In recent times we’ve heard a lot from our government about the benefit of so called “empathy training”.
Indeed, in 2019, Prime Minister Scott Morrison spent $200,000 on an empathy consultant designed to advise MPs on how to best show compassion toward drought-stricken farmers.
This MO was extended when Nationals MP Andrew Laming was accused in March of sexual misconduct and bullying of women in his electorate, with Morrison telling reporters “I want to see behaviour change and we’ve all got a job to do with that, and he certainly has a job to do on this.” Laming stood aside (for a couple of months) to undergo this specialised counselling.
The National Party took it further still at this time, with Deputy PM and leader Michael McCormack saying that “If we can learn from an expert … and actually learn a few tips on how to not only be better ourselves, but how to call out others for it, then I think that’s a good thing.” The whole party room agreed to undergo training.
The. Whole. Party room.
There are so many issues with this mode of thinking from senior leaders of our government; the belief that some form of quick training could lead to any real change in ideology, entitlement or approach is beyond a joke. Empathy is first and foremost an innate human trait. Training can help in minimal ways but not in major ones.
More to the point, these are men who have typically had the most significant privilege. They’ve had middle-class upbringings, they’ve attended private schools and university and landed cushy jobs through powerful contacts. If these men– the men who have proverbially “had it all”–don’t know how to act like decent, compassionate humans, why are we paying them so much?
Because, let’s not be mistaken: the occasions in which our politicians exhibit a lack of moral compass aren’t isolated events. If empathy training is the golden ticket (which I very much doubt) we need it for more than perpetrators of sexual misconduct and bullying. We need it for all of them.
Take Health Minister Greg Hunt for instance, who, in the face of growing public hostility and anxiety about the government’s inadequate vaccine rollout, remains cavalier. After telling older Australians concerned about the AstraZeneca vaccine to wait until the end of the year to receive an alternative one, he backtracked.
“That’s false, that’s not something I’ve ever said,” he told Seven.
And, despite the fact that only about 500,000 Australians have received their full two-dose vaccine (2 percent of the country), he continues to claim that the government’s rollout has been an “extraordinary achievement”.
Hunt would do well to speak to the scores of Australian families right now feeling desperate about the government’s lethargy. People like Kate Howard, interviewed on last night’s The Project about her grandmother who is still yet to receive a single dose of the vaccine in her Victorian aged care facility, despite her family signing consent for it in March.
Another example of an empathy void? let’s observe the antics of our Defence Minister Peter Dutton last week, who flat banned morning teas in his department designed to celebrate diversity and inclusion which he deemed to be “woke agendas”.
On Friday, Dutton told the Sydney Morning Herald he had ordered a department-wide note ordering events “such as morning teas where personnel are encouraged to wear particular clothes” to “cease”; as if making people feel included and accepted in the place they work is a reasonable thing to fight against.
Or cast an eye to our former Attorney General now Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science, Christian Porter, who yesterday discontinued his defamation case against The ABC and journalist Louise Milligan for breaking reports about an historic rape allegation levelled against him in February.
Porter described a “humiliating backdown” from a “sensationalist” and “one-sided” story, suggesting the national broadcaster regretted “the outcome of that article.”
At no point did he acknowledge the gravity of his case, the victim at the heart of it, nor the consequence of his well-documented and irrefutable sexism on ABC’s Four Corners. He confirmed he would seek re-election at the next election and planned to continue his now forever contentious political career.
“I am running at the next election, committed to my seat for the people I represent, absolutely,” he said.
It’s arguable however, that the title for callousness and an empathy vacuum, should be extended to our Prime Minister who, not only continues to back these other questionable members of his Cabinet and their conduct, but who’s a repeat offender on his own accord.
Only last week for instance, we learned about the PM’s disgraceful response to Grace Tame’s powerful and courageous public speech about her experience as a victim survivor and now advocate for sexual assault.
“Well, gee, I bet it felt good to get that out,” the PM told Tame.
His words, as perfectly expressed by journalist Lucia Osbourne-Crowley, present “the fallacy that victims speak up about sexual assault purely to satisfy their own self-interest.”
It was a statement devoid of human emotion, connection or understanding, and showed the Prime Minister’s incapacity to properly respond to these matters of grave severity for countless Australian women.
My central thesis is this: If the solution was as simple as engaging an empathy consultant to come in and transform the men in our highest leadership ranks, that would be excellent. No one’s denying that a bit of human decency wouldn’t go a hell of a long way. But the reality is that this is just a gimmick. It’s a bandaid fix with no real sentiment behind it.
Empathy training won’t cut it. A transformation of parliament– and the men who dominate– is the only true solution.