Politics Opinion

On Christian Porter: Boys’ schools perpetuate parliamentary boys’ club

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A young Christian Porter while at Hale (image via YouTube)

Old Haleian Stephen Saunders imagines addressing Old Boys’ Day of 19 March, to review the Christian Porter imbroglio.   

DEAR PRINCIPAL, teachers, distinguished guests, old boys and present pupils. I begin by acknowledging the Noongar people, traditional custodians of the land on which we meet today. I pay my respects to their elders past and present.

Finally, I revisit this splendid military memorial hall, having missed Hale’s 2008 sesquicentenary. The invite had a space for a son, not a daughter, to co-attend.

No way can I shirk today’s topic. As the Hale website declares‘find your frontier, your son is unique’. The boys’ school that nurtured Christian Porter has taught WA Liberal and Labor premiers. Its Forrests, from Alexander to Andrew, have changed state history. Soldiers, scholars and sportsmen abound. A magnificent focus of prestige and power.  

Unlike me, I’m afraid. In the 1960s, I was an accidental tourist from the wrong end of the Perth rail line. My awesome Armadale Primary teacher, Normia Turner, liked to set her pupils for the private-school scholarships. 

Sure, I debated for Hale. WA artist Robert Juniper switched me on to art. “Monkey” Marshall made me a lifelong Francophile.

Organised Christianity was novel to me. The elders’ talk scarcely predicted their walk. Bullying was common. Corporal punishment, also new to me, was popular.

Luckily, there were boys who shared my love of American culture and I got cut loose from the compulsory cadet corps. Though the school could never fault my academic marks, we remained an awkward fit.

It’s been easy to humorise my Hale years as a bracing sort of political and ethical boot-camp. Lately, I’ve been stung to bitter tears instead. 

This is no direct comment on the worst accusation against the Attorney-General. Hale hasn’t said much either. Although, the alleged offence occurred just weeks after the youth you glorified departed his final school assembly. 

The late 1980s Hale experience seemed to push Porter’s entitlement beyond his enlightenment. At university, his scoffing at women was persistent and unkind. It was as if Germaine Greer and the second wave of feminism had never been.  

Similarly, when the Brittany Higgins scandal broke, Prime Minister Scott Morrison cynically leaned on his wife and daughters. Not for the first time.

Yet the principal claims boys’ schools are particularly “well placed” to educate for respectful relationships.  A recent grad says misogyny persists.

As in Britain, the germ of our ruling class is entitled lads from de luxe schools. Hence, rote apologies must still be trotted out, for bad boys in blazers.

The more Morrison pummels Lady Justice, the more I reject a Parliament led by frat boys. The day of women’s marches for justice, Morrison jeered: we didn’t shoot you. So much for Jenny and the girls. Meanwhile, Porter launched an exquisitely lawyerly defamation suit.

Women and men chanting: enough is enough. Frat boys calculating: we can stare this down.  

That besieged first law officer, what values does he represent? Liberty, equality and fraternity? The rule of law? The school motto of duty?

To me, his stint echoes the Hale I once knew. Do as I say, if not as I do.

His pursuit of East Timor whistle-blowers underscores partisan approaches to law and regulation. His own profession fought his Family Court demolition, for being anti-women. 

The "first justice" is a better role model. Confronted by abuse inside the High Court, Susan Kiefel didn't leave everything to the cops. Instead, a brisk inquiry unstitched Dyson Heydon, the boy from Shore. The Court might become a safer workplace.

Who am I to remonstrate further? For my learned guides, I turn once again to France and America. 

Thomas Piketty’s first and second door-stoppers are among key books of early 21st-Century politics and economics. Be acquainted with them, even if our politicians and economists seem to avoid them.

Senior economists still blame “technological change” for Australia’s low wage growth and rising inequality after the 1970s. That’s debatable.

If you distrust the “leftish” Frenchman, read great American economist Robert Gordon. He shows that many life-transforming tech changes happened from 1870 to 1970. Glittery info-tech developments post-1990 are less transformative than we think.

In Piketty, the burgeoning democratic equality of 1920-75 is anomalous. Brushing off the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 and COVID-19, higher inequality is once again the rage, via government policy. Cutting progressive taxes, transferring wealth, from labour back to capital.

What’s the connection to Hale? I like to describe it as a marvellous machine for the generational transmission of wealth, class and family. Through the male line, that is.  

This isn’t news. As Piketty says, it’s routine historically. Feudal or modern, all states have what he calls 'inequality regimes'. Justified by narratives and systems.

A crucial 20th-Century narrative is meritocracy, which American philosopher Michael Sandel skewers as a “tyranny”.

He shows “leftish” leaders like Tony Blair and Barack Obama eagerly embracing the idea that, in the globalised world, you just have to get an education. Then, you can always make it if you try. If you fall short, by implication, it must be your fault.

In rich democracies, as Piketty documents, the “left” parties have come to represent the educated elite. “Right” parties still serve the moneyed elite. 

In Australian terms, left is Labor and Greens, right Liberal and National. The party for everyday workers? Dunno if we still have one. Maybe you boys could work on that.

More likely, you’ll go with the flow. No matter how competitive and successful you are, check your Haleian privilege. Even if there is no god, they may come back to chastise you.

Some closing thoughts on this sumptuous school. For rich families, annual fees up to $27,000 for high-school day-boys are chump change. Other parents move heaven and earth. Meanwhile, Hale scholarships now extend to Indigenous Australians.

Australia’s school campuses show that, by OECD standards, ours is a two-tier schooling system, with church schools as the preferred provider. Disadvantaged students are ever more segregated into disadvantaged schools. Often, these are state schools.

Boys, if your parents claim church schools save taxpayer dollars, look askance. Increasingly, these schools are being government-funded at rates similar to state schools.

Simultaneously, they retain special dispensations. Like uncapped fees, picking and choosing students, and anti-discrimination waivers. Nice gig. 

Yet, Porter pushed the discriminatory Religious Discrimination Bill. It could give your school further dispensations, while protecting its funding status.

Also in 2008, our daughter was offered a high-school place at co-ed Radford, a plush ACT Anglican school. Instead, she chose the local high school. 

Eyebrows went up. The choice, however, was right for her. For all the ensuing Gonski iterations, the Federal Government isn’t making it any easier to choose state schools. So, if Hale plays its cards, its WA dominion may continue.

Your recurrent income is about $40 million privately, mostly from parents, plus $10 million federal and state funds. Your strategic plan urges “authentic” male development, sharing values of integrity, personal excellence, resilience, creativity, service and courage. 

Fine stuff, but the Porter imbroglio is another wake-up call. On what safe grounds would wealthy boys’ schools still make girls the “other”? And be rewarded by governments for doing so?

You, Shore, St Peters and the like are cosy with these governments. They won’t pressure you overmuch. Refresh your social licence for yourselves.

Drawing 90% of its boys-only from the upper-middle and top socio-economic quarters, Hale is no immediate force for progressive equality. What do you do to counter that?  What is your broader social contract?

Unlike state schools, you’re free to take stands on issues. How often would you do that?  

To take just one example, you celebrate WA mining titans like Forrest and Peter Wright. Young Indigenous actor Meyne Wyatt also brings kudos.

But what do you think of the persistent hypocrisies from Forrest and the WA Government, regarding mining royalties and disturbances on Indigenous lands?

You can work ethically, against your students’ wealth and complacency. You’re free to send contemporary justice and politics right into the classroom. A co-ed Hale might place its pupils ahead of the sexual equality curve, not badly adrift like ex-prefect Porter. 

You could teach towards humbler grads, who might want something more generous than the selfish neo-liberal consensus. Who might protect the much-degraded world biodiversity hotspot that is the Noongar heartlands?  

Ironic, isn’t it, boys? Such is the private power of brand-name boys’ schools; it’s left in their own hands to lift their contributions to the public good. Perhaps unfairly, they give the appearance of helping the Federal Government keep women in their place.

Class of 2021, and your partners-to-be, think twice about sending your sons to a boys-only Hale. How would that align with the health and safety standards of 2040 or 2050?

Stephen Saunders is a former public servant, consultant and Canberra Times reviewer. 

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