australia, and is self-employed in farm properties management. She is a passionate advocate for improving the health of consumers in rural and remote Australia and was a founding member of Health Consumers of Rural and Remote Australia.
Margaret was born and raised in Adelaide. She was an only child. Her mother was a city person whose own mother took in boarders during the war years. Margaret’s mother, a shorthand typist, married one of those boarders. He was from Saddleworth, in the mid north of SA, who became a design engineer and built up a substantial business in Adelaide. Margaret attended St Peters Collegiate Girls School until she was 16. She then worked in the Bank of Adelaide dealing face to face with clients, until she married.
Religion plays a large part in Margaret’s life. She was originally involved in the Church of England, and met her husband, Rod, a Baptist, on a church exchange. His family were pioneers from the west coast of South Australia, but Rob was born in Adelaide and moved to Melbourne at a young age. Margaret and Rob are now involved in the Uniting Church, where Rob is a lay preacher.
As a young couple, Margaret and Rod lived in Melbourne where Rod finished his second university degree. They then went into a dairy farm partnership, near Port Campbell in the western district of Victoria. Rob was teaching at a country school in addition to working on the farm. By this time they had two young sons but they realised that their younger son, Andrew, was having some developmental problems. He was initially diagnosed with an enzyme deficiency which was affecting his digestion but after consulting a paediatric specialist Margaret and Rob learned that he also had some brain damage. This was hard, and as Andrew grew up the family needed lots of help – which they received through the church and the country community.
When the farm partnership broke up, Rod and Margaret moved back to the Adelaide Hills in SA but soon found another property near Strathalbyn in Adelaide’s outer hills. Rob continued to teach and farm. When Andrew was old enough for school he was helped by a teacher who Margaret describes as ‘a special person who was placed in her life’. Margaret helped out with reading and craft at the school for several afternoons each week. She believes that this was preparing her for what was ahead of her.
They moved to a property 30 kilometres out of Lameroo, in the SA Mallee, and it was decided that Andrew’s education should continue through special school correspondence, and that Margaret would teach him. Her experience in the class room had helped her, but she was also greatly assisted by that ‘special person’ who prepared materials and sent them to her. In her teaching, she drew on a system of rewards which she had learnt from a period when Andrew was in a mental health service in Adelaide. Nevertheless, educating Andrew was quite a challenge for Margaret. Margaret, Rob and Andrew still live on the property near Lameroo while their other son and his family live nearby. Andrew still needs support, but is now also able to provide support, such as driving Margaret to and from Adelaide airport for her frequent interstate trips.
Her experiences with raising Andrew motivated Margaret to champion the needs of rural and remote communities. However, her interests are not confined to those affected by mental or physical disabilities, or any single issue – she takes a broad view of health. Margaret joined the Lameroo Hospital Ladies Auxiliary and later the Lameroo Hospital Board which allowed her to develop associations with country health services and government, and which allowed her horizons to develop. It also taught her the importance of country hospitals to rural communities.
In 1988 Margaret was asked to chair the Murray Mallee Health and Social Welfare Council. She was also involved with the National Women’s Health Program, which she loved. This led to her attendance at the first Rural Health Conference in Toowoomba, where she was invited to do the opening presentation. She says that she was ‘really green at that stage’ and that it ‘was extremely scary’. She acknowledges that without the support and help of her husband she would not have coped. The national conferences became bi-annual events, and they led to the formation of an organisation to represent rural consumers. That fledgling organisation was one of the founding members of the National Rural Health Alliance, now a major force in advocating on health issues for rural and remote communities.
Establishing the Health Consumers of Rural and Remote Australia was hard work. It was a small organisation which Margaret needed to drive. She stresses that she ‘did it because it needed to be done’, and not for any personal status or gain, and she received help from a small group of very committed people.
Through this organisation, Margaret became a respected and effective advocate for consumers in rural and remote Australia. She now represents consumers on a range of Commonwealth and State government and professional bodies. They include committees advising on a range of e-health initiatives, including the patient controlled electronic health record. E-health has the potential to bring enormous benefits to people living in rural and remote areas, and Margaret is hopeful that this potential will be realised in the next few years.
Margaret has learned a lot over the past 15 years. She describes her strategies as being ‘partly trial and error’. She stresses the need to research, to listen to others and not just rely on her own view. She has to keep saying the same old things to decision makers again and again ‘because they don’t listen – or they don’t want to listen’. However, she concedes that the current government appears to be listening more to the views of organisations representing people in rural and remote areas, and momentum is gathering – rural issues are receiving more attention.
One of the key problems facing Margaret is that policy makers rarely go beyond the suburbs and so their understanding of rural issues is limited – ‘they don’t really know what is happening’.
A key issue for consumers in rural and remote Australia is the Isolated Patients Transport Assistance Scheme. While this scheme of subsidising the transport costs of people in rural and remote areas has been in existence for a number of years, it is greatly under-resourced. Margaret is determined that more resources be dedicated to this scheme because people are deterred from seeking necessary treatment because of the huge costs of transport and being away from home. She cites as an example a cancer patient from the Northern Territory who had to travel to Adelaide for treatment – but only limited support was available to meet the associated travel costs for her and close family members. Margaret says that she knows of many people on rural properties who are not going to the cities for treatment, because they can’t afford it. She says it is not just the money – but the fact that people have to go so far away from home. Some services, such as dialysis are being brought to centres closer to where people live – it’s about bringing services to where people live.
Margaret reluctantly acknowledges that she in a leadership role, and is, in a sense, bridging two worlds. She often finds herself being the one to follow up when suggestions she makes are accepted. For example, she suggested to the Flinders University Rural Clinical School that they organise people in communities to support students when they go out on rural placements – and found that not only was her suggestion quickly taken up, but that she was being contracted to get the scheme going herself.
Other women, particularly in the women’s health area, have influenced and inspired Margaret’s work. She also speaks with admiration of the strong women she has met from non-English speaking backgrounds, whose role in holding those communities together is essential. She stresses that while they appear to be just organising meetings and putting on morning teas – ‘that is still leadership’.
Margaret marvels at the way that Indigenous women have fought the system for years. She empathises with their frustration at the slow pace of progress – sitting around meeting tables for years while achieving very little, and understands those who return to help their communities through working at the grass roots level.
While advocating for better health services in rural and remote Australia, Margaret has stepped outside of the traditional role of rural women. This has not been easy for her, as she has taken a high profile through the rural media, and challenges the traditional homemaking role ascribed to women in those areas.
Margaret’s husband, Rob is very supportive. He helps by editing and commenting on her work, and she readily acknowledges that his support is invaluable. She also has a network of women friends who support and encourage her – and she, in return provides friendship and support to others.
Her advice to other women taking on a leadership role is to ‘make sure that you have people around you. It’s not easy. Very often in small towns you are the one who is game enough to do it and other people don’t like it. So you have to find support people –and sometimes it just happens.’
Margaret’s advocacy has been recognised and honoured. The Flinders University Rural Clinical School awards an annual Margaret Brown Prize for contribution to a rural community.
In 2006 Margaret was made a member of the Order of Australia for ‘service to the community through advocacy roles representing the interests of health care consumers in rural and remote areas and for contributions to policy development’. This came as a surprise to her, and she describes it as ‘quite overwhelming and very humbling’.
Profile by Kate Moore
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