In the late 1990s, I was a university debater. In those years, we observed the full spectrum of ‘human frailty’, which is why I don’t buy any suggestion that Christian Porter’s behaviours were innocent actions in an age of lesser understanding, or wholly irrelevant to the present time.
I was fortunate to debate with a predominantly supportive cohort, and even served as President of our society. At that time, women were among our most respected members. That we would be given fair opportunities in both competition and leadership was never in question.
As much as I loved debating and found a happy home within our society, I do have to acknowledge that there was a darker heart. The combination of alcohol, competitiveness and entrenched biases at a societal level meant that we all said things, wrote things and did things that we would not repeat now. We were not always as kind or as inclusive as we could have been. But more broadly, especially at a national and international level, I witnessed degrees of sexism, misogyny and sexual entitlement ranging from bad jokes to overt bullying to sexual coercion and assault.
These altogether too common tertiary experiences were in keeping with the findings of the Australian Human Rights Commission in their 2017 report on Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment at Australian Universities.
Back in the late 1990s, some of the worse behaviours were called out and disciplined, but despite our generally progressive leanings, we were not perfect at protecting everyone. Culture can be hard to change and standing up to your friends hardest of all. But when I think back, what strikes me is that even as young adults we knew where the lines of legality and morality lay. If people crossed them, it was never due to innocence or ignorance.
Though a majority of problematic words and behaviours were misplaced jest and have long since been forgiven and forgotten, many of us have spoken in the intervening decades about the problems we perpetuated, the behaviours we tolerated, and the cultures we didn’t fix. These discussions have come from an understanding that we are all on a journey to become better people, and that progress does not come from making excuses for your past self.
For most of us this reckoning and correction is a normal occurrence. Apologies have already been made, or they continue to be generously and genuinely delivered. It is less easy to be understanding when the initial sins were too egregious or the patterns of behaviour didn’t change with time.
When people are granted some of the highest offices in the country and their professional position is a source of both power and protection, this warrants an even more serious accounting of their behaviours, both past and present. Given so many of us have tried to learn from and make reparations for even minor sins, this seems like a reasonable expectation to make of our elected leaders.
In wondering if personal morality should have a bearing on fitness to lead, I want to be clear about the problems and limits of cancel culture, and why asking these questions is not the worst of a woke left baying for blood. I don’t want the man who now mentors female colleagues and is a genuine champion of change to lose his job because he made some bad sleazy jokes in 1999.
I don’t want the person trying to make their industry more inclusive to be demoted because they tried to ask me out a little bit too forcefully a few too many times when we were twenty. And I still laugh about a certain skit which was harmless and hilarious but would not pass muster now. Most people understand that sometimes we all miss the mark, and that any consequence has to be proportional to the harm inflicted. This is what the Prime Minister is appealing to when he speaks of ‘human frailty’.
But the degree of sexism and misogyny reported this week on Four Corners is not merely, as Waleed Aly recently wrote in The Monthly, an “exaggeration woke politics forces on itself”. This is not a dredging of minor sins from the past, blown out of proportion to make a point. It is a genuine call to all Australians to ask what character our leaders should have, and whether the morality of their actions in their private lives have a bearing on the way they conduct professional business.
Our political leaders, in their professional capacity, make decisions that are, in part, based on their own beliefs and moralities. Perhaps more so than most other professions, those decisions affect other people’s private lives, including our own.
What we were like as university students, as debaters if you will, is important. In part this is because it points to some sort of fundamental character, but more importantly, it demonstrates if there has been change, progress or remorse. This is not to say that those days should be a cross we bear for eternity; rather I mean the opposite, because I do believe in the human capacity for growth.
But it is notable that there are very few men that people feel they need to raise concerns about, publicly, so many decades on – and very few people who would risk their careers and reputations to speak out unless they truly felt it was essential.
That those who spoke out would do so now is testimony to the long-term impacts of misogyny and sexism. Perhaps it also comes from a frustration that despite decades of opportunity for redemption through either genuine apologies or consistent behaviour change, it seems no such effort has been made.
Debating, for me, was relatively safe; not so the career I would eventually choose. I have had opportunity to come to understand the difference between the regretful actions of the intoxicated but otherwise well-meaning university student and the deliberate actions of those who feel entitled to women’s labour, women’s intellect, women’s bodies, women’s lives.
I’m grateful that my professional College took the 2015 allegations of widespread sexism, harassment and assault seriously and actually undertook research to understand the scope of the problem – rather than deny it, or explain it away as unfortunate and lamentable, part of the human condition and present in many other industries. Measuring does not always translate to management, but in toxic cultures, too often there is hesitation in taking even the first step.
I’m proud that my College measured, then managed, enacting a full suite of interventions to start making surgery safer and more inclusive.
It is incumbent upon our government to do the same. Just as in medicine, this is a matter of public interest.
I did not, to my recollection, debate with, or against, Christian Porter.