The rarefied and entitled boys-only private school network has created massive imbalances and injustice in the halls of power, public policy and broader society.By Mike Seccombe.
The children of gods: how power works in Australia
Francis Greenslade was never really part of the privileged class that runs our country. But he came close enough to get a good look at it, warts and all. Greenslade – an actor, teacher, writer, translator, musician – is probably best known through his work on the ABC’s satirical television show Mad as Hell. But in his youth, he had another claim to fame, as a champion debater.
Greenslade got into debating as a student at his “posh” school in Adelaide, St Peter’s College, a boys-only school favoured by the South Australian establishment. Alumni include eight South Australian premiers, plus two who went on to lead New South Wales and Western Australia, as well as a rollcall of prominent political, legal, business and scientific figures, including three Nobel laureates.
Greenslade says he was definitely “not part of the Adelaide establishment”. His parents were scientists, comfortably middle class. But his school was elite, and there was a pervasive sense that the boys who went there were “the children of gods and we would inherit the universe”.
Not all St Peter’s boys bought into the sense of elitism, of course.
But there was definitely a cohort of boys, he says, who were “arrogant and self-entitled”.
“But I suspect they were arrogant and self-entitled before they even got to school,” he says. “It’s often the parents, I think.”
St Peter’s equipped Greenslade with skills as a debater and the qualifications for university. What it did not equip him for, though, was women.
“It was difficult,” he recalls. “I think that the main thing for me about going to a single-sex boys’ school is that once I got out I was not prepared for there to be a completely different gender. You know, talking to women, and just dealing with women as though they were people, did take me a while.”
At university, Greenslade’s passion for debating took him into even more rarefied company. He met people who are now politicians, judges, lawyers, the heads of ASX200 corporations.
This is hardly surprising. Not only does debating attract the brightest and most articulate students, it is often seen as part of preparation for public life, providing skills particularly useful in politics and the law. Greenslade never had ambitions in these areas; he simply enjoyed the cut and thrust of argument, the performance. He was very good at it, and went on to become an adjudicator of others.
And that’s how he first encountered Christian Porter, who was then a student at the elite boys-only Hale School in Perth. It was at a competition between school debating teams in 1987.
“I was the South Australian adjudicator in 1987 in Perth, so I would have adjudicated him. And I was part of the committee that chose the Australian schools team. So, I would have put him on the [national] team,” Greenslade says. “He must have been good … [but] I have absolutely no recollection of him at all.”
Greenslade does, however, have a very precise recollection of another member of the team, an exceptionally bright young woman – a girl, actually – from his home state, South Australia.
“She was a very, very good debater. She was selected for the state team in year 10, which was pretty unheard of,” he says.
He can still clearly remember the grand final debate of the 1987 national schools competition. The topic was “the future justifies optimism” and South Australia was to argue the negative.
The other team redefined the issue so cleverly that Greenslade – who was watching from the audience, but not adjudicating – recalls telling the South Australian coach: “I have no idea how they’re going to get out of this.”
It was that girl, the second speaker, who got them out of it. “And I thought, she won the debate for us.”
They were friends, and saw each other regularly at debating events over nearly a decade – including a big one held at the University of Sydney in January 1988, where he was awarded the best speaker gong. Greenslade was not, however, among those in whom she confided about what allegedly happened there. He supports calls for an independent inquiry into Attorney-General Christian Porter in the wake of the sexual assault allegation.
That exceptional young woman did not have the brilliant career her friends expected for her. She struggled with mental health issues and took her own life last year.
Late last month, friends of the deceased sent a letter to several federal politicians, including Prime Minister Scott Morrison, along with a 32-page dossier written by the woman. In it, she graphically detailed her alleged rape, 33 years ago, by a person who subsequently became a federal cabinet minister.
Morrison says he did not read the dossier, but referred it to NSW Police, who said they could not proceed with a criminal investigation due to “insufficient admissible evidence”.
While traditional media did not identify the alleged perpetrator, social media did – to the extent that his name became a trending topic on Twitter.
On Wednesday of last week, Australia’s first law officer, Christian Porter, held a press conference and announced that he was the subject of the allegations. He categorically denied them.
“Nothing in the allegations that have been printed ever happened,” he said.
Porter said he would not stand down or stand aside. To do so, he said, would mean that anyone in public life might be removed from an elected position by the simple reporting of an allegation.
There were echoes of the schoolboy debater in his sweeping assertion that if this became the standard, “there wouldn’t be much need for an attorney-general anyway, because there would be no rule of law left to protect in this country”.
The prime minister agreed. As far as he was concerned, it was case closed. “He is an innocent man under our law,” Morrison declared.
But as many legal experts and others have pointed out, there are means of inquiry other than a criminal investigation that could be employed, and are employed frequently to determine whether all sorts of people – teachers, lawyers, sportspeople – are fit and proper for their roles.
The government, though, appears determined in its opposition to any further investigation of the allegations against Porter. Time will tell if that determination holds.
This is not just a question of law but, as Greenslade says, a matter of sociology. It’s about privilege and entitlement and the “club” of people like those he went to school with and debated against, who went on to careers in the law, judiciary, public service, business, media and, particularly, politics.
The composition of the Morrison government illustrates the point: 16 of 22 members of the cabinet are men. Save for one of these, all are white. The Saturday Paper has established the educational backgrounds of 15 of them.
Eleven went to non-government schools, mostly elite private ones. Seven of them, including Morrison himself, attended boys-only institutions. The Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, provides some diversity; his schooling was elite, but also co-educational and Jewish Orthodox.
This world is so small that both Communications minister Paul Fletcher, a former dux of the private Sydney Grammar School, and Health minister Greg Hunt, who attended the Peninsula School in Victoria, were also in attendance at the ’88 debating competition.
Porter is from a similar rarefied pedigree, the son of Charles “Chilla” Porter, an Olympic high jumper turned Liberal Party powerbroker in Western Australia. Chilla’s own father, Charles Robert Porter, served in the Queensland state government from 1966 to 1980 and was appointed the minister for Aboriginal and Islander Affairs in Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s fifth ministry.
But when one looks more broadly at the composition of the federal parliament, the numbers tell a similar story of homogeneity. Just 23 per cent of Coalition members and senators are women, compared with 47 per cent for Labor, and 60 per cent for the Greens.
The conservatives’ “women problem” – more accurately a lack of women problem – has been the subject of commentary for years. It flared up particularly about the time of the dumping of Malcolm Turnbull from the Liberal leadership, with claims of sexism and bullying.
Several capable women, among them Julia Banks, Kelly O’Dwyer and deputy leader Julie Bishop, subsequently quit politics. As Bishop reminded us again in an interview this week, a group of men describing themselves as the “big swinging dicks” conspired to thwart her career.
Other Liberal women complained at the time but stayed on. Senator Linda Reynolds was one of them, after she publicly lamented in August 2018: “I do not recognise my party at the moment. I do not recognise the values. I do not recognise the bullying and intimidation that has gone on.”
Reynolds, the Defence minister, is now a central figure in another gendered crisis for the government, accused of being insufficiently supportive after the alleged rape, in March 2019, of one of her staffers, Brittany Higgins, then aged 24, by a more senior staff member, in Reynolds’ ministerial office.
The male staffer was sacked days later over what’s been described as a “security breach”. Despite the fact Higgins told Reynolds what had happened, and that multiple senior staff, several of them in the prime minister’s office, knew about it, Morrison claimed to have been unaware of the allegation for almost two years. Until the story became public last month.
The political damage done to Morrison by his denial was exacerbated by an apparent lack of concern for the victim. He gave his wife credit for awakening his empathy, by asking him to consider what he would want if it were one of their “girls”.
A devastating rejoinder was delivered by Grace Tame, the Australian of the Year and a sexual abuse survivor, at the National Press Club last week: “It shouldn’t take having children to have a conscience,” she said. “And, actually, on top of that, having children doesn’t guarantee a conscience.”
When parliament resumes this week, Morrison will be down two senior ministers. Porter has taken leave while he tries to recover his mental health. Reynolds has taken time off due to a heart condition – pre-existing, but likely exacerbated by the stress of the Higgins revelations, including that she labelled her young former staffer a “lying cow”.
It is not just the Liberal Party that is burning here, though. A bigger, more widespread bonfire of the elite male vanities is blazing.
The sex discrimination commissioner, Kate Jenkins, has been called upon to lead an investigation of the workplace culture of the parliament – grudgingly established after the Higgins allegation. Jenkins believes Australia is now at a “turning point” in its attitudes to sexual harassment and assault.
“In my time working in this area … over the 30 years, I’ve never seen any moment like this,” she told the ABC last Sunday.
Cultural change, she said, was happening “across the board”.
Recent events have certainly lit a fire under elite boys’ schools, which so disproportionately turn out national leaders. And interestingly, the fire has been fuelled by their elite female equivalents.
About three weeks ago, Chanel Contos, a former student of Sydney’s Kambala girls’ school, began an online petition calling for schools to do more to instruct students about sexual consent, and at a younger age. She was driven by concern about the toxic masculinity evident among private schoolboys.
“I have lived in three different countries and I have never spoken to anyone who has experienced rape culture the way me and my friends had growing up in Sydney among private schools,” Contos told one interviewer.
Within a couple of weeks, the petition received more than 3000 responses from young women, sharing their stories of sexual abuse.
The private educational establishment responded with some commitments to do more about consent instruction, but also attempted to lay the blame for the apparent culture of misogyny on external factors: indulgent parenting, intoxicants and online pornography.
A note to parents from Tony George, the head of Sydney’s prestigious The King’s School, whose alumni includes federal Energy minister Angus Taylor and former NSW premier Mike Baird, questioned how effective more consent education could even be, given the examples of aberrant behaviour in politics, sport and elsewhere. George wrote, in part:
“… do we really think an intoxicated teenage boy is going to have the presence of mind to recall his sex education curriculum and restrain himself at a boozed-up party when given the opportunity to pursue his porn-filled imagination and desire?
“If footballers and parliamentary staffers can’t do it, I think not.”
Other defenders of the elite status quo have similarly blamed exogenous factors, particularly pornography, rather than the culture their institutions help foster.
“They are identifying the wrong problems,” says Catharine Lumby, who serves as a pro bono gender adviser to the National Rugby League, as well as being a professor of media studies at the University of Sydney.
“The problem is not online pornography. It is a gendered order in society where men, some men, think they can control women, and children, like property.”
Single-sex schools especially, she says, “are a bad idea”.
Not only do they encourage a sense of entitlement in their charges, a sense that they are better than others, those “others” include a whole gender.
“As a girl from a working-class background, I did an arts/law degree at Sydney University and I was shocked by the behaviour of the elite, privileged boys from single-sex schools,” she says.
“I will never forget when one of them brought a blow-up plastic sex doll for the lecturer to hold during a criminal law class on sexual assault.”
These days, Francis Greenslade wonders whether Australia’s private school system is desirable at all.
It’s a good question. The data shows not only that this country is sliding down international rankings in terms of education, but also that Australia’s educational outcomes are more polarised than in most comparable nations.
It is clear that students from less advantaged backgrounds suffer in under-resourced schools. But it is less clear whether those from more-privileged backgrounds actually benefit much, in purely academic terms, from private education. An array of socioeconomic factors means they would likely do well anyway.
Economists have a term for things that are valued more for the status they advertise than for their utility: positional goods. Perhaps a private school education could be seen in a similar way, as something valued for the status and contacts it provides.
It’s often said that the eye-watering fees paid for places at some of Australia’s elite non-government schools are an investment in a child’s future social network, far more than in their academic future.
Jordana Hunter, education program director at the Grattan Institute, says it’s complicated. “It can be hard to disentangle learning effects from networking effects. Networks seem to be quite significant in terms of success later in life. And that’s above and beyond a cognitive literacy and numeracy learning effect,” she says.
Which is to say, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.
Hunter offers another insight, of particular relevance to politics: “It’s hard to understand the concerns of people you don’t empathise with, and hard to empathise with people [who] you don’t know.”
And when you have leaders drawn from a very narrow, privileged background, that has serious ramifications – both in terms of understanding of sexual consent and beyond.
Consider, for example, the Morrison government’s response to the Covid-19 recession. Women, as the Grattan Institute detailed in a comprehensive report this week, lost their jobs at twice the rate men did. They were saddled with more unpaid work, including supervising children learning remotely. They were less likely to get government support, because JobKeeper excluded short-term casuals, who in the hardest-hit industries are mostly women.
Yet the government directed substantial support to sectors, such as construction, that were little affected. It pumped more resources into apprenticeships, which historically are 70 per cent male, and ignored tertiary education, which is heavily female.
Grattan’s chief executive, Danielle Wood, can cite innumerable examples, from childcare to superannuation to homelessness, where women are relatively disadvantaged.
It comes back to a lack of diversity among politicians, she says.
“They just haven’t had the lived experience. And they don’t necessarily deal with a lot of people that have had that lived experience. And so, we end up focusing on a narrower set of policy issues than we should.”
This criticism goes beyond gender to class and race issues, too. For the moment, the focus is on the treatment of women.
Kate Jenkins may be right. Perhaps we have reached a moment of real change. But the “club”, as Greenslade calls it, is very good at protecting its privilege.
It is also very good at silencing its critics by deflecting, intimidating, stonewalling and using the shame felt by its victims against them. But if the past few weeks have shown anything, it’s the power of those victims’ stories when they are told.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 13, 2021 as "The children of gods: how power works in Australia".
A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.
Letters & Editorial