As the nation reels over the Christian Porter allegations, I believe the root cause is the education that men and boys give and receive.
A question: what connects Christian Porter to the boys at the centre of Chanel Contos’ online petition? Of course, the most obvious answer is education. The young men that Contos’ respondents are talking about are all from private schools.
Porter was educated at Hale School in Perth, a sprawling village of a place, boasting 120 acres of cricket ovals and a ‘rowing fleet’. Tellingly, until 1961, its campus was opposite the WA Parliament, and over its 160-plus years existence it has turned out men like Lang Hancock and Ben Roberts-Smith. I don’t have to tell you about Lang Hancock and his relationship with women and power. And Roberts-Smith, you also know, is accused of both domestic violence and war crimes. A trial is due to start in June. And now there is Porter. Not just suspected of rape, but also of misogynistic behaviour over time, as ABC’s Four Corners recently showed.
So, there is a problem with private schools, especially private boys’ schools. We know that. That doesn’t mean that we are acting on it, but at least we know it. But I think that the issue goes much deeper than that. Why, I was asking myself, are these boys attending these schools? Obviously, the easy answer is that this is what the ‘elite’ does. It sends its sons to the same schools, so they can start networking early on and know who to call when they need a government minister to sign off on a dodgy deal.
Private boys’ schools in Australia are modelled on the British idea that education should be aimed at breeding a ruling class, a group of men that will administer the Empire (or in modern times, the nation). In order for them to become ‘the right stuff’ they are taught a mixture of tradition, competition and discipline, in an environment where violence is the educational tool of choice. This will lead, the hope is, to ‘a pecking order governed by testosterone’.
Only the toughest survive, and smashing others in the process is accepted, if not admired, behaviour. Needless to say, women do not even figure in these circles. They are wives, mistresses, mothers, nannies, but never, ever partners or equals.
Bill Clinton’s biological father was a bigamist, who died in a car accident three months before he was born. His stepfather was an alcoholic gambler, who beat up and abused his wife and children. When I spoke to Clinton 15 years ago, he admitted that this personal history had left him rudderless.
But those schools are expensive, very expensive, and somebody is paying for them. Somebody who believes that this is the right way to raise a boy. I will be going out on a limb here, but I would like to propose that part of the problem here is fathers. To be a proper parent you have to be there. We know that too and we judge mothers accordingly; when children go off the rails we blame working mothers. If only they had been home with tea and scones nothing bad would have happened to their offspring. We accept absent fathers as a given, especially in ‘elite’ circles.
Surely, their men are far too busy and far too important to bother with a small thing like raising their children. They don’t have to, either. They just pay other men, men who resemble their own teachers, to do the work for them. At this level, this is not called abdicating your responsibilities but investing in the future. And so, another generation of men grows up without their fathers. And that shows. We know from years of intensive research by people like Steve Biddulph that what all boys have in common is that they want to show their dads that they are worthy of their love. Fathers are strange animals; their love is conditional on what you do, on performance and achievement. The more distant the father, the more desperate the child, especially the boy, will be in trying to make an impression.
Sometimes that leads men to great heights. A few weeks ago, a podcast started on Spotify, put together by Bruce Springsteen and Barack Obama. It is called ‘Renegades: Born in the USA’ and apart from obvious themes like race and citizenship the main topics are masculinity and fatherhood. What Springsteen and Obama have in common are troubled relationships with their fathers. Springsteen’s was schizophrenic; a dangerous, often absent non-role model. Obama’s dad was not there either, something his son has written and spoken about often. For both the musician and the ex-President, this hole in their lives has always been enormous, and whatever they did was aimed at filling the void.
The same was true for another American leader, Bill Clinton. His biological father was a bigamist, who died in a car accident three months before he was born. His stepfather was an alcoholic gambler, who beat up and abused his wife and children. When I spoke to Clinton 15 years ago, he admitted that this personal history had left him rudderless. Not really able to understand what was expected of a real man, miserable and hungry for acceptance, he looked in all the right and wrong places to gain acceptance. I don’t know much about Christian Porter’s father, apart from the fact that he was the Director of the WA Liberal Party and himself the son of a mover and shaker, a Minister who served under Joh Bjelke-Petersen. Ben Roberts-Smith’s dad is a Major General and a Justice on the Supreme Court of WA.
It is, of course, completely possible that those men are kind, open, generous fathers, involved – on a daily basis – in their son’s lives. That they have shown their boys that respect for people, especially women, is at the centre of any well-lived life. It is also imaginable that they just signed a check and sent their sons to school.