In September an extraordinary meeting of nearly one hundred Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men and boys took place at a scout camp in the rain-forested escarpment behind Wollongong.
Doctors, lawyers, academics, ringers, labourers, artists, actors, unemployed men and men just days out of prison met and lived together for four days to discuss ways of healing themselves of the traumas and racism that are almost universally experienced by indigenous men in Australia. The meeting was the eighth annual men's camp of a Gold Coast-based indigenous organisation, Mibbinbah.
The men talked about leadership, identity, relationships, the roles of husbands, fathers and uncles, and learned more about depression, the warning signs of suicide and prostate health. In a negotiated "safe space", the Mibbinbah men talked openly and revealed their deepest fears and demons and leant on each other for support.
Aboriginal men suffer from the worst health and social outcomes of any cohort in Australian society; the highest imprisonment rates, highest suicide rates, highest joblessness, lowest life expectancy and alarming rates of tobacco use and other substance misuse. Despite these statistics, as Reconciliation Australia's co-chair I meet hundreds of men like those at the Mibbinbah camp, struggling to overcome their circumstances; to play strong, positive roles in their communities, to be loving partners and good fathers and uncles to their children.
It's clear this healing process being undertaken by many indigenous men is an essential prerequisite for both closing the gap and achieving real national reconciliation.
What do the circumstances of so many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men suggest about the progress of reconciliation in Australia? How can indigenous men take their rightful place in our society if they are so often dying young and living lives of deprivation and cyclical trauma? How do we meet Australia's national commitment to close the gap and restore good health and wellbeing to indigenous families and communities when so many of our men are in prison, sick or missing in action?
The need to support indigenous men in their efforts to rebuild wellbeing and the essential role of men in indigenous families and communities must be a central objective of our efforts to both achieve national reconciliation and to close the gap.
Despite this almost self-evident fact, funding for research, programs and capacity building for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander males appears a relatively low priority and the Australian government's centrepiece indigenous men's wellbeing program, the Strong Fathers, Strong Families Program, attracts only $2 million a year. A recent announcement by Minister Warren Snowdon of small grants to Aboriginal men's sheds is a step forward but clearly not enough.
The solutions will be different from place to place but the important thing is that these solutions are developed by indigenous men themselves as part of a process to re-empower themselves and create supportive networks to share ideas across the country.
This week I am speaking with Mibbinbah CEO Jack Bulman at the Conference on Law Enforcement and Public Health in Melbourne in a session on justice reinvestment and indigenous men's wellbeing. The session will include a screening of the film Mad Bastards
, about an Aboriginal man struggling to rebuild his life and relationship with an estranged son. With its unsentimental but hopeful representation of the struggles and obstacles faced by so many indigenous men, the film has struck a chord with men's groups across the country and is being used as a tool to encourage discussion and behaviour change among these men.
Our journey towards reconciliation and closing the gap are complex undertakings but it is clear to me that along with addressing disadvantage in housing, education, employment and health we need to urgently support the efforts of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men to deal with the losses of culture, identity and rebuild the role of men in Aboriginal society.
We can't ultimately have a healthy, strong indigenous community without healthy, strong indigenous men playing their part and taking their place. It is time for the Council of Australian Governments to place Aboriginal men's health in the centre of close the gap efforts.
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