Friday, March 19, 2021

The gender wars have become yet another partisan battlefield

Despite hopes it might be otherwise, the new round of the gender wars has become as rugged and nasty as their cousins, the culture and history wars.

Triggered by two separate rape allegations, and culminating in Monday's national march, there's little doubt the roar from so many Australian women will have an impact. The form and extent of that impact, however, is the as-yet-unanswerable question.

The politicians do know things will change, reluctant as some might be to accept it.

Suddenly, bad behaviour can't be swept under the carpet.

On Wednesday there was a telling example of the contrast between "then" and "now".

Tasmanian Greens leader Cassy O'Connor, speaking at 6pm, told the state parliament that in 2019 Andrew Hudgson, a staffer of the then premier, Will Hodgman, had called her a "meth-head c***". Her media adviser had heard the profanity, and a formal complaint was made to Hodgman's office.

Hodgman subsequently informed O'Connor an investigation had found the claim was "not substantiated".

Hudgson later became media adviser to federal Assistant Treasurer Michael Sukkar. After O'Connor's speech, Hudgson was instantly turfed out of his job. It didn't require any inquiry.

A spokesperson for Sukkar said: "The government was unaware of any allegations raised about the alleged behaviour of the staff member during their previous employment. After several historical allegations surfaced, the staff member has ceased employment with the office."

You could drive the proverbial large truck through this defence.

Hudgson had been in a high-profile state political office; moreover, the story had been reported (though his name not used) in the local Mercury newspaper.

The federal Coalition has a "star chamber" process to vet prospective staff. How could the "star chamber" not properly check someone's past? How could it be "unaware of any allegations"?

So what's changed? It's not so much knowledge about the staffer — which was available if those scrutinising appointments wanted to ask — as the politics around his employment.

From now on, any staffers (or parliamentarians) with skeletons in their cupboards should be very fearful. They face a high risk of being called out under parliamentary privilege.

Even before the march, the stoking of the gender wars after Brittany Higgins' claim she was raped in a minister's office had the positive result of forcing the Morrison government to set up an inquiry, by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins, into the Parliament House workplace.

But we've also seen the issues about the treatment of women become increasingly partisan.

As Labor has tried to exploit the crisis around Attorney-General Christian Porter, accused of raping a girl when he was 17 (which he strenuously denies), Scott Morrison has pointed back at the opposition.

There was plenty to mine — not just the police investigation into a historical rape allegation against Bill Shorten (which resulted in no charges), but a Facebook group where former and current Labor staffers have posted a litany of graphic complaints of misconduct.

South Australian Liberal MP Nicolle Flint became a lightning rod as the partisanship escalated.

Flint, who is on the right of the party, was the object of particularly horrific harassment (stalking, trolling, defacement of her electorate office) before the 2019 election, which she has previously highlighted. She recently announced she would not run again.

On Tuesday she returned to her experiences, in a parliamentary speech that laid into Anthony Albanese and Labor women. Channelling Julia Gillard's famous misogyny speech against Tony Abbott, Flint declared: "I say to the leader of the opposition: I will not be lectured by you. I will not be lectured by your side of politics about the treatment of women in this place."

She accused senior Labor women of failing to support her when she was under attack.

Morrison went out of his way at a news conference the following day to take a question on Flint, describing her as "incredibly brave". The Prime Minister drove home a political jibe. "I just am amazed [that] the Labor Party and the unions and GetUp just stood by and let that happen. They were aware. They saw it. They were happy to be advantaged by it."

On Thursday Flint told Parliament she'd had a barrage of online abuse in response to her speech.

As Morrison struggles on this new political front, his Minister for Women, Marise Payne, isn't providing much visible help. Having the women's portfolio lumped with Payne's foreign ministry responsibilities is a bad mix to start with. She doesn't have enough time or energy to devote to it.

Moreover, Payne hates having to do media appearances, usually finding ways of avoiding them.

In the current climate, Morrison needs her to be crafting effective policy responses, as well as being a convincing voice out in the public marketplace.

Payne, a Liberal moderate who years ago was not so reticent publicly, is said to have strong views on the issues. She should be in Morrison's ear about substance and language (his, that is). She made a major mistake in not insisting she go out to Monday's demonstration.

Liberal backbencher Russell Broadbent, a moderate from Victoria, on Thursday came up with suggestions for a way forward. They were modest but they were constructive.

Broadbent told Parliament he'd written to Morrison saying he should do two things immediately.

"The first is to convene a national gathering of women that represent women's peak organisations and every local government area to recommend to parliament the pathway to real and lasting change in our homes, our workplaces, and on the streets," Broadbent said.

He's also asked Morrison "to introduce a gender impact statement for all cabinet submissions, new policies and legislation".

Broadbent said that, as a parliamentarian and a man, he acknowledged "the disregard for women that has led to this fork in our road". "Women will drive this change. I hope more men will join them. Politicians need to be quiet, listen and learn. Actions, not words, count."

But defining and achieving that action promises to be a controversial, tough and often divisive process.


Experts call for TGA-approved rapid COVID-19 tests to be used in Australia

Federal and state governments in Australia have been accused by some medical and industry experts of ignoring rapid testing technology that could help the nation recover from COVID-19 clusters faster.

Health Department says new devices needs careful consideration
They say rapid COVID-19 screening tests – which take minutes to get results — are much cheaper than lengthy pathology tests and could see tourism, travel and major events open up sooner.

Known as Rapid Antigen Tests (RATs), the tests are more sensitive to picking up the virus from people who are not showing symptoms.

World Health Authority (WHO) adviser and Australian expert Professor Marylouise McLaws said it was difficult for experts to understand why rapid tests were not being used as well as lab-based PCR [polymerase chain reaction] tests.

"Many of us are very frustrated, that there's these very accurate tests for identifying you as negative and not being used and added to the multiple layers to keep the community safe and allow people to move around and enjoy mass gathering," Professor McLaws said.

In a statement, a spokeswoman for the federal Health Department said "PCR testing remains the gold standard, and in Australia, testing turnaround times are generally within 24 hours, which is sufficient in the context of other existing public health measures".

Professor McLaws said it was not being suggested that the rapid tests should be used instead of pathology tests, rather as an additional measure.

"We're saying PCR should never be removed from the equation, but you add these [rapid] tests because they're so good while your viral load is low and you're asymptomatic, that it would open up [the community]," she said.

Professor McLaws said there were many options already approved in Australia by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA).

"Because we've got 11 — last I looked — that were approved by the TGA and they are exceptionally good for augmenting with PCR," Professor McLaws said.

"Most of them take 15 minutes, maximum 30 minutes, to take the swab, put it in the cassette and read the cassette — so very fast.

"You have of course, rapid PCR tests, but they take four to six hours … [but RATs are] so much cheaper and so much faster than a PCR."

John Kelly, the CEO of Australian company Atomo, developed a TGA-approved rapid test for COVID-19.

He said the medical technology industry in Australia did not have the ear of federal politicians in the way the pathology industry does.

"I think there's been only one voice at the table, and that voice is the pathology industry, in the lab services in hospitals and private sector and they obviously want to continue to do lab-based testing," Mr Kelly said.

"I think there's been some resistance at the policy level to the adoption of rapid testing."

A spokeswoman for the federal Health Department confirmed the government was, in a large part, taking its advice from the pathology or laboratory industry.

In a statement, it said Australia was taking a strong approach "based on the latest and best medical advice from the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC) and its expert standing committees, including the Public Health Laboratory Network (PHLN)".

"That's unfortunate," Mr Kelly said. "But rapid testing has been proven overseas to be a lot more cost effective and a lot more useful in channels where an immediate result is, is needed — that's things like travel and major events."


Presumption of guilt unshackles society’s bigotries

For those committed to preserving a society worth living in, few sights could be more dispiriting than that of mass rallies undermining the presumption of innocence. But last Monday’s demonstrations should have been eminently predictable. After all, the presumption of innocence comes as naturally to human beings as playing the violin does to baboons.

Arthur Schopenhauer, the 19th-century German philosopher, may not have been the cheeriest of companions, but he had a point when he said that “there lies in every human breast a fund of hatred, anger, envy, rancour, and malice, accumulated like the venom in a serpent’s tooth, and waiting only for an opportunity to vent itself”.

And never does the venom vent more freely than when those we dislike stand accused of heinous misdeeds, confirming our prejudices and allowing hostility to morph into that most pleasurable of sensations, outrage.

That is why the great moralists have tirelessly, but unsuccessfully, warned against the rush to judgment, as in Saint Matthew’s admonition, “judge not, lest ye be judged”. And it is also why the presumption of innocence, despite its deep ethical foundations, proved so slow to establish itself as a binding principle and so fragile even once it was in place.

It is, for example, clear that Roman law, which the medieval canonists drew on in framing the Western legal system, put the burden of proof squarely on the accuser, with the dictum “Actore non probante, reus absolvitor” — when the plaintiff does not prove his case, the defendant is absolved — enjoying near-constitutional status.

But neither the term “the presumption of innocence” nor the concept played much role in English law, which Australia inherited, until the very end of the 18th century, and it was only in 1791 that the notion appeared in a recorded case at the Old Bailey.

Even then, its applicability was strictly limited, as a “moral panic” about theft led parliament to treble the number of offences in which the burden of demonstrating innocence fell on the defendant.

As late as 1840 — when fear of the “dangerous classes” was reaching new peaks — those cases, which had conviction rates of 80 per cent, could result in defendants being sentenced to hard labour merely for being a “reputed thief” who had been found at “any quay, wharf or warehouse” and could not prove that they did not “intend to commit felony”.

Viscount Sankey’s famous statement in Woolmington v DPP (1935) — the case that enshrined the presumption of innocence — that “throughout the web of the English criminal law one golden thread is always to be seen, that it is the duty of the prosecution to prove the prisoner’s guilt”, was therefore scarcely accurate; and as legal historian Glanville Williams observed, the precept was no sooner stated than it was treated “one might almost say with contempt”, as parliament and the public brayed for summary judgment against those they considered evil.

Far from abating, that clamour has intensified in recent decades, notably as regards sexual offences; yet there are few areas where the safeguards arising from the presumption of innocence deserve to have greater bearing.

It is, in effect, misleading to say, as several speakers did at Monday’s rallies, that wrongful claims of sexual offences are rare.

On the contrary, as study after study shows, because the incidents from which those claims arise can involve many layers of ambiguous communication, making it difficult to ascertain whether or not there was consent, a claimant’s contentions may be objectively incorrect even if they are not intentionally deceitful.

With the lack of witnesses, the absence of physical evidence and the possible impact of intoxication aggravating the resulting problems, the criminal justice system can readily be induced into grave errors. And when the alleged incidents occurred long ago, the fallibility and malleability of human recall introduce additional dangers.

To make matters worse, further risks have arisen as a “culture of victimhood” has elevated victims, real or imagined, into heroes who receive sympathy, status and a new sense of self-importance from “speaking out”. Championed by crusading issue entrepreneurs, they are transformed into celebrities, regardless of whether their allegations have been properly tested.

That encourages copycat allegations, fuelling the impression that there has been an epidemic of sexual abuse; and even more importantly, it strengthens the complainant’s investment in the claims, leading scholars to note that a complainant’s allegations tend to become less qualified and more extreme once the complainant becomes a “celebrity victim”, as if new-found fame had somehow eliminated the limitations of human memory.

With “victim-oriented” law enforcement turning public officials, such as police and prosecutors, from impartial investigators into advocates for complainants, those poorly founded allegations may then be put to juries who have been unduly influenced by a climate of opinion that precludes a fair trial, in a process starkly exemplified by the tragic injustices that have marred “recovered memory” cases.

Far from reducing those concerns’ relevance, allegations that target or implicate prominent politicians make them all the more pressing.

It is in the nature of politics that leading politicians will be distrusted, and sometimes even detested, by many voters who prefer the other side, setting the ground for shows of public hysteria; and it is also in the nature of politics that the allegations will serve political interests — including, at least potentially, the interests of hostile foreign governments seeking to destabilise their adversaries.

Given the threat those risks pose to the rights of alleged offenders, the integrity of the justice system and the quality of our democracy, claims involving prominent politicians deserve to be handled every bit as carefully as any others, particularly by the media, rather than simply being accepted at face value.

None of that is intended to belittle the suffering sexual abuse causes. But instead of redressing injustice, allowing innocent people to be vilified by untrue allegations compounds it. And there is no surer way of enticing specious claims and ensuring wrongful convictions than by replacing the systematic disbelief complainants all too frequently faced in the past with systematic credulity.

Ultimately, the presumption of innocence cannot eradicate society’s defects, erase the blackened walls of history or ensure a world without crime and violence, any more than it can unlock the gates of heaven.

But those who demonstrated should remember this: some day, they or their loved ones could be in the dock. And when they are, it is the presumption of innocence, and it alone, that may protect them from the lowest circle of hell.


NRL star rallies behind player who was sanctioned for joking about drinking '1000 beers' and going to a nightclub to 'pull anything' after a win - so were his comments offensive?

Daly Cherry-Evans has backed Toby Rudolf for 'being himself' despite the Cronulla player being given an official warning for sexist comments made on live TV.

On Tuesday the NRL issued a formal warning to Rudolf for making an inappropriate joke during an interview which has since sparked conversations about respect across the game.

A post-match interview with Fox Sports went viral on Sunday night for Rudolf's candid responses, in which he spoke about having '1000 beers' after the Sharks' 32-18 win over St George Illawarra.

However, the funny moment took a turn when the Sharks lock joked he would: 'Go to Northies, try and pull something - anything will do'.

On Tuesday morning NRL chief executive Andrew Abdo told AAP he was 'very disappointed' in Rudolf's comments referring to women as 'things' and sent a formal warning letter to the club.

To the NRL, stamping out small instances of disrespect shown by players towards women is part of a larger plan to change the culture of the game.

However, Cherry-Evans, who is one of the most senior players in the NRL as Queensland and Manly captain as well as a director at the Rugby League Player's Association, said it was a shame Rudolf was reprimanded.

'We want fan interaction, we want engagement in the game, we want people to love our sport. But we don't want someone to be themselves?

'That's who he is, whether you like it or not, and he was encouraged to be himself with the questions that were asked ... so what is a player meant to do? 'Good on him for speaking his mind and being himself.

'It's a shame that there's been repercussions for something that I think for a lot of people would be only looked at as just very light-hearted humour.'

The interview was published across various media outlets and social media on Sunday night and Monday, prompting the NRL and Cronulla to act.

While players showing their personality in interviews is considered good promotion for the game, the NRL has drawn the line at degrading comments towards women.

'I was very disappointed with Toby's comments, they were inappropriate and should not have been said,' Abdo told AAP.

'We are going to issue Toby with a formal warning and I know the club are going to counsel him so there is not a repeat.

'Respect for women is one of the foundations of our society and our players, as role models, need to be leaders in this area.'

It is understood the Sharks were also concerned by Rudolf's comments with chief executive Dino Mezzatesta speaking to the 25-year-old on Monday to offer further education.

The NRL's swift action follows their recent reinforcement of the importance of respect for women and tougher penalties for players found to have committed acts of violence against women.




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