Speech to 9th National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Men's Health Conference
12 November 2018
In West Australian Noongar language, I say kaya wangju - hello and welcome.
I acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we gather - the Durag people - and pay my respects to elders, past and present. And I thank Uncle Greg Simms for his welcome. When I worked in New South Wales, I had a lot to do with him and he’s an incredible man whose knowledge and experiences certainly provides an opportunity to make some considerations in the lives that we lead.
On this day at this meeting, it’s especially important we pay tribute to and draw strength from our elders and remember we are custodians of the oldest living culture on earth and as the people in Alice Springs say, the elders within the non Indigenous community are no different to the elders within our own because you are also the transmitters of wisdom and knowledge. And it’s your attachment to country that you’re born on is as real to you, as it is to us. And by working and walking together we can make an incredible difference.
Fundamental to speeding up the transformation of our health, we need every man to take their role and responsibility, to move forward agendas of reform. And that reform goes back to the historical elements, even in our own society as Aboriginal and Torres Islander people of 65 to possibly 85,000 years in which we prevailed as families and as communities without the help of organisations or governments.
We endured the changes in this nation over a period of time in which we saw the strength of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities within their respective countries grow. It is only since the settlement of this nation that we saw a decline and a decline that was not conducive to the many issues to do with social determinants, health, the cultural and spiritual aspects, the essence of our characters. We’re proud of the country and we're proud of traditions that have kept us healthy, right from the beginning.
Overall, Australian men have poorer outcomes than women in many areas and a shorter life expectancy.
I used to work for a funeral parlour. I worked by day as a teacher and I lived in a funeral parlour as an attendant at night. What I saw was the number of men who died at early ages from a range of issues, from poor health, accidents because they take risks, road trauma, suicide. But I also saw men, who when their wives died, would bury them within six months because the supporting mechanisms that should prevail weren’t there. And I made a comment to Malcolm Turnbull when he was Prime Minister when I was seeking additional funding; I made that comment and I said - look, women live longer. And he asked the question: Why? And I said they’re more resilient and they probably got rid of the albatross around their neck. And he gave me this incredible look of saying – are you saying that men become problems to their wives, when they lose and they can’t cope? And I said: Fundamentally, yes, because we're not used to loneliness, unless we are a solitary individual.
And so challenges that face men are around the continuum from the early years of life. And I’ve been talking to school chaplains in Western Australia, asking what’s becoming evident in primary school children? And they were telling me anxiety is increasingly high and higher each interval of time than what they’ve seen previously. But the levels of support and intervention aren’t there. And I’ve asked about – well, how does the family fit in? And they said: We’re also finding the parents are coming to us asking for support to deal with the challenges of life, the challenges of separation, the challenges of not having access to your children. The challenges of being jobless and it carries onto high school. And the passing on of some of those elements of daily living are impacting on males in particular within school settings. So there’s work that needs to be done so that we can deal with the burdens that people face.
Peter Flett who was the Director General of Health gave a talk to the state health executive and he said one thing you notice with men is when they talk they all stand together and only one male ever talks and the rest listen. And he said: But with women, they’ll talk, but they’ll have side conversations. Those side conversations are about how do I help you? How do I share thoughts and feelings with you? Whereas men don’t do that and I have constituents who know that I’ve worked in health and I’ve dealt with about 10 families in the last 14 months, who have rung me and said: Can you come and see me? So I’ve gone to see them because I do home visits and all of them have been families where suicides have occurred. And what they do is they talk to you about not understanding why they couldn’t read what had happened to their child in the lead up to a sudden death. Or where their husband had an illness that masked it and an inability of coping, knowing that they were going to lose the person they loved. And that they would have to struggle in life and the challenge then of coping without a father figure.
Recently I launched a new report by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Adolescent and Youth Health and Wellbeing. This is the first such report to focus solely on the health and wellbeing of our young people aged 10 to 24. It’s an important addition to our understanding of the health and wellbeing of our young first Australian men and women as they move into adulthood. And let me say, the parallels there are not dissimilar to families who struggle financially and socially, in any context across this nation. These are the formative years; lifestyle patterns adopted in this period can have lasting effects, but both good and ill. They also impact on the next generation as many first Australians become parents before they’re 25. The report shows we're making progress with the help of young men and boys, but there's still much to do. Leading causes of death for young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are injury and poisoning, intentional self harm and diseases of the circulatory system.
When I was in New South Wales we did a survey of young men in prisons – two particular prisons - and what we found and what we were looking for was the onset of renal disease and kidney failure. What the Aboriginal health workers found with a senior health officer was that for non Indigenous men, renal failure was starting to show up in the late 20s, early 30s; young Indigenous males were 19. So many years before and yet they would not have considered that they were on a health journey to marrying a dialysis machine when they reached the point of kidney failure. The report states, many of the deaths of young Indigenous Peoples are avoidable; this includes the suicides, the transport accidents and assaults, which were the main causes of death in this age group. The rates of death for these causes are three to four times higher for young Indigenous Australians than for other Australians in their age group.
But dragging it down further, the young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men are almost twice as likely to die from these causes than are women. The death rates from these causes are a distressing 102 per 100,0000. This is a continuing national strategy and as I’ve said, apply this to people living in poverty because there are strong parallels. This is a contributing national strategy that we have to ask the question of what's happening and what can we do? The answers are becoming increasingly familiar and resonate with the results of the National My Life My Lead consultations that we undertook. On the whole, our young men are suffering higher levels of trauma, physical and emotional violence. This is strongly associated with higher levels of mental illness, alcohol and drug abuse. But underlying much of this are social and cultural determinants of health and wellbeing, including education, employment and housing. The AIHW Report puts the numbers to these factors and it goes through a series of factors, but one in three experience the high or very high levels of personal stress, usually because they could not get a job, a family member or a close friend who died or they suffered a severe illness. On the plus side, while smoking rates remain far too high, they’re dropping significantly. So part of our journey then, for us as men, is to reflect on how do we take our places in talking and spending time with our sons. I look at Professor Bruce Robinson in WA who is pushing the whole notion of fathers and sons, of having the conversations we once used to have, that we don't have anymore and I think of that song, Cat’s in the Cradle, about a son who rings his father frequently and says: Dad, can we catch up? And Dad says I’m busy, maybe later.
But at the end of the song he rings his son and says: Son, can we catch up. And the son says to his father: I’m sorry, Dad, I’m too busy.
And sometimes we are too busy to sit and have the discussions – not only with another man, but with our sons – and Bruce Robinson has started the Father/Son program. And at Swan Districts AFL Football Club, he and I talked to the administration and said: why don’t we do two things unusual? One, we have one match dedicated to father and sons and we encourage fathers coming to the game to bring their sons and to sit with them and have the conversation. And then the other half of the season we have fathers and daughters. And what we’ve noticed in the conversations is the incredible relationship of trust in having discussions around the things that impact and affect.
I can’t comprehend the number of deaths that happen when males break up with a girlfriend and they commit suicide because they think their whole life is gone. But I remember my first heartbreak, when that happened, but an uncle of mine saying: it’s alright, son, there’s other fish in the ocean. You were not meant to be with that person, otherwise your relationship would have been retained. And the conversation then meant that I started to reconcile the notion that that rejection was not the ultimate rejection in life; that it was a point of time. And with my own sons, I had those discussions. Whenever I get the chance to spend time with them, we have a meal and we talk about a range of things: about relationships, money, their planning, their political difference with [indistinct]. I have a son who’s the oldest who supports the Greens and has these really good, rigorous debates with me. But it’s healthy.
And I think in some regard, our young men and men look to each other at times for help. I heard a good analogy from a soldier who talked about the smell of men. He said when you’re in a trench and you don’t shower for weeks on end because you happen to be in a battlefield, he said the smell of other men becomes so common. He said in times of fear, a hand that touches you on the hand or on the shoulder gives you comfort from the fact that somebody else facing adversity is there for you. And that that adversity should not be yours alone. And he then went on to say that during the campaigns he was involved in, he survived because he had the opportunity to talk with others who had the smell of fear within their nose. And he said even at times when you thought that your number was up, he said a voice would always reassure you. And he said that he’s found that’s very different in returning to civilian life. He said he stopped having the types of conversations he used to have, that he’s gone through some tough times. But he’s now starting to talk to a group of men that he’s become involved with in a Men’s Shed.
So if we are to change some of the challenges facing us, we need to think about not only today but what we want, as men, to be the future. There are many challenges that we experience in the range of emotions that we feel, but we never manifest them. Even in death; when I’ve watched people at funerals lose a brother or sister, there is this stoic strength that prevails. And yet, when I’ve had the opportunity of sitting with them they’ve opened up and the tears have flooded, and they’ve talked about what they should have done and could have done. Because in hindsight, when we look back, it is always easier to think: I should have done that or I should have spent some more time.
I once spoke with a principal of mine whose son committed suicide, and in talking with him he said every day he’d spend time with his son but that night he left him, and what he didn’t recognise was his depression. And on the phone he said to me: I wished I’d stayed with him. And I talked him through that little word: if. Because we can’t always prevent the ifs. But, he said that, had I done the journey with him as a young man, life would have been different for him because I could have guided him. And the reason I made the reference to Elders, not just for our community but for all Australians, is that men in their senior years become Elders, they become statesmen. And in those roles we have the opportunity to influence in a very different way, looking at the situational context in which we find men experiencing challenges and difficulties.
I like the themes that you have throughout your conference, because you will be addressing a range of issues that are absolutely important.
But the other point I want to make is that our wives, our girlfriends, and those that we love, including our sisters, are also part of the mix. There is never a wrong moment to sit with a woman and talk about the challenges you face, because our women bring a different perspective at times that enriches both our thinking but also our feelings. And I say that because women deal with their emotions and their decisions in life very differently to how we as men deal with them. I like the intuitive thinking of women because it goes to the crux of how we should think about those things that impact on us. And I really want to acknowledge Jonathan Bedloe and your presidency because you have the opportunity in a leadership and an eldership role, along with Mick Adams, Rom Mokak and many others I see in this room, to influence other men around this nation; not to be tough, resilient and masculine, but to also reach within themselves and look at ways that they can shape their future and their direction.
But more importantly, how we focus on the young men that we bring into this world, and it’s fascinating when you attend the birth of your child you watch a life that you created – that two of you created - this incredibly, unique individual. And in life we nurture children. We do have families who have difficulty with that, but generally we nurture. But I want us also the nurture on that continuum - living to 100; senior Australians who are as equally frail as the baby that is born on his birthday.
I’ve been given the incredible privilege of seeing senior Australians who, for all of their lives, have worked hard. Circumstances have changed for them at different times. But the thing that we don’t do often as children is tell our mothers and fathers we still love them and that we thank them for the things that they have done for us. And I did that recently at a forum just to remind people in the room that our fathers still want to know that there are feelings for them. And I said to them, for those who have fathers and mothers alive, at the end of today if you’ve got the time ring them and tell them you love them and thank them.
Next morning at the airport, I had a guy come up to me and said I did exactly what you suggested. He said my mother went silent and then she said: son, what’s wrong? What have you done?
And he said: nothing. I just wanted to tell you that I love you and want to thank you for what you’ve done for me throughout my life. He said: you’ve helped me. He also told her that when he had challenges she was also there for him when he needed advice. When he rang his father it was a different story. His father wanted to know what he was on.
And he said: You’ve never said this. And he talked with his father for a few moments and then his father said: This means a lot to me. He said: I have always been there for you. I’ve helped you. But he said: I didn’t think you needed or valued or valued what I had done for you. And he said: Today you have delivered that message to me.
So as men, we’ve got a great opportunity and I wish you well in your deliberations and I thank those who brought you together to give you that incredible opportunity of a journey of enhancing the way in which we can collectively, as men and women in this country, shape the journey for the future generations who will come, and for those who still need guidance. Never make the assumption that even a teenager is totally independent. Teachers have an incredible impact on a student, and you know as parents that your kids will come home and tell you that the teacher is right and you’re wrong. But we as men are also teachers and we need to turn back to teaching and supporting in the way that we have always done when we were at full strength and be considerate of the lives of the young men who come behind us.
So thank you and I wish you well in your deliberations. And thank you very much