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Our Men, Our Shields

By Jack Bulman and Al Harris

Earlier this month, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men received a loving gift from our women and families – the Our Men, Our Shields Charter – launched by First Thousand Days Australia.

The Charter is a beautiful statement of love and support for our men who, like other members of Australia’s Indigenous community, are crying out for a greater voice in managing our own affairs. Our men want more say in the development of policies and laws that impact on them, including a formal voice in the Federal Parliament as proposed in the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

They share in the disappointment that Australia has failed to close the gap between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and other Australians. Even after a decade, the Council of Australian Governments’ formal Close the Gap strategy does not meet its own targets in four out of seven categories.

Almost concurrent with the announcement of these failures, the Prime Minister rejected the Uluru Statement from the Heart, a document representing the consensus view of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representatives about how Australia might better allow an Indigenous voice in national decision making and begin the process of treaty making.

In falsely describing the modest Uluru proposal as a ‘third chamber of parliament’, the PM and his cabinet are trying to relegate Australia’s First Peoples to the nation’s shadows. This continues the proud Australian tradition of history denial or, as the Australian anthropologist Bill Stanner once described it, the Great Australian Silence.

These two scenarios – the failure of governments to give greater voice in decision making to First Peoples and the denial of history – are old friends. They have been walking arm in arm across this country’s tragic history for centuries. Denial of history always begets failure in efforts to change the present or, as Edmund Burke wrote, ‘Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it’.

In Australia it’s less a case of not knowing our history and more a stubborn determination to deny and ignore the parts of it that don’t support the national myth of benign colonialism and peaceful settlement.

The colonisation of Australia has been neither benign nor peaceful; it has been a brutal and violent dispossession of the First Nations’ peoples.

The legacy of this brutality and violence on the current health and wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is evidenced by intergenerational trauma, unresolved grief and policies that continue to disempower, victimise and even infantilise First Nations’ peoples as being worthy of sympathy but incapable of exercising agency over our own lives and those of our families.

Our men are targeted for particular demonisation; who can forget the 2007 Northern Territory Intervention, which the Government justified by an extensive portrayal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men as inherently violent, absent and abusive towards women and children?

Who doesn’t remember the infamous Bill Leak cartoon showing a drunken Aboriginal father unable to remember the name of his son, as the long-suffering policeman tries to intervene?

So persuasive was the portrayal of Aboriginal men as violent perpetrators that many men reported being subjected to abusive levels of public scrutiny while out with their sons and daughters. The hostile looks given them by their fellow Australians in the street and shopping aisles reinforced the notion that they were not worthy of being loving fathers.

There has been a concerted mission since early colonial times to undermine and disempower our men and their central role in traditional culture and families. But this deficit view of Indigenous fatherhood is far removed from the experience of so many of our women and families who know their partners and fathers as loving, engaged and protective.

The new Our Men, Our Shields Charter, which is dedicated to honouring and strengthening the role of Indigenous fathers, is an enormous fillip to our men as they strive to be good fathers, good partners and good community members in a sea of hostility. It strengthens hope.

The Charter, launched by First 1000 Days Australia, was developed from a series of messages to their men written by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women attending First 1000 Days Australia short courses. It followed discussion by the mostly female participants of the urgent need for Indigenous fathers to be acknowledged and honoured.

First 1000 Days Australia – the Australian model of the international 1,000 Days movement – acts as a catalyst for strengthening Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities by strengthening families. It is informed by decades of research which reveals that providing the best possible care to children from pre-conception to the age of two will lay the best foundation for their future health and wellbeing.

As an Aboriginal man, I have first-hand knowledge of what our people endure: jails full of our people; our children being removed at unprecedented rates across the country; our identity and culture publicly trashed again and again; and the violent, soul-destroying experience of daily racism.

The organisation I established and continue to work for, Mibbinbah, is Australia’s only national Indigenous male health promotion charity. For more than 10 years, Mibbinbah has undertaken a range of activities to support and strengthen Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men’s and boys’ groups and their communities across Australia.

This Charter, and First 100 Days Australia’s commitment to ensuring that men will be given respectful and loving support to be good fathers, is another step towards restoring hope and wellbeing in our men. I have been showing the Charter to different men over the past few weeks and can report that many of these tough and independent lads have been reduced to tears while reading it.

Culture, identity and gender equality are identified in the Charter as the basis for strong healthy families, and this is something that Mibbinbah wholeheartedly endorses following more than a decade of research.

Our men are capable and willing and need their role as loving and protective fathers; the Charter will reinforce this and be a huge catalyst for healing.

Reasserting the roles and responsibilities of men in our families will strengthen our communities and our nation, which in turn will strengthen ongoing efforts to achieve greater control over our own affairs, as articulated in the Uluru Statement.

We have the answers – we live the problems every day – but we also know our capacity, our strength and our resilience. We reject the assigned role of passive victims and the relentlessly negative portrayal of our people.

This Charter, and the partnership between First 1000 Days Australia and Mibbinbah, will give hope to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men, strengthen and rebuild our families, and fortify our national campaign to gain control over our own affairs.

Australia needs to heal, and Australia’s First Nations need to heal; this Charter is another step to ensuring this happens.