The abuse culture comes from entitled boys from almost all the most expensive and privileged private schools – the germ of Australia’s ruling class.

Mar 2, 2021

Is anyone surprised that in this environment of contempt for the public, the disadvantaged, and for principles of public stewardship, that disrespect for women rages, and that abuse of women is seen more through the lens of political damage?

There’s probably not a politician who does not pay lip service to the idea that sexual harassment and assault are crimes and that victims should be treated with decency, compassion and help. But appalling and sexually oppressive misbehaviour is but evidence of far wider cultural problems on both sides of politics.

The general culture, and the subculture of sexual oppression it embraces, is entrenched. It was evident in two separate ways over the past week as parliament continued to wrestle with the case of a woman allegedly raped while virtually insensible on a couch in a minister’s office. One can more or less take it as read that not a single politician would have wished such a fate upon her. But the spontaneous reaction to the news that it had occurred was essentially partisan, if disguised by tender expressions of sympathy for the victim.

The culture was also on display in another context. If one Googles “petition for consent to be included in sex ed earlier”, one finds hundreds of accounts of sexual assaults on girls attending private single-sex high schools by young men from the private single-sex schools. The abuse culture comes from entitled boys from almost all the most expensive and privileged private schools – the germ of Australia’s ruling class. It was not a culture as strong and pervasive when I attended such a school 60 years ago, but when one looks at the moral, ethical environment, and the approaches to respect for women in these men destined to be leaders in politics, law and finance, one can only despair of the future.

It’s not only women who are disrespected and abused, sui generis though that may be. It’s a pervasive culture of contempt for almost anyone outside the political class.

It involves the conscious demeaning of, and disregard for, people who are unemployed, and conscious cruelty in the way miserable benefits are administered and managed. It involves conscious cruelty, and outright racism, to some classes of refugees and immigrants. It involves a studied indifference to the mistreatment of elderly Australians, and complacency about continuing, even increasing, disadvantages for many Indigenous Australians. These are not accidents. They are policy – in many cases ideology. The odd backbencher actually embarrassed by it — and there are all too few — has learnt a few slogans or “cruel to be kind” rationalisations to distract from their fundamental lack of humanity, charity, and common decency.

A robber baron culture is emerging by which ministers think that public money is there to dispose of as they will. Not by principles of equity, need, or open process, but secretively to party donors, party friends and relations, for political purposes. Ministers are increasingly taking over the distribution of public grants, and more blatantly using their discretion to distribute them to cronies.

The culture also embraces chronic secrecy, lack of transparency, failures of proper documentation and refusal to answer questions, FOI requests, or other forms of account. That comes from contempt for the process and the presumptions of any system of fairness or accountability.

Hard to be surprised that a government that laughs at ordinary citizens and holds them in contempt treats women so badly

I don’t point this out to again call for strong anti-corruption mechanisms. Rather, it is to show that the government is laughing at ordinary citizens. Phrases about giving a go to those who have a go means no more than that those who donate money to the governing party, or when the government needs partisan assistance. They will be lavished with public money, tax concessions and special privileges. Those in similar circumstances but not playing that game are out of the game. So are more deserving causes. Indeed, a good deal of the tens of billions of dollars handed out to private sector cronies has been distributed without rules of accountability, accessible public records of who got what, when and for what reason, and on what terms.

It is not new that some of those most given to abuse of the public trust, duties of public stewardship, and assumptions about charity, honesty and respect for others are among those most given to pretending they are guided by their religious values. The “Christianity” of many in the present government is not recognisable to most Christians, even if Matthew 23:14 seems to apply.

We live in an age of dismemberment of the sense of community and citizens living in a society, of a common cause, mutual respect, and mutual obligation. Community is becoming more atomised, politicians thriving by setting groups against each other, with politics of blame and resentment, and of punishment and coercion, and with appeals to selfishness and self-interest.

Even if the tendencies are most obvious in the present government, they are not unique to one side. Even though every is keen to point to significant problems of culture in the other.

Can anyone be surprised that in this environment of contempt for the public, for the disadvantaged, and for principles of public stewardship, that disrespect for women rages, and that physical or sexual abuse of women is seen more through the lens of political damage than a sincere desire to help, to comfort, or to create the circumstances where such things cannot happen again?

The very number of reviews commissioned by the prime minister after he finally became aware of the alleged sexual assault are a measure of the embarrassment in which he found himself — remember, he didn’t “get it” until his wife explained. But he doesn’t need reviews. He has access to reports tackling the problem head-on but they have been generally rejected by Morrison himself as well as his cabinet. One gets sensitivity to abuse of women only when the media spotlight is on it.

We don’t need more studies; more consultation; or more evidence or bad examples. What we do need, in spades, is leadership. From people who can command respect. And who show us by example they “get it” and that they will not put up with the culture of the status quo. The problem is that such people are in short supply. Morrison is not in their number, and cannot be re-invented to fit.

That’s why the public should be cynical. This government does not have the cred to change the culture. Indeed it has yet to show that it disavows it in practice. Or that some of the arch-practitioners, from the top down, would relent except when it suits them.

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