The Australian Club boasts what is rumoured to be one of the most expensive art collections in the country, a private barber, high-class food and guest rooms, each equipped with a marble ensuite and an electronic safe. It’s just for men. Earlier this month, club members voted overwhelmingly to maintain its ban on membership for women. The move provides a rare public insight into the private views of the ruling class. Behind the refined facade is a political culture rife with prejudice and reaction.
According to reports, 430 of the 693 votes—62 percent—were against allowing women to join. This means that women will continue to be allowed inside the club only when accompanied by a male member and, even then, only after 4:30pm on weekdays. And they will remain completely banned from the club’s first floor.
This development jars with the picture that’s often painted of who is most responsible for perpetuating sexism. Working-class blokes, sitting around in a pub, or catcalling on work sites, are the stereotype of brutish, backward attitudes towards women. The supposedly more enlightened elite, the white ribbon ambassadors and their ilk, are usually the ones tut-tutting the rest of us.
But while the organisations of the working class—foremost among them the unions—are mobilising for International Women’s Day and running equal pay campaigns, organisations of the ruling class cling desperately to their vile, bigoted heritage.
Members of the club range from capitalists like James Packer to ex-prime ministers, John Howard and Malcolm Turnbull among them. It includes judges, like former Supreme Court Judge Michael Pembroke, as well as heads of Australia’s top private schools, such as former headmasters of Sydney Grammar School and the King’s School, Dr Ralph Townsend and Timothy Hawkes respectively. It was the place where Cardinal George Pell took Alan Jones and Tony Abbott for lunch to celebrate his release from Barwon Prison, and where Prince “I don’t sweat” Andrew dines when he visits Australia.
It is a private space for the upper echelons of society to mingle, share ideas freely and develop a stronger class identification: a place where the inequalities of society make social and economic sense and where the prejudices that justify them are taken for granted.
The opposition to women’s inclusion was led by former Federal Court Judge Peter Graham, chairman of stockbroking firm CCZ Statton Equities Geoff Travers and former merchant banker Philip Wood.
The same week that the vote took place, a study revealed that the Sydney Anglican diocese, the richest diocese in the country, has a higher domestic violence rate than the rest of the nation. The National Anglican Family Violence Research Report, conducted by researchers from Charles Sturt University, surveyed more than 2,000 adult men and women in December 2019. When asked, “Have you been in a violent relationship with any partner?”, 22 percent of Anglicans said yes, compared with 15 percent of total respondents. When presented with specific examples of abuse, 44 percent of Anglicans said they had been victims of domestic violence, compared with 38 percent of the general population.
The type of sexism revealed by the report and the Australian Club vote is instilled in the children of the ruling class through institutions like private university colleges and private schools. The men who led the charge against women’s entry to the club were nicknamed the “St Paul’s mafia”, after the private college they all attended while at Sydney University. The college is well known to be a hotbed of sexual abuse and extreme misogyny.
A 2017 report revealed a deep anti-woman culture at the college, and noted that residents of the college celebrated sporting wins by taking women to a “Bone Room” lined with mattresses. A 2017 Sydney Morning Herald article detailed a pro-rape Facebook group operated by members of the college.
Even before university, ruling class children are taught to have contempt for women. In June, boys at a northern beaches Anglican school were told to choose the qualities they looked for in a girl, each one having a value attached. Qualities like “virginity” and “Christian values” were highly ranked, while qualities like “standing up for rights” were worth very little. Female students at St Luke’s Grammar School were separated from the male students for the exercise, and instead given articles about the importance of sexual abstinence. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, the articles also explained “how Satan provides opportunities for fleeting sexual encounters”.
This early education in objectification for boys and accepting social control for girls helps condition ruling class youth to become ruling class adults who accept the imposition of these forms of inequality and dehumanisation on the rest of the population.
Wherever and however the ruling class organise and cohere themselves, reactionary ideas and attitudes will flourish. The entry of women into these sacred spaces won’t do much to change this, but insofar as it will annoy the men who are a scourge on society, it is to be welcomed.