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Opinion: The Last Word

Another forum touts the message that men are hard done by. It has all the ingredients of another expensive failure, writes Harald Breiding-Buss.

The year is 1998.

Initiated by then-Children’s Commissioner Laurie O’Reilly, who unfortunately died before the event, Christchurch ‘movers and shakers’ stage the ‘Fathering the Future Forum’.

It seemed to have everything going for it: Governor-General Hardie-Boys would make an appearance, and it was chaired by the most likely next mayor of Christchurch, Gary Moore (who was elected that same year).

The thing was supported by the Chairman of the Employer’s Chamber of Commerce and a top marketing professional (who was later responsible for giving Christchurch the memorable tagline ‘fresh each day’). Oh yes, and Ian Grant delivered one of his how-to-be-a-good-dad lectures too. If that couldn’t get the father’s movement kickstarted, what could?

The venue was the awkwardly chosen Christchurch Boys High School, which gave the event a revisionist feel. And just to be on the safe side, any community organisations were wiped off the planning whiteboard at an early stage- such a high profile event should not be spoilt by any realism A staunch but tiny bunch of solo mums felt compelled to demonstrate on the day against attempts to turn the time back, which, of course, caught almost more media interest than the event itself.

After having to hire a telemarketing company to boost attendee numbers to over a hundred, the organisers could claim the event to be officially ‘successful’.

From here on, the reins were handed over to an energetic (but childless) young woman, who organised the formation of the ‘Fathering the Future Trust’ which was to raise the profile of fathers, or something like that. Anything, in fact, but having to assist men with their day-to-day parenting that most of them were so skillfully delivering already.

The ‘movers and shakers’ gradually withdrew, and with them went the financial support for the fledgling Trust, which never produced more than a handful of posters on billboards in Christchurch. While there had been a brief stir in the political world it was forgotten soon after, like a sandfly bite which only annoys you for so long.

Even so, it did trigger a couple of copycat events. The one in Wellington was set out for a huge crowd: the Michael Fowler Centre and the Town Hall were hired. But unlike the Christchurch organizers, the ones in Wellington omitted to hire a marketing company to ring people and beg for attendance.

Mercifully, no attendance numbers were ever released; having been there I’d place them in the high forties(children included). Auckland organisers were more careful and only ran a seminar-style event.

Given Auckland’s well-organised radical fathers fringe it offered months of angry letter writing opportunities, but nothing beyond. The painful truth is, there is no indication that this kind of thing actually works for blokes.

There is no ‘men’s movement’ actually deserving of that name, from which such an event could have grown.

Now, eight years later, we have had a ‘Men’s Forum’. This time around the event started in Auckland, and is now in the process of being exported to Christchurch as well. Instead of the Governor General (which at the moment is female) the organisers picked John Tamihere as their high-profile person.

Unwittingly, choosing a ‘yesterday’s man’ like Tamihere is symptomatic for the rest of the line-up, which almost entirely consists of the recycled remnants of a national fathers committee I once tried to create: the “NZ Father & Child Society”.

That was also in 1998, and I guess it is telling that in those seven intervening years this group has failed to bring any new faces to the fore. Although I created it to support a national approach for developing on-the-ground services for fathers, the resulting group never wanted to go there.

Like ‘Fathering the Future’ they saw the way forward in pestering the media with opinions rather than being there for dads when they are needed. Without any work going into building up the base, no new people could emerge, and, like ‘Fathering the Future’ the group was quickly heading for either oblivion or insignificance.

Nevertheless, two of the speakers in the upcoming Christchurch Forum chose to use ‘NZ Father & Child Society’ in identifying their credentials, although they have no connection with the work linked to the name Father & Child, such as this magazine, our teen dads project or our work in the area of childbirth.

Ironically, all of the speakers at the forum are worth listening to. But while once more the political world, and political correctness, will be slammed for neglecting men, and changes will be called for, no group or organisation emerges that could actually institute such change.

And so we will have another few days, perhaps a couple of weeks, where organisers and/or speakers can bask in the glory of being quoted in the media before patting each other on the back for a job well done and going back to business as usual.

Frankly, who needs it?

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