09 November 2012

Honour and good sense

Never give in, never give in; never, never, never, never. In nothing - great or small, large or petty - never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense.

- Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of Great Britain, to Harrow School, 1941
Once again, misbehaviour at Sydney University's colleges has hit the news in Sydney, and thus been inflicted on the nation; this time at St John's College. There is, however, something different about the treatment of this issue. The way we look at such antics is different. These places claim to be helping raise the future leaders of our society, and because the society is different then the nature of leadership taught at and by places like St John's has to change.

The ideas behind "initiation ceremonies" at university colleges are as follows:
  • Look, we're all corrupt. Just because you're sweet 16 and never been kissed, doesn't mean we all are. We won't be looked down upon by pure little swots when we're in our cups, so when you're covered in vomit and faeces you're no better than us.
  • If you see anything wrong, shut up. Just shut up.
  • You will exert power over others as a matter of course, and you will be able to pass on the humiliations of this day.
  • Conventional morality is something you inflict on others (e.g. calling women 'whores'), not something you have to practice yourself, and if you play along we'll all stick together so that you don't wear any consequences.
None of those notions are relevant to any sort of leadership today. There are consequences from misjudgments and misbehaviour, and they have an importance that goes beyond mere solidarity or the keeping-up of appearances in which nobody believes any more. If you're a pig in the company of your besties then you're easily led astray, and will be no good to anyone as a team member, let alone as a leader.

Peter FitzSimons illustrates the leadership problem, however unwittingly, with this. He starts out by owning his Fellow Senate thing but ends with a particularly feeble bleat:
Not surprisingly, the worst of the excesses over the years have come from the all-male colleges, as the cocktail of undiluted testosterone mixed with too much alcohol and sudden liberation from school discipline has long been a fraught one.

These places are not mere dormitories as is the case on many American campuses, but wonderfully independent institutions with long histories and great traditions that have produced wonderful citizens who have made great contributions.

They have the capacity to change their own cultures, as we have seen with St Andrew's, particularly, and are now seeing with St John's. They will go on. And prosper. Independently.
"Independently" of what, Peter? Independently of whom? If the University can claim credit for colleges' successes it must also accept blame for the failures, and the legalistic duckshoving that allows the University to claim credit but escape blame is to be scorned. The Vice-Chancellor of the University resents the fact that his institution is being tarnished but there's not a damn thing he can do, so don't you make a show of owning the problem and then cheering your "independence" of it.

Why are those who have supposedly made "great contributions" unable to provide positive leadership to people with names like Benedict Aungles, who may not even survive beyond the rigidly hierarchical institutions like those described by Dickens or J. K. Rowling. You can't hush things up and shut down debate in today's world, and nor can you wait for these things to blow over like they might have in the past.

You just can't, and everybody who says otherwise - however eminent they may seem - is misleading you. They need a new operating model and there is nobody leading them toward what such a model might look like - not even Cardinal Pell:
FIVE Catholic priests quit the council of the elite St John's College last night as the Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, George Pell, and the Premier, Barry O'Farrell, voiced their disgust over the initiation ritual scandal ...

Cardinal Pell said he no longer had confidence that the council was able to fix the problems within the elite college at the university.

The mass resignation of the five priests from the 18-person council has left it powerless to continue to govern. Cardinal Pell called on the government to change the laws governing St John's in a move that could mean the church cedes sole control of the 150-year-old institution.

"Unfortunately, I no longer have confidence in the capacity of the council of St John's College to reform life at the college, despite their goodwill and the dedication of the chairman," he said. "I have therefore requested the priest Fellows of the council to resign."
"Unfortunately" is not the word to use here. This predicament isn't one of fortune, but of neglect.

Pell has the power to order the priests to resign, as the article should have made clear. He clearly has no call or suasion over the other members - none of whom were good enough to provide the sort of leadership that might have saved Georgie Carter from the assumption that those within the walls of the College were smarter than those without. Only later in that badly-edited article do we see that the council cannot operate without at least one priest (and a fat lot of good it did with six of them). Once again, for all their wittering about secularism, it falls to government to bail out a church institution.

The clearest MSM assessment of the current controversy, with its antecedents, is Johnsman Richard Ackland. Ackland** talked about the venerable institution he went to and the desire to fit in, and ends his piece with this:
At St John's the main concern of some of the fellows was the reputation of the young men who had conducted the horrible initiation ceremonies. Not the women who were the victims of their actions.

None of the male students have been rusticated because that might damage their reputations. They should be free to go on to higher things where as leaders they can bring their "values" unimpeded into board rooms, the professions and politics.
It isn't only women who are the victims here. As for "values", nobody seriously believes we are going to see a listed board or a Cabinet full of chundering dickheads yelling abuse at passing women. Ackland is right, however, in indicating that such "values" do not facilitate leadership but actually impede it.

All institutions require sound leadership, and even seemingly robust ones will fail without it. Leadership involves knowing when to introduce new ideas and when to rely on the tried-and-true; knowing what parts of Tradition are useful going forward and which have had their day. What the socialisation of somewhere like St John's does is remove the ability to tell the difference.

The people on the St John's College board are eminent people in their own ways, steeped in the symbolism of the Lord and the Queen and the Pope and all they represent. The fact that they are fighting tooth and nail for a set of pranks that are at best silly and repulsive and at worst deadly. They cannot tell what these traditions are upholding. They think that any weakening of any tradition, however redundant or counterproductive, is a victory for the Secularists and Feminists and Socialists and other sub-species of Barbarian.

Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey are both Johnsmen. Some believe that they are the next Prime Minister and Treasurer of this country. Neither is particularly good at identifying problems when they occur and taking action before they become bigger problems. Both have a fixation on hushing things up which they don't want to be made known. This attitude has become so pervasive that a non-Johnsman like Michelle Grattan shares their conviction that the leak is the big story, while the fact that the Coalition lack ability in economic management or policy direction is somehow beside the point.

Hockey can be forgiven for brushing off student pranks. Neither he nor Bill Shorten can, however, be forgiven for brushing off the much broader and more damaging issue of clerical sexual abuse as they do here. Hockey's record of action (rather than impotent if well-meant sympathy) on behalf of victims of clerical child abuse is not strong enough to sustain a claim that he's only trying to protect the victims.

As for Shorten: imagine if Daniel Grollo was harbouring a nest of pedophiles*, and see if your mealy-mouthed bullshit would be any different.

In recent years we have seen apologies for church-government co-operative policies to take children from their mothers. We have acknowledged such policies as misguided and the perpetuation of such policies as failures of leadership (and when I talk about "we" here, I refer you to set-piece speeches on the record by both Hockey and Shorten. Oh, and Abbott too. Our representatives). Clerical child abuse is another example of this phenomenon, yet Hockey and Shorten and others raised to occupy leadership positions take no action to head off such widespread systemic failure and poo-pooh any attempts to do so.

If that's what it takes, then go drink a bucket of off-milk and dog-food boys, get over yourselves, and show us some leadership.

It is telling that there is a very strong push for people to join corporate boards and judicial placements who would never have set foot in an animal house like that - women, people who speak Asian languages, people with an understanding of the arts - anyone but your bog-standard Johnsman-like output who has been raised to assume that positions of leadership are his thing.

The last word goes to, of all people, the well-meaning and much-undermined Rector of St John's College, Mr Michael Bongers:
Mr Bongers plans to keep confronting the old ways at John's. "There is a wonderful learning experience in this for everyone. But it's not just the whole student community. It's beyond that: the old boy network."

He is not intent on banning every tradition. "They must pass the test of commonsense, of decency, of the laws of the land. You've got to show you are respecting people and that you are respecting property and respecting the reputation of this college."
In other words, it's a question of leadership. Knowing which traditions enhance institutions and which disgrace them. It's a paradox that institutions that traditionally provide our leaders have to change fundamentally in order to continue doing so, but hopefully we can get some leaders who can manage the transition. Michael Bongers has shown more leadership than pretty much every living Johnsman, and this lesson in leadership should be recognised as more than just another journo-led kerfuffle bound to blow over eventually.

* This is a hypothetical example, I make no assertion to this effect.

** Update 10/11/12: I apologise to Richard Ackland for the slander of calling him a Johnsman and thank the commenters below for pointing out my error.


  1. Excellent piece. I thought the SMH focused too much on the kids - their acts were disgraceful but clearly the product of longstanding traditions. The old boys who enabled their reckless behaviour - and especially the unnamed mother who had their punishment struck down - should be named and shamed.

    Finally, in terms of the coverage, a College is not the same as a private school where there are dozens of teachers there to deal with basic discipline. If a bunch of private school kids go nuts after exams, you don't blame the school board. But in a college, where there are few staff, it's unbelievable the board has gotten off so lightly. The fellows were either totally ignorant of the College culture or deliberately obstructed the rector.

    I agree that it beggars belief for Pell to say he has lost confidence in his own clergymen. Either five exceptionally well educated Catholics failed to inform him, or he knew and was utterly negligent. I would suggest that Pell, who went to an all-boys Christian Brothers school in the 1950s, then went straight to the seminary, knows nothing about how to run a healthy, modern institution.

  2. Another fine piece of commentary Andrew. It was particularly admirable to see you admonish Bill Shorten. Shorten's reaction to the revelatory Lateline interview with Detective Chief Inspector Peter Fox was woeful to say the least. It is one thing to swear at a owner operator of a local bakery, but to dismiss the idea that the sunlight of a Royal Commission is not the way to handle this (especially given his own "near miss") is extremely disappointing. Hockey, well I have come to expect this sort of response from him, yet his response carries slightly less weight because he is not in the government.

    "Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey are both Johnsmen. Some believe that they are the next Prime Minister and Treasurer of this country. Neither is particularly good at identifying problems when they occur and taking action before they become bigger problems."

    This is, of course, a fair and accurate assessment of Abbott and Hockey... except when they see the problem as Malcolm Turbull circa December 2009. It would be remiss of me, however, to not point out that Gillard showed poor foresight, leadership and decisiveness when dealing with both Mr Thompson and Mr Slipper. Two rather big problems which could have been duly avoided or navigated much better.

  3. "Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey are both Johnsmen."

    Quelle surprise!

  4. Bushfire Bill10/11/12 12:08 pm

    Andrew, two points:

    1. Ackland was at St. Paul's not St. John's. But it sounds like his experience was similar.

    2. As to this hope expressed in your article:

    "As for 'values', nobody seriously believes we are going to see a listed board or a Cabinet full of chundering dickheads yelling abuse at passing women."

    Oh really? Try this from Phil Coorey in August 2011:

    "It was raining heavily in Canberra on Wednesday so, after question time, Julia Gillard walked the corridors back to her office rather than cut across a courtyard as she usually does.

    As she strolled past opposition MPs' offices, Christopher Pyne and Joe Hockey, like two schoolyard ne'er-do-wells, trailed about 10 paces behind, heckling.

    Hockey was bellowing the Engelbert Humperdinck lyrics: "Please release me, let me go, 'cause I don't love you any more …"

    Pyne, doing his best to affect a menacing gravitas, was taunting repeatedly: "You're drowning Julia, not waving, you're drowning.''

    By any measure, it was disrespectful behaviour towards a prime minister but Gillard, whose government has plumbed record depths in unpopularity, is getting used to such treatment and ignored her tormenters.

    Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/politics/angry-mobs-ready-to-face-off-as-mps-take-leave-of-trouble-20110821-1j4il.html#ixzz2BmFQySKz

    Not quite chundering, but certainly dickheads, yelling and bellowing.

    Hockey at least was a Johnsman... along with his wall-punching boss.

  5. Andrew

    A minor point that needs fixing: the Ackland link states that he was at St Andrew's.

  6. The men for others ethos i saw displayed at a University

    Student politics got ugly when a young leader thought it was okay to pretend to rape a young secretary that didnt fit into their privileged status

    Jokes aside debauchary occurs a lot at American University campuses

    The white privileged male only politico is outdated

    Obama has changed that

    Thank God

    Our political class still has the dregs of the middle classes

  7. Farewell to George Megalogenis and his blog

    May the next generation of bloggers like this one take us into the light for the next generation


  8. Bushfire Bill

    That entry was Gold!!


  9. I need to repeat this in lieu of Andrews Hockey analysis

    Kitchen Cabinet with Joe Hockey

    He sleeps with a cartoon covered Doona cover

    Emotionally stunted adults with an inferiority complex

    Watch Obama and the old soul there

    Was Jill Meaghers rape and death a sign that God had enough of crap within the media/political class i wonder??

    Hockey is the son of a migrant that displays the worst aspects of both of his cultures

    Hes a perfect example of the disfunctional migrant diaspora

    ducks for cover#

  10. Andrew

    Just saw your tweet in response to Miranda Devine's gutter crawling. What a vile, vile person she is. I pray that the next election sees not just a clean out of the repulsive extremists in the Liberal Party (which by my estimation is actually a minority), but just as importantly as a nation we flush away horrible people like Devine, Akerman et al.

    We deserve better than to have to put up with their nasty thoughts on a daily basis.

  11. Generational change is required in the fourth estate

    The intellectual and decent right wing in the polity doesnt reflect the commentariat


    Seriously, i would lile to see a documentary on our nasty right wingers in their own words

    Their family background ,how and why they do write in extremes etc

    I think theres more than meets the eye to these people