Lessons from the Marble Bar


I feel very sorry for John Brogden.

I have sparred with him once or twice on Richard Glover’s Monday Political Forum (2BL 702) and found him courteous, reasonable and charming. All of us have said and done things especially under the influence of alcohol and hubris – that we would hate to see plastered across the front pages of the newspapers. Being in the public eye is scary, and when events first unfolded, I felt nothing but sympathy for a young man I had met and liked. The news of his despair in his electoral office upset me a great deal. The corrosive effects of shame cannot be overestimated and people who are well known are much more at risk from public shaming than many of them realise.

Thanks to Peter Nicholson

Thanks to Peter Nicholson

Brogden’s punishment did not fit the crime. However, the events of last week have focussed attention on politicians, the media and the attitudes of all of us in a way that forces us to examine them more closely.

In Thursday’s Sydney Morning Herald, Mark Scott wrote an op-ed piece in which he said; ‘There have been legions of politicians who have acted towards women the way Brogden did.’ Scott went on to point out that perhaps our tolerance for politicians who behave one way in front of the cameras and another way in private has changed. If he is right and ‘legions’ of politicians have behaved boorishly to women, then it is about time for that change.

And before you accuse me of being a prissy, pursed-lip wowser, just imagine for a moment that Scott’s sentence had read: ‘There have been legions of politicians who have acted towards Asians the way Brogden did.’ Imagine the outcry?

Anne Summers is right to point out that we recognise racism much more easily than sexism (click here for the article, SMH, 30 August). We are still prepared to excuse bad behaviour by men towards women with a ‘boys will be boys’ roll of the eyes. In fact, it is possible that some of our media even admire that kind of thing and indulge in it themselves.

Brogden’s behaviour towards the women at The Marble Bar was not particularly unusual. The pinch on the bum appears to have been camaraderie between old friends; risky behaviour, perhaps, for a young married man in the public eye, but if acceptable to the owner of the bum, then acceptable.

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

His clumsy attempts at propositioning the two other young women were sleazier, but the person he was most grievously insulting was his wife. When John Brogden was rebuffed, he accepted it, as he should. However, like myriad high status men (famous sportsmen, powerful businessmen and bosses of all kinds) he was misusing his fame and power when he made his advance.

Apologists for this kind of male behaviour always underestimate the impact of the power differential between a young female reporter (or receptionist, or PA, or salesgirl, or nurse, or junior executive) and a man in a prestigious, leadership role. Some men (and some women) in positions of power commonly exploit its aphrodisiacal effects to gain sexual favours or, at least, the smirking admiration of their mates. In Australian business, such behaviour is often seen as marking someone as ‘one of the boys’ – the bloke who eschews it being seen as having tickets on himself.

Mr Brogden’s remark about Helena Carr was silly and bitchy, but much more of an insult to Bob than his wife, the implication being, I assume, that a woman would only want to sleep with Bob for economic reasons. Yes, it was racist and it was sexist, but it is the sort of cheap, nasty remark we have all made about our rivals and enemies when our guard is down.

Had the remark stayed at the bar, as I am sure it was meant to, no hurt would have been done to either the Carrs, or to John Brogden. I am not trying to defend the remark, merely acknowledging that no matter how sensitive and politically correct we may like to see ourselves, quips like that are one of the ways we let off steam. More seasoned politicians may, perhaps, reserve such remarks for safer company, but most of us secretly enjoy bitching. As Dorothy Parker once famously said, ‘If you haven’t got a nice word to say about anyone, come sit by me.’

What worries me is the tacit acceptance by the media of the sleazy behaviour of many male politicians. Women make up half of the people who vote for politicians and pay their salaries, so surely they have a right to know how the people who represent them might actually behave towards them. Again, imagine the scandal if a politician representing a seat with a large Asian population routinely behaved in a racist fashion towards Asians in private. Would the media still consider it the politician’s private life and leave it unreported? Why is it still alright for some of our elected representatives to behave inappropriately towards some voters (the female ones) when we wouldn’t tolerate similar behaviour towards any other group?

I am afraid the answer is obvious. It’s because we tolerate it in wider society too.

In fact, are we so very different from the fundamentalist Muslims we claim to despise? As long as we still excuse (and in some circles even admire) bad male sexual behaviour on the pretext that they can’t help themselves, we are, in effect, still asking women to either put up with it or change their behaviour to avoid it. In that way, western women are wearing an invisible hijab.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.