#Strongwomen. "I write about the power of trying, because I want to be okay with failing. I write about generosity because I battle selfishness. I write about joy because I know sorrow. I write about faith because I almost lost mine, and I know what it is to be broken and in need of redemption. I write about gratitude because I am thankful – for all of it." Kristin Armstrong
“No Australian political party is doing serious thinking about how to knit together food, farming and environmental policies to continue feeding the population while mitigating climate change and biodiversity loss.”
In 2016 the United Nations announced the 17 Sustainable Development Goals that give every business including agriculture a global blueprint to guide our country’s activities towards a global collaborative achievement of sustainable development. The SDGs provide a ‘common language’ through which our rural industries can communicate domestically and globally, in alignment with world leaders on the SDG index as well as Australia’s major trading partners.
They also provide an extraordinary opportunity to develop a leadership capability framework to support the National Farmers Federation 2030 roadmap.
Leading change for a sustainable economy and planet has a huge focus in Europe yet big business in Australia is much slower to move into this space.
“The systemic pressures the world faces today mean that leadership simply cannot be the preserve of a ‘heroic’ few. Delivering the future we want will require organisations to cultivate leadership at all levels, and to embrace diverse and complementary strengths and approaches. The focus will be on developing collective leadership capacity, with individuals supported and inspired to deliver against their potential, and to contribute effectively within their personal strengths and role.”
Whilst progress on building the knowledge, thinking and practice around the new normal is very slow at government level our teachers are grasping the Sustainability Leadership mantle firmly ensuring our young people are going to be ready for the jobs of the future.
By mapping our future leadership needs and deploying our people for good, we have a significant opportunity to shape the food production agenda and deliver an equitable system for all.
There is also icing on the cake with a number of economic benefits from SDG reporting globally to be realised through enhancements to the natural environment.
FOOD WASTE: Potential to lower global costs of food waste for saving AUD $240 to $600B per year (20-30 per cent of food globally is wasted through post-harvest losses that are easy to prevent)
FOREST ECOSYSTEM SERVICES: Potential to lower Global costs of deforestation and forest degradation: AUD $200B to $550B per year (Deforestation and forest degradation which currently account for 17 per cent of global emissions
RENEWABLE ENERGY: Increase renewables’ share of energy generation worldwide could increase to 45 per cent by 2030 (from 23 per cent in 2014) (IRENA, 2014) Potential to lower global costs of non-renewable energy: AUD $250B to $900B
Thanks to Jo Eady from Rural Scope and Mark Paterson from Currie Communication for inspiration for this post
When our farm started doing things very differently ( like milking cows three times a day in a rainforest environment ) and winning awards people were very interested in our story.
I still get asked to tell my story often. For the last seven years I have suggested journalists tell the stories of the young people I work with.
Recently I have had a number of requests to tell the story about my commitment to the advancement of women and girls as it just so happens that 8 out 10 young people working with me putting their hands up to tell agriculture’s story are young women.
A recent request (and turning 65) had me thinking deeply about my journey. Looking for pictures and the process reminded me of things that had slipped my mind or things I was determined to put in a box and do my best never to open again.
Its doesn’t work that way does it?
The dark parts of your life you don’t talk about just tend to sit there and fester
As part of my deep dive into my journey I came across below. A Take Two story written by journalist Jodie Duffy for the Illawarra Mercury that morphed into a couple feature stories.
I remember the original interview. It was awkward both Michael and I were not quite sure what to share.
In 2021 it is this comment from Michael that stands out for me
Nick was always the centre of our lives and the day he started boarding school is one of our most harrowing moments.
It was the highlight of our week when he got off the train on Friday afternoons He always made sure he got home in time to help me finish in the dairy
I tell people I came back to my farming roots because Nick decided to join the business in 2001 after he finished school.
But that is not the whole story. In 2000 when Nick was completing the HSC the pharmacy I managed, which was open 14 hours a day was robbed a number of times by two masked men.
Instead of coming home to milk cows after a week at school Nick would come to the pharmacy to protect me. He turned out to be very impressive at data entry as well
I was grateful but also felt guilty that I was potentially putting my son at risk.
As it turned out it was always other people’s children who were ever only going to be at risk
When the robbers were finally caught I discovered there was a good reason they didn’t hold up the pharmacy when I was working. That was because I knew them both and they knew I would recognise their voices.
You often don’t know how much you are being impacted by traumatic events happening around you until you reach the tipping point
One of the robbers was a long term customer of the pharmacy and he was injured in the police pursuit that eventually caught him. The hospital asked him what medication he was on. He told the hospital to ring me.
That was the day I lost it.
Those robberies fueled by the long term drug habits of two young men impacted so many lives. The beautiful young people I worked with, everyone who worked in the pharmacy and their families and my family
My family tried so hard but we never really moved on. No matter how hard you try you cant put the bad in a box and pretend it never happened.
I am a very different person today. The confident persona is a façade.
You don’t get a second chance to rob me of my soul.
When I feel undervalued I tell you and I don’t do forgiveness.
TAKE TWO – by Jodie Duffy
I met Michael when I was 18 He came to Jamberoo with his brother to play football. The local paper did a profile on him and when I saw his picture I said “wow I’ve got to meet this guy”
A mutual acquaintance lined up a blind date for the Jamberoo Footballers Ball – the social event of the year in those days. Michael had injured his ankle @ training and spent the entire night with his foot in an esky of ice. This was probably a good thing as we didn’t realise until well into our relationship that Fred & Ginger we where not. Real life lived up to the photo and it was infatuation at first sight. I went off to Uni and we spent every weekend together for the next 3 years. My girlfriends called Michael – HT. He is still my heartthrob 30 years later.
We got engaged when I was 21 and married as soon as I finished Uni
When we first got married Michael had a 7am -3pm job. When he was approached to manage the farm @ Clover Hill we both drifted into doing 14 hours shifts
When our son Nick was born 5 years later; he spent the greater part of his younger years with Michael on the farm. We had four sisters living next to us and they became his pseudo grandmothers. I still worked 14 hour shifts and was pretty much an absentee mum. When Nick went to boarding school we grew much closer
Whilst Nick was a boarding school Michael and I ensured we had as many weekends off as possible. Nick played a lot of sport and it was great to watch & support him @ weekends.
Nick skied competitively and we went to Canada every Christmas holidays so Nick could train. This was a wonderful time in our lives. In 2000 the deregulation of the dairy industry had a huge impact on our dairying business. This was the defining moment that bought us all back to the farm. It works really well, we complement each others skills. Nick has been managing the business for the last 4 years and became a partner in June. Nick is a 7th generation dairy farmer. My family has been dairying in Australia since 1831 and Michael’s since the 1860’s
My father was a reluctant dairy farmer and always said- Lynne whatever you do never learn to milk a cow. I have followed his instructions implicitly. There is so much more to do on a dairy farm than milk cows. The role that gives me the most satisfaction is looking after the calves. You are working every day with between 30 to 40 living breathing little things that rely on you totally. I recently had to get the vet to euthanize one of my calves. It was almost as heartbreaking for him as it was for me
Michael is the family’s quiet achiever. He is crazy about his cows. His great passion is watching them compete in the show ring. He lives from show to show. At the moment an accident he had in December has kept him out of the ring and this part of his life has been put on hold. You can tell he misses it desperately
I see my role in the industry differently to Michael. I feel it is critical that agriculture has high profile. It is important to constantly remind people we produce the food of life.
I really cherish the moments Lynne & I had together when we first met. As I get older I am constantly reminded how much she means to me. When Nick was little I was able to fit my work schedule around the important moments in his life. I took him to school every-morning He would spend his afternoons with our next door neighbours who lived adjacent to the dairy and he would sneak across to the dairy whenever he could
When he started to play football I started the afternoon milking earlier so I could coach his team
Nick was always the centre of our lives and the day he started boarding school is one of our most harrowing moments.
It was the highlight of our week when he got off the train on Friday afternoons He always made sure he got home in time to help me finish in the dairy
Lynne always organised her days off so she could help me show our stud cattle As a girl she had shown horses and was a deft hand at putting the finishing touches on the cows as they went into ring. Nick shares our passion for showing. It is truly rewarding to watch your child follow in your footsteps
As a family we have shared all the highlights and watched our show team grow to a point where they are nationally competitive
Life on the land is a roller coaster. We reinvent our business (and sometimes our selves) every year – whatever it takes to make it successful The business plan is definitely a dynamic document
Deregulation was the turning point in our lives. The big positive is we get to work together as a family every day doing something we all think makes a difference
In my quest to collect information and data about how we can best support women in rural and regional Australia through The Wise Women Project, I interviewed Australian Rural Consultant of the Year Dr Neil Moss
Neil was as always very pragmatic, and it was this statement that was a wake-up call for me.
On reflecting on the 20 plus years Neil has been consulting to dairy farmers he said
“A state of chaos is the normal in most years in the dairy industry”
Chaos and disruption is normal. Our reflections on the past and what we consider “normal” are often blinded by our experiences of our early and formative years in agriculture. Those that became agricultural aware in the 50’s or 70’s reflect on the wetter times being the normal. I became “agriculturally aware” on the Monaro in the early 80s when my parents moved to Dalgety and bought the general store- my perception of normal is some degree of drought interspersed with occasional but appreciated wet times. The world was different – we were protected by more favourable terms of trade, lower land values and in some industries quota and floor prices. Many farmers continued to innovate and move forward during and since those times but some have stood still.
No business is immune from change and this is not unique to agriculture. Costs have risen, terms of trade have declined, land values have escalated dramatically and our need to be more efficient, that is, to get more from less, has only become more acute. Stocking rates have had to rise to keep pace, expectations of higher productivity continue and as a result, whether or not you accept the science of climate change, all farms are more exposed to drought and climate risk than they ever have been before. These are the messages that we need to get out. Farmers need to be adopting technology, innovation, improvements in management, improvements in efficiency, improvements in resource use efficiency.
These conversations can be coupled with conversations about sustainability, the reality of carbon cycling in agriculture, emissions intensity, sustainable intensification and animal wellbeing. These factors should not be viewed as being mutually exclusive with productivity, profitability and resilience- the opposite is the true reality.
On the question of genuine financial literacy and valuing everyone in the business
Returns in agriculture need to be carefully considered. While income is important, asset growth and wealth creation need to be factored, as well as the people who are contributing both paid and in-kind labour as well as founding capital. Unfortunately, in many cases no individual is getting income paid directly – It’s just declared as co-drawings. This can make things like tracking or contributing superannuation or other entitlements, generally taken for granted outside of agriculture, very problematic.
Ideally, all businesses should factor in labour costs and pay staff whether they be family or not
It is a critical conversation to have when you’re looking at whether a business is viable in the first place. If your business doesn’t provide for labour costs, then there is risk that what you may be doing is effectively indulging a hobby farming career.
When we look at this there are two things to consider
Diligence when people are establishing and reviewing the business objectively to also apply a proper wage structures, to all people that are contributing. Otherwise, you are not acknowledging opportunity lost costs of all those involved.
And secondarily, when we are talking about technology and innovation:
Identify how the technology can help and also what are its costs and requirements such as training and integration into the whole farm system that need to be considered
Identify who are the drivers of the adoption and uptake of technology on farms?
On the question of the adoption of technology
Frequently, it’s the women that are more engaged in exploring and bringing new technology to the farm and suggesting where it fits in. Women often have a capacity to sit back, look and say, “Well, why are you doing it that way? Maybe there is a better way and I’m going to go out and find it.”
Whereas quite often, and certainly not always, (there are great examples of technology being adopted by all genders), males can get locked into a “that’s how we do it, that’s how dad did it, that’s how we’re going to keep doing it” mindset.
It is important to not just talk about technology, it’s important we talk about adoption of change in management practices as well as technology, that reflects new knowledge in how things can be done. Quite often we do not need a new gadget or machine, just a review of how things are done and processes in light of the ever evolving on and off farm innovation that is occurring across the world- we are so much better connected these days to world-wide innovation, and it is often women that drive and thrive with this connectivity and approach to critical thinking.
It is important to conduct studies rather than rely on the anecdotal information because the people who are already having these conversations are often working with the progressive or aspirational farmers who are already on the innovation wave or are looking to get on board and wanting to do better.
We need to better understand why some farmers embrace and move forward with technology and innovation and some chose not to.
Questions we should be asking
Who is adopting the technology,
Are they using it to its best advantage?
What are they doing with the data that they’re collecting?
Where do you get your information on technology?
How is that information communicated to you?
Who in the farm team is responsible for bringing it to the table?
What processes of review do you have before adopting a technology?
What are the real barriers to technology and change being taken up- is it capital, culture, consensus, access, training or poor explanation of potential benefits and across business synergies?
On the question of the importance of a commitment to lifelong learning
We all know many very successful people who do not have a tertiary education- a university degree or similar is not a pre-requisite for success! However, many of the most successful farmers I am lucky enough to work with adopt a lifelong approach to ongoing continuing education, and learning, albeit less structured. These farmers understand the drivers of their business, they appreciate the critical importance of timing and decisiveness, they understand and manage their key risks and they continue to update skills and knowledge. A profitable and resilient industry needs farming management teams that consider all of this.
In the wake of some of the recent natural disasters I have been doing some recovery work with farms that have been less exposed to both broader industry extension efforts and use of consultants. Irrespective of the real devastation that they had experienced, the failure of either delivery or uptake of messaging and practices that many farmers and advisers consider as basics and fundamentals was deeply concerning. We need to find better ways to connect innovation and technology right across the broad spectrum of aspiration and ambition
On the question of how do we inspire change
To inspire change the industry has used role models and it has had various programs. The issue I see is the industry continues to preach to the converted. You have the same 30% of farms that attend 90% of the structured education extension offerings.
There is a large component of industry that will never embrace or adopt change, time or the next natural disaster or industry price shock will unfortunately catch up with many of these business.
Concerning as it is we may need to accept that it doesn’t matter how hard or what we try and do, there’s going to be many farms that are never going to or want to progress-and that is ok and that is absolutely their choice.
There just must be an acceptance of that.
While the Australian public is in general deeply supportive of agriculture and farmers, the tolerance towards repeated bail outs and support packages may be wearing thin. There is a need to be honest and transparent with the farming sector that next time there is a drought or a price shock, if they haven’t gone out and upskilled, and improved, and taken the opportunities that are there to make their business more resilient, then the public’s tolerance and acceptance of taxpayer funded bail-outs being delivered are being continually eroded
Very few farming businesses are optimized and there is existing and evolving technologies and management changes that can continue to improve efficiency and resilience. People must look on their side of the farm gate first, assess and challenge the operations and structures in their business and see what they can adopt and how they can improve management and adopt technology, and just not blame the milk price next time something goes wrong. This is not to say that issues around inappropriate milk pricing structures should remain uncontested when they do occur as has recently been the case.
This wise woman is very grateful to have this very wise man in her life – thank you Neil
That journey seemed to resonate with young people. Having in a past life seen young people I work with lives torn apart by a series of violent armed holdups I thought deeply about how we could build resilience in our young people
This led to the Young Farming Champions program. As it so happened it was mainly young women who saw value in a commitment to lifelong learning, the importance of being critical and creative thinkers, confident communicators and collaborators.
This has seen me reach the third stage in my 20 year journey where I have been identified as a champion of the advancement of women and girls. I personally believe they are championing themselves. I see my role as the connector providing a space where we can all come together to dream big, reframe the debate, experiment, collect data and signpost ways women and girls can realise their full potential and achieve their aspirations. And ultimately a gender balanced world where everyone has the opportunity to thrive
Shoutout to Avivah Wittenberg-Cox for reframing the debate away from the “Them and Us” to “Shared Responsibility” and inspiring our graphics
Watch this space to learn more about
and a bit of light hearted relief from the National Museum
In a world where your message can go global agriculture is spending a lot of money wishing and hoping we can build trust and belief through slick marketing campaigns
Things we know:
People trust people in preference to things – Marketing campaigns may contain people but they are still things
Building trust requires building relationships and that takes time
The people you chose to be your trusted voices also pivotal to success. They should be:
4. To be UNDERSTANDABLE beware the BUZZ WORDS
A prime example of a buzz word is “Sustainability”
Sustainability is a major concern among consumers. Food producers are aware of that, but often unsure how to address it.
The notion of sustainable food production is almost shrugged off as common sense among many in agriculture. Ask a grower if they’re sustainable and you’ll likely get an answer like, “Well, if I wasn’t, I wouldn’t be farming very long.”
In reality what is sustainable for one grower maybe very different for another. It is certainly a word that means different things to different segments of the market place agriculture is trying to build trust with
As an example
You ask a large group of young people between the ages of 12 and 18 from diverse socio economic backgrounds what sustainability means to them – the top three answers are
You ask a group of tertiary educated adults between the ages of 24 and 60 the same question – the top 3 answers are
As an aside I must admit I smiled when I saw Woolworths tag line. They leave nothing to chance
Building trust starts with being curious about your target market and an intimate understanding of their wants, needs, pain points and motivations.
Its requires providing opportunities for building relationships. People want to meet and talk to the people who are asking to be trusted. Slick marketing campaigns might attract a passing interest but their chance of being memorable are very slim.
PEOPLE TRUST PEOPLE – it takes time. We have to be prepared to invest the time
When our school programs in 2020 were officially identified as “Student Leadership” programs helping build natural disaster resilience I realised we had come full circle and there will be significant cross over in the introduction to all our programs of “Who We are and What we Do”
What do we do?
Picture You in Agriculture supports young people in the agriculture sector and young people in primary and secondary schools to solve tomorrow’s problems, today.
We offer a leadership growth journey in the agriculture sector for young people that is quite unique.
Agriculture has a wealth of excellent leadership programs that teach people how to be the best version of themselves and succeed in their careers.
We are giving it a red hot shot to teach young people to lead others and multiply their impact.
In schools we support teachers to show young people what they teach is real and show students how they can apply what they learn in the real world.
Quoting our leadership development stream coach Josh Farr
“In the modern world, in 1990, in 2000, in 2010, in 2021 its really difficult to know if the technical skills we are being taught are going to be relevant. We don’t know if we are going to need to know how to code or to analyse data. We do not know what the robots are going to be able to do. This is why in the workplace there is a move back to the fundamental human skills. “
The top 3 skills 21st century employers want are
How you communicate, empathise, the way you make people feel is fundamental.
There are so many ways of getting your ideas out to the world.
The key is to find the medium that suits you and you enjoy producing and creating. Watch Josh talk about this here
We provide opportunities for young people to find the medium that suits them, find their tribe and take action.
The team at Picture You in Agriculture has been surveying young people between the ages of 8 and 18 and adults with a tertiary education for 15 years to get an understanding of their images and perceptions of the industry that feeds and clothes us.
To see whether the community realises the depth and breadth of the role Australian farmers play in not only feeding and clothing us as well as managing 60% of the land in Australia we ask them three questions.
The answer to only one of these three questions is well known. The exact statistic is blurry depending on who is collating the data and their classification of what constitutes a “farmer”. Irrespective of that challenge Australians know Australian farmers look after a big chunk of Australia.
This year we decided to create a graphic to raise awareness of these facts. The below graphic is the first iteration.
The source of the data is the fabulous Climate Works Australia Interactive
These statistics are important because:
Australian farmers produce enough food to feed 3 x the population of Australia. This means Australia is food self sufficient or food independent (see footnote) and that’s pretty impressive and very rare.
Its imperative that Australian farmers have profitable, climate resilient farming systems because who is going to look after 60% of Australia if we don’t have farmers?
Australia is the hottest, driest continent. Water is a precious resource. Our soils are fragile. It is imperative our farmers be the best they can be
Above are the facts below is the reality
The majority of Australians think we import 50% of our food !!!!!
Australians know our farmers look after up to 60% of the Australia’s land.
The majority of Australians think we can grow fruit and vegetables. (horticulture) and crops on all our farmland.
Feeding and clothing people is a big responsibility and it is a risky business
Not only do:
we want access to food when we need it (food security),
we want it to be affordable,
we want it to be safe, and
we want it to be nutritious.
And if we are forward thinking we want more
We want Australia’s land and waterways to be able to supply it for generations to come whilst ensuring we can live in harmony with all the magnificent wildlife we have here
This is why it is a shared responsibility. It takes a village and more. Partnerships between those who produce ( farmers) and those who consume ( all of us) are so important and this is why our team love what we do.
“Food security” means being able to afford to access to adequate and sufficient food, regardless of where it comes from.
“Food self-sufficiency” is when we grow all the food we need, right here in Australia .
My initial shock at what I was seeing was rapidly replaced by immense pride.
It was the most extraordinary experience of workplace culture I have seen in a long time. Everyone I spoke to from the delightful person who checked in my recycling at the weighbridge to the young man who introduced me to Josephine who is the team leader for this extraordinary effort was so proud of what they were achieving for:
community cohesion and in reality community enlightenment
It was a lifetime highlight for me. Somebody at Kiama Council is doing something extraordinary for workplace culture. Mega kudos
So lets put this all in perspective. Recognising I am a rural resident so the previous curb side pick up service was not available for me and this is my understanding of how it worked (happy to be corrected) and this is how it now works ( again happy to be corrected).
In the past council provided the opportunity twice a year for urban residents to use their curb side collection facility for unwanted household goods. Council team members collected no longer wanted household items from the curb side and it all went to landfill. This as you can imagine also came with some potential worker safety and biohazard challenges
Today the new model sees urban ( and I assume rural ) residents take their own unwanted household goods to the recycling plant where it is determined whether or not their unwanted household goods fit into “RRR” (recoverable resources) or “landfill”
WOW do the pictures tell the story
All of this previously went into landfill
Now only this little bit ends up in landfill
Its not hard to see why the Kiama Council team are so proud
March 2021 will be remembered as the month women in Australia said #enoughisenough and 100,000 Australians took to the streets to #march4justice
It has been wonderful to be take time out from the rage and celebrate the beginning of Autumn in the garden at Clover Hill.
Autumn is often a time of planning and preparing for the seasons ahead. During March the days are still warm. Traditionally as summer begins to fade, we look forward to the changes of Autumn arriving. The nights begin to cool, and we wake to morning dew and changes beginning to happen in the landscapes around us.
The dairy farm adjacent to township will be under water.
Up on the hill my garden is celebrating with windflowers and cyclamens that I am very chuffed to have grown from seeds I collected from my garden previously
and the fern house has finally recovered from the series of scorching hot days in December
Extreme weather events seem to be here to stay
And as my blog is been recorded by the National Museum as part of Australia’s history below is the Saturday Paper article by Mike Secombe that I think best encapsulates the March 2021 zeitgeist and everything that is wrong with it.
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”.