Pollies, sex, school, privilege and bad behaviour

Apr 5, 2021

After weeks of accusations of scandalous behaviour by Coalition staffers and Members of Parliament, Scott Morrison is aiming to achieve cultural change through a reshuffle of his Cabinet. But the unrepresentative school background of Morrison’s Ministers – not just the gender balance of his Cabinet and his MPs – may contribute to the attitudes and unacceptable behaviour we have seen.

More than 65 per cent of students educated in Australia attend government schools with most going to co-educational schools. But take a look at the Morrison ministry. Over 60 per cent of his ministers attended private schools, many of them going to single-sex schools.

Scott Morrison was educated at a government school, but not any old government school. He attended Sydney Boys High School, a government school which in 1906 was the only government school admitted into the Athletic Association of Great Public Schools to play rugby against eight of Sydney’s most exclusive and expensive private schools.

These GPS schools have a remarkable ability to turn out Coalition MPs. When the Abbott government was elected in 2013, four of its nineteen Cabinet ministers (21 per cent) came from these nine Sydney-based schools: Abbott from Ignatius’ College Riverview: Barnaby Joyce also from St Ignatius’ College; Malcolm Turnbull from Sydney Grammar; and Morrison from Sydney Boys. Some achievement! The nine schools made up only 0.6 per cent of the 1409 secondary schools in Australia at that time.

Morrison’s ministry is just as unrepresentative. Eighteen of his 29 ministers or 62 per cent went to private schools: McCormack, Frydenberg, Porter, Payne, Dutton, Reynolds, Tudge, Hunt, Fletcher, Tehan, Cash, Taylor, Robert, Hume, Sukkar, Gee, Seselja and Price.

Many of these attended schools that were just as exclusive as the GPS schools of Sydney. Christian Porter, for example, attended the Hale School, a Perth private boys school which boasts that many of Western Australia’s and the nation’s great leaders are Old Haleians.

The days when the Labor Party was the Catholic-leaning party are long gone. Now Morrison’s Ministry has seven ministers who went to Catholic high schools. A smaller number attended Anglican schools and one went to a Jewish school.

In earlier days religious schools tended to be same-sex schools and as a result, the ministry has a disproportionate number of members who attended single-sex schools including Porter, Tehan, Taylor and Morrison at all-boys schools and Payne, Hume and Price at all-girls schools.

Backbencher, Andrew Laming, who has caused Morrison much angst having been accused of inappropriate conduct with women, was educated at Brisbane’s Anglican Church Grammar School. Much to Morrison’s relief, he has announced that he will not run for parliament at the next election.

NSW Nationals state MP Michael Johnsen, who offered a sex worker $1,000 to attend state Parliament for sex and sent the woman a string of lewd text messages and an obscene video while Parliament was sitting, attended the Catholic Patrician Brothers’ College.

It seems that the morality preached at them did not get through. But then again we now know that a fair proportion of those preaching the strictest sexual standards right up to the turn of the century – no sex outside marriage, only heterosexual behaviour is acceptable, no contraception, no abortion – were hypocrites who not only broke their religious vows but raped and sexually assaulted children.

It’s true that inappropriate behaviour happens on both sides of the Chamber but there’s no question that proportionately more have been reported from the Coalition side. This may simply be because Labor introduced a quota policy to have more women members.

The coalition’s parliamentary representation has not always been as unrepresentative as it is today. John Howard’s ministry had a solid 53 per cent state school representation (Howard attended Earlwood Public School and Canterbury Boys’ High, a selective state school). The Hawke and Keating governments were made up of 56 per cent state school graduates while Rudd and Gillard had 62 per cent – almost exactly in line with the split of student attendance across the nation.

The actions exposed in recent weeks in Parliament House are not the sort of behaviour that religious schools say they teach. Go to the website of just about any private, independent, Catholic or Anglican school in Australia and you’ll find a spiel about the high moral standards the school teaches and upholds. The boys high-fee-paying King’s School proclaims that the school provides a unique adventure in learning where students develop their “qualities of mind body and soul.” Victoria’s Aquinas College says its teaching is based on the gospel values of Jesus Christ and is committed to the well-being of its students through “restorative practices” to repair relationships.

Current Morrison government ministers certainly preach the moral behaviour their schools taught. But you can’t help but ask: is there something about bringing boys up in single-sex schools that inclines many to unacceptable behaviour and attitudes? Would actual daily contact with the opposite sex temper their behaviour? Are boys being educated at elite private schools implicitly being educated to believe that they are something special and headed for ruling positions, either in business or in government? And would such a belief make them less inclined to accept quotas for women, quotas that might perhaps deny them a position they feel they are entitled to?

Old school tie networks have long been seen to provide advantages. British research has found that three and a half years after graduating, a student educated at an independent school earned £2,250 more than one from a state school with identical qualifications.

Results may not be quite the same in Australia but there’s little doubt that the “who-you-know” networks provide a significant advantage. But the days when unacceptable behaviour could be kept inside the club appear to be over with many people unable to resist the temptation to post their actions on the internet, while others are now willing to call it out.

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