The state of men-only clubs in Australia? Alive, well and popular. - Women's Agenda

The state of men-only clubs in Australia? Alive, well and popular.

News of the LNP’s event at Tattersall’s Club this week got us thinking about men-only clubs. Do many still exist? How many are there? Do people actually frequent them? 

The answer is yes. There are approximately 30 single sex clubs in Australia, and while these are mostly men-only, there are also a few women-only clubs across the country, too.

The Australian Club was founded in 1836, making it Australia’s oldest men-only club. Shortly afterwards, in 1838, the Melbourne Club was created, and then several of these clubs started appearing across Melbourne and Sydney, and then also in Brisbane, Hobart, Adelaide and Perth.

To become a member, you have to be wealthy enough to afford the often-substantial membership fee – which can be upwards of a thousand dollars each year –  but you also have to endure a long vetting process. Some clubs require up to eight influential referees to recommend a person before he is considered for membership. This process can take months, and even years in some cases. 

These clubs are notoriously private. While it is impossible to say with certainty how much power these clubs and their membership yield, it is certainly true that many of Australia’s richest and most powerful men frequent these all-male clubs.

The Australian Club boasts the membership of John Howard, James Packer, Kerry Packer and Andrew Peacock. Attorney General George Brandis was criticised in parliament in late 2014 for joining one of Melbourne’s most exclusive men only clubs, called the Savage Club. 

Brandis defended his decision to frequent the club, saying it is not sexist:

“There’s nothing against the law of Australia for there to be men’s only clubs and there’s nothing against the law of Australia for there to be mixed clubs, nor should there, nor is that sexist.”

“There is nothing against the law of Australia for there to be, for example, women’s only golf clubs,” he said.

The veracity of his last comment is questionable. Under the Equal Opportunity Act, a woman’s only golf club is required to offer a legitimate explanation to the courts as to why it must exclude men. If the justification is not considered sufficient, the women’s only golf club would be outlawed under the Act.

This occurred in 2010, when a women-only travel agency designed to keep women safe while abroad was struck down by the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal for being discriminatory.

But men-only clubs? They are exempt altogether from the Equal Opportunity Act. By law, they are not considered discriminatory, and do not have to go through any of the processes that organisations like a women only golf club do in order to be allowed to continue operating.

In 2010 the Victorian Attorney General Rob Hulls made an attempt to remove this exemption for men-only clubs.

”I can’t understand why they don’t want outstanding leaders like Christine Nixon and Julia Gillard and the thousands of other brilliant, innovative women around the state to join their ranks,” he said.

He described the men-only clubs as an “amusing relic”.

His attempt to repeal the exemption was denied by the Scrutiny of Acts and Regulations Committee:

”The committee does not recommend a change that would prevent single-sex clubs from continuing their operations or require them to seek an exemption [to anti-discrimination laws] in order to continue their operations,” the Committee’s report says.

The clubs deny they are bastions of wealth and power by saying that under their regulations, business is not allowed to be conducted within their walls.

”No business can be discussed, no business cards exchanged, no deals done in any of these clubs. It is against the charter of all the clubs,” a club president told the Committee.

Unless another legal challenge surfaces soon, it seems the men-only clubs like the one the LNP will dine at this morning will continue to operate.

Perhaps the prime minister Tony Abbott was right when he described the Tattersall’s Club as a “bastion of chauvinism”, but unfortunately he was mistaken when he said the LNP was tearing it down. Men-only clubs are alive and well in Australia, and popular, too.

Despite the fact they seem out of place in 2015 – or even in the 21st century – perhaps they aren’t.  As Senator Stephen Conroy asked George Brandis when he announced his membership to one of these elite clubs:

“Which institution is it harder for a woman to get into in 2014 — the Savage Club or the Abbott cabinet?”

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