Bettina Arndt and Victimhood


Bettina Arndt, columnist and darling of the corporate speaker set, has been tipped as the new Federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner at the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC).

The retired sex therapist and editor of 1970s sex mag Forum is a well known supporter of the men’s rights movement and an old colleague of Philip Ruddock.

She also writes regularly for the Sydney Morning Herald, the Canberra Times, The Advertiser, The Australian, the Women’s Weekly and others (one of her recent columns was the subject of her latest run in with ABC TV’s Media Watch).

The Sex Discrimination Commissioner position has been vacant since Pru Goward finished her term in April and is supposed to be filled this month. John Howard reportedly favoured Arndt for the role but this was before he was grilled on radio (audio link, download broadcast 27 April 2007) about her apparent support, in a Courier-Mail story for convicted paedophile and Scout Master, Robert Potter, an otherwise ‘good bloke’ in her view. (‘Sex Abuse Damage Is Relative’ 29 December 2005.)

Arndt’s trademark championing of men’s rights perhaps went too far even for Howard in this instance, and he has since made no further comment on the appointment.

Arndt was pegged for the Sex Discrimination Commissioner job in 2001 but the five year appointment went to Goward. At the time, Arndt said ‘some’ people would be happy should she get the position, but failed to elaborate. Quite sensibly, she then put a stop to the speculation by identifying her lack of legal knowledge and expertise as precluding her from the HREOC position, which oversees the implementation of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 and aspects of the Workplace Relations Act 1996.

Despite her self-proclaimed legal ignorance, Bettina Arndt frequently comments on legal cases. In particular, she is much taken up with matters in the Family Court. But more revealing about her potential as Sex Discrimination Commissioner are her views on the role of the courts in arbitrating disputes, awarding damages and meting out justice one of the primary functions of HREOC.

Arndt is not enamoured of formal justice in cases of civil harm, a position evident in her response in a column for The Australian (‘Schoolyard Prey Has Future Of Victimhood Laid Out,’ 17 May 2007) to the recent NSW Supreme Court decision awarding $1 million in damages to 18-year-old Benjamin Cox as a result of his being bullied at primary school.

Put simply, Bettina does not like the annoying ‘victim’ mentality of, well, victims.

In calculating Cox’s damages, the Supreme Court considered Benjamin’s loss of earnings, his suffering, and the failure of the Education Department to address his mother’s calls to stem the bullying he was subjected to. The Department told Mrs Cox that bullying was a ‘good thing’ that ‘builds character.’ The court found Cox,

will never know the satisfaction of employment. He will suffer anxiety and depression, almost certainly, for the rest of his life. He is unlikely to form any relationships, romantic or platonic. He has no friends and is unlikely to make any.

The finding was based on undisputed psychiatric evidence. Arndt, however, claims that the ruling was ‘a load of hogwash’. In Arndt’s view, it is actually the court’s labelling of Cox as a victim that constitutes the obstacle to his good mental health.

While this may come as a shock to those who naïvely thought it was the sadistic, unchecked, repeated abuse in his early childhood that harmed the little boy, Arndt has faith in modern medicine’s capacity to have helped Cox with his various conditions, had he not been damned by the courts to eternal victimhood.

But it is not at all clear why modern medicine cannot help Cox now, with comprehensive therapy funded by his award. Justice Simpson, after all, was ruling on Cox’s presently predicted state.

Arndt* employed her extraordinary diagnostic and clairvoyant powers to conclude that there is ‘absolutely no reason why such a young man couldn’t look forward to one day functioning well, holding down a job, finding friends given the right breaks’, that is, had he not been labelled by the courts.

Arndt’s view contradicts the psychiatrists who know Cox, who examined him, who treated him, the professionals who found plenty of reasons why Cox faces obstacles to flourishing as an adult, and the diagnosis of Centrelink that provides his disability pension. It even contradicts the testimony of the respondent in this case, the Education Department, which did not dispute the agreed upon facts.

Arndt stands alone in her diagnosis.

It is not just the labelling that irks Arndt. The final nail in his coffin was this massive payout which requires him to spend his life proving he is damaged goods deserving of this type of compensation. The $1 million dollars is the real issue for Arndt. She identifies the ‘massive payout’ as having the biggest implication, as it will send out the ‘wrong message’ about the ‘vulnerability of children’ who, in her view, are rarely damaged for the long term by bullying.

Benjamin Cox’s compensatory justice was a response to his personal experience and the effects of the specific harm done to him. Cox was a vulnerable little boy in primary school, with a predisposition to psychological distress. Even so, the court never suggested that the Education Department should have treated Benjamin as ‘special’, merely that the Department owes all school children a standard duty of care to act on all complaints, especially those of torture and harassment.

The ruling says nothing about the vulnerability of children per se. It does say a lot about the duty of care of our education system, and what the reasonably foreseeable outcomes are when this duty is neglected.

In contrast to the Supreme Court, Arndt is preoccupied with the ‘exceptions’ like Cox, and warns that their cases are ruining it for everyone else — those tough folk who nut it out and endure their abuse without recourse to law.

In response to Cox, Arndt cited research downplaying the long term effects of bullying on ‘most children’. In regard to Scout Master paedophile Robert Potter, Arndt even suggested that ‘minor’ sexual abuse of children (apparently anything short of penetration) ‘rarely’ has lasting consequences. One of Potter’s victims was simply unlucky to suffer terribly.

Arndt says that we should not damn minor paedophiles for the clichés of major sexual harm: ‘many sex abusers are not cruel monsters’; and she gives the behaviour of Hector in the play (and film) The History Boys as an example of harmless paedophilia. She calls Hector a ‘beloved’ teacher whose students took his ‘groping in their stride’. While it is this line in particular that appears to have shot Arndt’s chances at Sex Discrimination Commissioner, the argument is entirely within character.

More broadly, Arndt seems to equate the formal redress of harm with playing victim. And she characterises tough nuts like herself, who avoid the courts, as playing fair, even in cases of criminal assault. In 1997, in response to a case of a Canberra doctor’s alleged sexual abuse of his female patients over a very long period, Arndt portrayed the women who legally pursued their abuser as misguided. (‘When Saying Sorry Is Enough’, SMH, 26 April 1997.)

Oddly, Arndt was one of the doctor’s victims over 25 years ago, in an incident of assault that she characterised as a ‘strange encounter’. But she claimed that she was satisfied with the ‘brave’ apology she received from him after his other alleged victims had initiated proceedings. And according to Arndt, his other victims should be, feel, and act like her.

Arndt’s views blind her to personal testimonies of harm. Benjamin Cox testifies that his life was ruined, while Arndt tells him (and us) that it was not. In Arndt’s view, most kids would have bounced back. As do targets of ‘mild’ child sexual abuse, and the same again for adult targets of a sexually predatory doctor.

But justice is not concerned with ‘most people’ it is concerned with individual acts of harm and redress.

For Arndt, the appropriate response to being systematically targeted and abused is to get over it, and perhaps to accept a ‘brave’ apology from the perpetrator. This stuff is old hat, from the school of homespun remedies for tough-nut gals, whereby to seek the justice to which we are entitled makes us weak.

But it’s certainly an interesting perspective for a Sex Discrimination Commissioner to hold.

* Ed’s note: The original article published in 2007 falsely described Ms Arndt as a “psychologist”. Ms Arndt is not a psychologist and never has been registered as one in Australia.

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.