When a female colleague revealed her brush with a sex-crazed CEO my view of sexual harassment in the workplace was completely transformed

I once wrote a column for BRW in which I expressed ambivalence about a sexual harassment survey which showed an alarming incidence of aberrant behaviour in the workplace. My concern was the survey’s wide selection of behaviours that constituted sexual harassment. This, I argued, trivialised what was a demonstrated and serious issue in the workplace. The gist of my conclusion was: we know there is a problem, so instead of yet another survey of dubious robustness, let’s get on with fixing the problem.

Upon publication I was contacted by one of my female colleagues at Fairfax, someone I held in very high regard personally and as a journalist.

She explained that women were concerned by what might appear inconsequential behaviours – a remark passed off as humour, a light touch on the shoulder – because these women had very likely faced far more egregious behaviour during their working lives.

One might be more forgiving of workplace cut and thrust if that were the extent of behaviour to be tolerated by women. But “harmless” banter might take on a completely different hue if taken in the context of behaviour that is rooted in more sinister attitudes of male entitlement and the relative place of women in the workforce and indeed society.

Women who have been groped on public transport, propositioned by strangers while walking down the street or assumed to be “available” simply because they choose to be in a bar or café alone have every reason to be less patient with the axiom that “boys will be boys”.

It is a forlorn hope that the workplace provides women with sanctuary from the realities of the outside world. For no matter how collegiate and professionally fulfilling a workplace might be, the sad truth is that attitudes in the workplace are a mirror image of attitudes in the wider community.

An incident no male journalist would find himself in

My friend, who gently suggested that my column lacked empathy, confided in me an experience, not an isolated one, which took me aback.

She recounted an occasion when she, a prominent journalist, was interviewing a prominent CEO (whom she did not name) in his office who not only propositioned her but briefly mounted a chase around the boardroom table. Now, she is someone who can well take herself and she managed to defuse the situation, but the ordeal would have been no less objectionable not to say terrifying.

I was aghast. This was an incident that no male journalist would find himself in. Many thoughts raced through my mind. How many other female journalists have had such experiences? What if it had been a junior or less composed journalist in this case – how traumatic would such an experience be? How many other women had this CEO threatened and very possibly scarred? And what impact must this CEO have had on his company’s culture and attitudes to women in his workplace?

My column, taken in a vacuum, might have made perfect sense. But sexual harassment does not occur in a vacuum.

It is behaviour founded on prejudice, bias, discrimination, misogyny and entrenched attitudes of male entitlement, power and privilege. “Just a joke” starts to sound pretty thin in such a charged – and manifestly inequitable – context.

Of course there are those women who can hold their own and give as good as they get. But although their lines of tolerance may be further down the track, they are no less subject to toxic work cultures for women – for example, when it comes to career advancement.

A decent, respectful workplace ensures that all employees, from the most junior to the most senior, are valued, empowered and heeded. A workplace founded on dignity and respect is no less disposed to being a place of amity, good humour and vibrancy – indeed is more likely to be such a workplace – which is to debunk those who charge that “do-gooders” would turn workplaces into mausoleums.

If the more ardent proponents of sexual harassment-free workplaces have set the bar very high for what constitutes such a workplace, it is because women have had to endure so much for so long simply and only because they are women.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW and the Australian Financial Review. He was also a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. Follow him on Twitter @DAngeloFisher

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Before you sign up for that leadership workshop or weekend retreat beware the flim-flammery of the ‘leadership industry’

When was the last time you heard a CEO say: “I’m so glad I attended that team-building-for-leaders weekend”? Or have you ever heard a senior executive marvel: “I’ve been so much more innovative since I attended the blue-sky-thinking-for-leaders workshop!” And how many times have you attended an “exclusive leaders breakfast” only to find yourself sitting at a table of pleasant but not exactly C-suite material listening to a second-rate speaker on the secrets of successful networking?

Spruikers of leadership “products” promise big but rarely deliver. They know that all they have to do is stick the word “leadership” to whatever they’re flogging and they will clean up.

No connection to leadership is too obscure or ridiculous, such as the “body language for leaders” course. The course’s promise: “Learn the six nonverbal signals you need to establish a leadership presence.”

Unlike most business fads, leadership as a buzzword has shown remarkable staying power. The problem with buzzwords is that the more pervasive they become the less clear their meaning.

Leadership genuinely fascinates, as it should; it’s why people that are determined to achieve business and career success are so hungry for the essential elements of leadership. What is it that sets a hero-CEO apart from an also-ran CEO? What are the attributes of a CEO who successfully turns a struggling business around? What is it about your boss that would make you follow her to the gates of hell and/or Ikea?

The answer does not lie in the flim-flammery of the leadership industry. And make no mistake, it is an industry, populated by product-wielding leadership consultants, trainers, facilitators, authors, academics, coaches and speakers.

Leadership spivs (they would much prefer “guru”) are easily identified. They typically share these attributes: a fondness for obscure postnominals, a mystical reverence for anything written on butchers’ paper, a tendency to attach great meaning to the bleeding obvious, the capacity to render normally resilient people insensible, and the belief that the more complex the diagram the deeper the insight.

They also tend to speak in mysterious tongues. Take this gibberish from a Melbourne “speaker, facilitator, coach, mentor, author” et alia: “Australian leadership teams are unsustainably over-committed on activities that will not achieve the phase shift you need.” Whatever.

Oddly enough, most of these self-proclaimed leadership gurus seem to have in common the distinction that none has ever been a chief executive.

The leadership industry’s little secret

The leadership industry has an inconvenient little secret: you can’t teach someone to be a leader. You either have the makings of a leader or you do not. Someone who is demonstrably not a leader cannot be taught to be one. And yet the leadership industry continues to prosper, based on the false but alluring premise that a leader’s halo is one workshop away.

If you do have innate leadership qualities, there are certainly skills and attributes that can be learned, honed and refined as your career progresses. But as to whether the leadership industry can transform a mild-mannered middle manager into an Alan Joyce, Richard Goyder or Gail Kelly: save your money.

There is no instant pathway to the C-suite. Successful leadership consists of multiple attributes. We may take a leader’s technical knowledge as a given, but then there are those singular attributes that distinguish one leader from another.

Even the most penetrating analysis of leadership in action will not unlock what makes a successful CEO tick. Such studies will guide and inspire, shed light on new ideas and techniques, they may even plant a seed that turns into a garden of plenty, but they won’t turn you into someone you’re not.

When corporate leaders reflect on the training and education that has shaped their careers it may not surprise that weekend retreats with former football stars, workshops facilitated by certified masters of the Six Thinking Hats or presentations by spruikers of leadership development “tools” tend not to figure.

Almost universally successful leaders will cite the impact of either a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree, or increasingly, executive education courses at blue-chip business schools. What both have in common is the value placed on the exposure to high-level executives in their “cohorts”. The experience of those executives and how they handle particular problems and issues means much more to emerging leaders than off-the-shelf leadership courses.

MBA graduates often cite the benefits of building life-long networks, opening up career opportunities in new sectors and even new countries, and compressing years of valuable knowledge in a one- or two-year MBA program.

The MBA has been a staple of management and leadership education for more than a century.

Harvard University offered the first MBA in 1908, while the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business offered the first Executive MBA in 1943. The University of Melbourne’s Melbourne Business School pioneered the MBA in Australia, awarding its first degree in 1965.

It’s not always smooth sailing for the MBA. Times of economic upheaval, financial crisis and corporate collapses give rise to questions about the relevance or currency of MBAs. Business schools regularly review their programs, seeking to strike the right balance between theory and practical skills.

MBAs not out of the GFC woods yet

MBA programs around the world faced arguably their most serious existential crisis following the global financial crisis when business schools were held to account for the wayward behaviour of MBA-toting executives.

Business schools expressed their mea culpas, did their penance and brought their MBA programs into the 21st century.

But MBAs are not out of the GFC woods yet. The global economy has failed to regain its equilibrium and remains skittish. This partly reflects the seismic shock of the 2007-08 meltdown. It also coincides with the dawn of the digital economy spearheaded by rapid and profound developments in “disruptor” digital, artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies which are transforming consumer behaviour, work practices, business models and whole industry structures.

The economy is in transition, arguably its most significant in a century, which inevitably casts a deep shadow over traditional avenues of learning.

Even the venerable MBA is feeling the pressure.

Much of that pressure is coming from short and intense executive education courses which once complemented the MBA. Now they rival the MBA as busy executives working in hothouse environments of change look for the benefits of the MBA in a fraction of the time.

In the United States, the spiritual home of the MBA, some business schools have called time on the once sacrosanct MBA. The University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business, Wake Forest University’s School of Business in North Carolina and Virginia’s Pamplin College of Business have ended their full-time MBA programs as a result of flagging student demand. The Wisconsin School of Business recently reversed a decision to suspend its full-time MBA program following an outcry from its alumni, but the school will continue a review of its business strategy.

University of Iowa provost Sue Curry explains that the decision to discontinue the traditional MBA anticipates “the business education that students and employers need to thrive in a changing economy”.

The impact of a changing economy will be no less felt in Australia’s overcrowded MBA marketplace.

With 40 universities, business schools and private providers offering MBAs a consolidation of the market is surely inevitable. This is no bad thing. A buoyant market is more accommodating of the varying standards that 40 MBA programs must entail.

It remains to be seen whether those “leadership” retreats, workshops, training modules and exclusive breakfasts/lunches are also thinned out. We can only hope so.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW and the Australian Financial Review. He was also a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. He is on Twitter @DAngeloFisher

 

Malcolm Turnbull the fair-weather republican: a lack of leadership stalls Australia’s coming of age

Malcolm Turnbull’s dithering on the Australian republic is almost as frustrating as the monarchists’ irrational ties to the British Crown.

Turnbull’s clumsy aside that a postal survey may be in order on the subject is another example of the procrastination which has marked his prime ministership.

Turnbull either believes in the republic or he does not. If he does, he must show leadership on the issue as Paul Keating did before him. Keating needed no postal survey to convince him of the case for a republic, nor did he hide behind the cowardly pretence of waiting for the “right time” before bringing the issue to the fore. If not for Keating’s leadership on the republic there would have been no referendum in 1999, an historic opportunity scuttled by the wrecking-ball politics of the prime minister of the day, John Howard, who cynically (but skilfully) used the issue of the model for choosing a president as a wedge to favour the status quo.

Most Australians will recall Turnbull’s damning epithet for Howard as the prime minister who “broke this nation’s heart”. History will also recall that Turnbull not only forgave Howard’s calumny but came to regard the former prime minister as his greatest mentor.

The argument that the timing of another referendum on the republic should be determined by a groundswell of public sentiment for change is bogus. In the absence of leadership once more placing the republic on the political agenda – at which point Australians will become engaged on the issue – the status quo will simply simmer under the flickering flame of indifference.

Waiting for the Queen to die (begging your pardon Ma’am)

To further assert, as Turnbull has done, that the matter of the republic should not be considered while the Queen remains on the throne is gutless procrastination.

The inference that the Queen would somehow be insulted were the issue to arise once more during her reign is the real insult. As a model constitutional monarch Elizabeth understands that this is an issue for Australians to decide on, irrespective of who the monarch may be. The other inference to be drawn from this weak-kneed proposition – more insulting than the first – is that Charles will be an unpopular monarch and therefore will be a boon to the republican cause.

The argument for a republic has nothing to do with what we may think of the reigning monarch. There is no reason to suppose that Charles won’t in time prove as popular as his mother, and even if that were not to be the case, the allure of William coming to the throne may prove too irresistible for a celebrity-addled populace, ensuring that the “right time” remains ever-elusive.

The principal arguments for a republic are so fundamental that it beggars belief that Australia remains a constitutional monarchy well into the 21st century. The historical, cultural and sentimental ties between the Crown and Australia are simply not what they were.

Australia’s maturity as an independent nation and our irrevocable and ever-deepening composition as a multicultural society demands a system of government that is uniquely and unambiguously Australian and which reflects who we are today and will likely be in the future, not who we used to be.

Much of remaining monarchical sentiment is based on a lazy attachment to the status quo, where change is viewed as something to be avoided, whether because it’s best stick to “the devil you know” or that to do otherwise is just too much bother.

Then there’s the celebrity fandom disguised as loyalty to the Crown. What if becoming a republic stems the tide of royal stories in the Australian media? And won’t Wills and Harry stop visiting if we become a republic? Monarchical sentiment based on royal celebrity reduces Australia to a nation governed not by the Constitution but by New Idea.

Mythology surrounding the role of the Crown

Most frustrating of all in support for constitutional monarchy is the mythology that surrounds the role and influence of the British Crown in Australia.

There is the argument that the current constitutional system with the Queen as titular head of state has “given Australia a very stable and workable system of government” and has “contributed to our country being one of only a handful of nations which has remained fully democratic throughout the 20th century”. (These quotes are from John Howard’s 1999 statement in which he outlined his reasons for voting ‘no’ in the republic referendum. His arguments remain the case against the republic.)

Despite such a seminal role that the monarchy ostensibly plays in bringing stability to Australian democracy, it has never been explained exactly how the monarchy has achieved this.

Further arguments against a republic (again taking from Howard’s statement) include the warning that “some of the checks and balances in our present system would be weakened under a republic” and that “the president could be less secure in his or her position than is the Governor-General”.

The tenure of the Governor-General is in fact absurdly fragile and the very antithesis of order and stability. He or she can be sacked on a prime ministerial whim, without reason or premise, and without recourse to the “Queen of Australia”, who is obliged to follow the advice of her Australian prime minister, regardless of how egregious his or her actions in dismissing the viceroy might be.

One of the more ridiculous arguments used by monarchists

Which brings us to one of the more ridiculous arguments used by Australian monarchists for preserving the status quo: the Queen is actually powerless and doesn’t have much to do with Australia. This from fervent monarchist Howard:

“The Queen is Queen of Australia. However, under our present constitution, the Governor-General is effectively Australia’s head of state. The only constitutional duty performed by the Queen relates to the appointment of the Governor-General which must be done on the recommendation of the Prime Minister of the day.”

Having explained that the monarch is little more than a token symbol one might wonder how the monarchy has proven so effective in safeguarding Australian democracy.

Australian monarchists also disclaim the idea that Australia needs to be a republic in order to ensure that the head of state is an Australian. Here the purportedly loyal subjects of the Queen bend over backwards to explain that Elizabeth isn’t really the head of state at all, that the Governor-General is the effective head of state, and that since 1965 he or she has been an Australian. Take it away Johnny:

“It is inconceivable that any future occupant of that office would be other than an Australian,” Howard explains.

“Executive political authority is vested in the Prime Minister and other members of the Cabinet who must always come from the majority party in the House of Representatives.

“The Governor-General…exercises the reserve powers of the crown, completely free of any interference from anyone. His powers flow from the Australian Constitution. They do not flow from the Queen. He acts in accordance with the Constitution of Australia. Although he is the Queen’s representative, he does not take instructions from her.”

So again the argument for remaining a monarchy is that the monarch has been so comprehensively sidelined that – wink, wink – we are already a republic in all but name.

One might think this would prompt monarchists to ask the obvious question: ‘Why remain a monarchy when the monarch has so little function or purpose in Australia?’ But apparently not.

Junior Minister Alex Hawke, in response to the latest Keating-inspired stab at igniting debate on the republic, predictably insisted that, “Constitutional monarchy continues to serve Australia well as does our Queen”.

Arguments for a republic, he continued, “always fail to outline any improvement to our structure of government that would benefit Australians”. Hawke may be right. The structure of government might not change at all – given that, as monarchists have argued so comprehensively, Australia is already a de facto republic, but for the incongruity of kinda-sorta having the Queen of England as our head of state.

As for the “improvement” that Hawke seeks: that would be Australia finally growing up.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW and the Australian Financial Review. He was also a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. He is on Twitter: @DAngeloFisher

 

Most workplaces have a Harvey Weinstein: why are employers so bad at dealing with sexual harassment?

Revelations by the New York Times about the predatory sexual behaviour of Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein have made for jaw-dropping reading. The newspaper chronicled allegations against Weinstein from actresses and former employees at The Weinstein Company and the producer’s former company, Miramax.

According to the NYT, Weinstein reached settlements with at least eight women.

While some may view this rolling story as just another “celebrity scandal”, it is so much more. This is a story that many women far removed from the bright lights of Hollywood will understand from bitter experience. It is a story about the workplace and the fact that women at their place of work are daily confronted with sexual intimidation.

Weinstein’s modus operandi was refined over decades: he invited female employees to his hotel room for business purposes, whereupon he would greet them in the nude or ask them to massage him or watch him take a shower.

The dynamic at play will be familiar to many women: powerful men in a position to advance careers, extend patronage or dispense favours making sexual demands of young women who are at their most vulnerable as they seek to build a career.

Many young professional women have had to fend off a Harvey Weinstein early in their careers.

Why are women in 2017 still being subjected to this predatory behaviour in the workplace? At the root of the problem is how some men relate to women. These men have an unblushing sense of entitlement, a demarcation of gender roles and an overblown sense of their attraction to women.

Despite much greater awareness surrounding sexual harassment, in many organisations that awareness is not being translated into more respectful workplaces. Sexual harassment often occurs in organisations with elaborate policies, manuals and procedures purportedly designed such behaviour.

Sexual harassment of women in the workplace is often trivialised as women who can’t take a joke, women as man-haters and the old faithful, political correctness gone mad.

The joke when it comes to sexual harassment is what passes for many companies’ policies and procedures. While it can be argued that some action on sexual harassment is better than nothing, the counter argument is that a pro-forma tick-the-box approach might give a false impression of a safe and respectful workplace while allowing a toxic culture to flourish.

HR is never the answer

Not only are these companies failing to stamp out this behaviour, but when called on to respond to complaints by female employees they fail miserably.

There are, of course, notable exceptions that are well documented and rightly celebrated, but we have seen enough media reports of companies that act with hamfisted disregard for the rights and wellbeing of their female staff to know that sexual harassment at work remains a serious problem.

When it comes to sexual harassment, Human Resources is not the answer. HR is never the answer. HR departments have a clear conflict of interest and their loyalties are clear. When an aggrieved female employee takes her complaint of sexual harassment to HR, the HR manager’s “client” becomes not the employee but the company’s CEO. And the CEO’s first question is usually: “How do we make this go away?” Or better still, “How do we make her go away.”

The impotence of HR was an issue identified in the NYT story: “The human resources operation was considered weak…so some employees banded together in solidarity. ‘If a female executive was asked to go to a meeting solo, she and a colleague would generally double up’ so as not to be alone with Mr Weinstein, recalled [a Miramax executive].”

In the past I have been critical of the “industry” which had sprung up to help companies deal with sexual harassment in their workplaces. This motley band of consultants, trainers and workshop facilitators enable companies to tick the right boxes without making any impact on dysfunctional workplace cultures.

So what can companies do to better understand sexual harassment and more effectively deal with complaints when they arise?

1 Putting a face to sexual harassment

A couple of years ago I was a guest on the SBS current affairs television program Insight which was canvassing the issue of sexual harassment. The most instructive aspect of the program was a panel of women who recounted their experience of sexual harassment in the workplace. Their stories were harrowing. Companies would do well to source such panels of women to share their experiences with senior management and boards. Many men simply do not understand what sexual harassment means. When male leaders understand the extent of indignities, humiliations and even violence that some women are forced to endure in the workplace they may get serious about changing behaviours in their workplaces.

2 Make sexual harassment a board matter

Eradicating sexual harassment must become a board priority. It is in the board’s interest to consider sexual harassment unacceptable in human terms and governance terms. Boards should be satisfied that its executive leadership team is delivering a workplace in which everyone feels valued, safe and productive. Boards should mandate their CEO – not the head of HR – to report to the board on gender, diversity and inclusion to agreed metrics. Those metrics should be linked to remuneration frameworks. Boards should be informed of sexual harassment complaints as they arise as a matter of course.

3 Ensuring a whole-of-company commitment

Companies that rely on off-the-shelf training modules, mind-numbing workshops and flashy consultants will change neither attitudes nor prevailing cultures. And while HR can come up with “best-practice” policies and processes these mean nothing unless there is a whole-of-company commitment to providing a safe and welcoming workplace. Companies should be prepared to invest in an independent audit of the organisation to test the robustness of sexual harassment, gender equity and diversity policies and the cultural environment in which those policies operate. This needs to be a high-level undertaking with the commitment to make the necessary changes to tackle sexual harassment and corrosive cultures head on. Former Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick, now principal of Elizabeth Broderick & Co, conducts such reviews: that’s the calibre of person needed.

4 A better approach to dispute resolution

Disputes between female complainants and their employers escalate because of inadequate mechanisms for hearing, assessing and resolving complaints. Whatever their formal policies might state, companies too often treat sexual harassment as a matter for damage control. Treating the victim as “the enemy” or even quietly making a settlement means nothing changes and toxic cultures are allowed to fester. If existing systems are proving inadequate companies need to get creative – and be prepared to make the necessary investment – to ensure the integrity and effectiveness of dispute resolution processes. One course may be to immediately call in external advisers to take charge of the process whenever a complaint is received. Another is to establish permanent external panels of qualified persons to directly receive and adjudicate on complaints of sexual harassment. The key word in both examples is: external.

5 Making women visible

It’s a message that many men fail to grasp: workplaces are, for historical and cultural reasons, essentially male-dominated domains. Even when there seem to be plenty of women in an organisation masculinist business cultures predominate, women in leadership are inadequately represented and inequities such as the gender pay gap set the tone of workplaces. Sexual harassment reflects a certain view of women. A workplace in which men and women are seen to be on an equal footing will change workplace dynamics for the better.

As for Harvey Weinstein: he’s toast. More allegations about his behaviour as a bully and sexual predator have surfaced; his wife has left him; and The Weinstein Company board has dismissed the disgraced producer from the company he co-founded.

For his part, Weinstein has said in an interview that he is “terribly embarrassed” and is seeing a therapist.

 I am going to fix myself, I am going to fix how I deal with women and how I deal with my temper and power. I came of age in the ’60s and ’70s, when all the rules about behaviour and workplaces were different.”

Our thoughts and prayers are with Weinstein’s therapist.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW and the Australian Financial Review. He was also a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. Twitter: @DAngeloFisher

What has ‘religious freedom’ got to do with same-sex marriage? Absolutely nothing

One of the cornerstone arguments to emerge in the same-sex marriage debate is that a ‘Yes’ vote for marriage equality will erode religious freedom. Such cant lays bare the irrelevance of institutional religion in a secular society in which rule of law, not arcane theology, safeguards the rights of all citizens.

Traditional churches are blind to the irony that in demanding the protection of religious freedom they are striking at the freedom of gay and lesbian Australians to marry.

It never ceases to amaze that the pious can be so arrogant. The defenders of the marriage status quo – led by the Australian Christian Lobby – place religious privilege and religious doctrine above the human rights of a group of Australians who for no rational reason are excluded from the institution of marriage.

What is marriage equality but the right to dignity? The right to express love and commitment in a culturally recognised form that is currently only open to one section of the population – at least in Australia?

Churches protest that same-sex marriage offends the sanctity of marriage. There is nothing inherently sacred about marriage, save for the commitment that two people make to each other. Churches are demanding a ‘No’ vote based on an idea of marriage that does not exist in practice. They defend “traditional” marriage as if this is a flawless institution that has retained its perfection over centuries.

Marriage between a man and a woman, including those solemnised in a church, are no more or less prone to the vicissitudes of human relationships. Yet based on their idealised view of marriage churches argue that same-sex marriage would be an affront. It is the churches, not those who advocate marriage equality, that offend the norms, expectations and entitlements of a 21st century society.

Traditional marriage has earned itself no right to exclusivity. The proposition that Australian should vote ‘No’ because the Bible defines marriage as the union between a man and a woman is too ridiculous for words. Such nonsense has no place in a secular society. There is no religious ground that supersedes basic human and civil rights.

Homosexual Australians seeking marriage equality make no claim that they can do better at marriage than their hapless heterosexual brothers and sisters. They simply ask for the same right to have their love solemnised. Whether being married brings them weeks or a lifetime of happiness is not anyone’s business, just as it is not in the case of traditional marriage.

Religious freedom, or religious zealotry?

Religious institutions behave as if marriage is their proprietary product. It is not. But churches are doing more than advocating a ‘No’ vote. They are already preparing to assert their right to “religious freedom” in the event of a ‘Yes’ vote.

Not only will they demand the right to refuse to conduct same-sex weddings, they will demand the right not to employ anyone from a same-sex union in their schools, child-care centres, hospitals, aged-care facilities and any other organisation under their aegis. Or indeed anyone who simply supports same-sex marriage.

In an astonishing example of religious zealotry going well beyond the ambit of religious freedom, this week a Presbyterian church in the Victorian regional city of Ballarat refused to marry a couple because they had dared to express support for same-sex marriage on Facebook.

Days after the post, the minister of Ebenezer St John’s summoned the young couple – the bride is 26, the groom 25 – to inform them that he could not marry them, nor would they be permitted to hold their ceremony at the church.

In a letter to the bride published by Fairfax Media the minister wrote:

“After the pre-marital counselling that you attended and the sermons delivered at Ebenezer on this subject, you must surely appreciate that your commitment to same-sex marriage opposes the teaching of Christ Jesus and the scriptural position practiced by the Presbyterian Church of Australia and by me.

“This conflict of views has practical consequences in relation to your upcoming wedding.

“By continuing to officiate it would appear either that I support your views on same-sex marriage or that I am uncaring about this matter. As you know, neither statement is correct.

“Also, if the wedding proceeded in the Ebenezer St John’s church buildings, the same inferences could be drawn about the Presbyterian denomination. Such inferences would be wrong.”

This is an untenable over-reach by the Presbyterian church: not only does the church impose its will on same-sex couples, it even punishes those who dare to express a view in support of same-sex marriage. Why do we tolerate such rubbish?

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull not only tolerates it, he is fully supportive.

“Churches are entitled to marry or not marry whom they please. That is part of religious freedom,” he told Fairfax Media.

“As strongly as I believe in the right of same-sex couples to marry, even more strongly do I believe in religious freedom.”

PM says religious freedom trumps marriage equality

Perhaps it is good politics not to antagonise religious institutions lest it derail the ‘Yes’ campaign. Not so clear is why Turnbull felt it necessary to go the extra mile and declare his belief in religious freedom to be “even stronger” than his commitment to marriage equality.

Even in the event of marriage equality becoming law there is a clue in Turnbull’s trademark timidity that same-sex marriage will be not quite the equal of traditional marriage.

Why do we continue to give religious institutions such a powerful position in society? A position that is increasingly at odds with a secular society and which no longer has the social licence it once did.

If organised religion was embodied in one man, he would currently be in gaol for life for his heinous crimes against innocent children. He would certainly not be treated as a wise elder with a privileged place at the table to deliberate on the future of marriage. Yet religion’s position in society, as recognised by law, remains undiminished.

Churches are in no position to claim the moral authority to impose themselves on society.

We can only hope that an unintended outcome of the postal plebiscite is that Australians come to question why it is that in 2017 religion still has such force in our lives. It is well time to consider why churches continue to qualify for generous tax breaks, legal exemptions and elevated policy influence.

The marriage-equality debate – and the concessions demanded by churches – underscores their irrelevance.

The same-sex marriage debate over the weeks ahead places an overdue spotlight on the issue of marriage equality. The issue should have been decided by Parliament, and Malcolm Turnbull stands condemned that it was not, but even an inadequate “postal survey” is a welcome indicator of Australia’s social maturity. Not so long ago asking Australians to vote on same-sex marriage would have been unthinkable. Alas, our religious institutions possess no such maturity.

So it is to be welcomed that the marriage-equality debate will also shine a light on organised religion in Australia. Their conduct – and their demands in the name of religious freedom in the event of a ‘Yes’ vote – will hopefully prompt long overdue scrutiny of the role of institutional religion in Australia.

Churches have a right to exist and people have a right to worship at those churches, but it is time that the separation of church and state to which we pay lip service was given greater force of law.

Religion in a secular society is a marriage not made in heaven.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW and the Australian Financial Review. He was also a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. Follow him on Twitter @DAngeloFisher

 

 

Can we really not do better than “LGBTIQ+” ?

I am not a fan of the catch-all “LGBTIQ” and its elongated variations. I find it oddly self-marginalising and ungainly but also ill-premised: what makes the people behind each letter part of a single community? And what is its point if LGBTIQ is simply treated as a synonym for gay?

Take this story published by news.com.au on 20 August in which soapie actor Bryan Wiseman complains that police are dismissive of domestic violence among gay couples.

The journalist writes:

‘As a domestic violence (DV) survivor, 48-year-old Bryan is angry about the way police deal with DV incidents in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, intersex or queer (LGBTIQ) community and is calling for increased training and awareness.’

On the one hand the journalist felt it necessary to spell out what LGBTIQ stands for; on the other hand it is extremely unlikely that Wiseman has conducted an exhaustive study of police attitudes to domestic violence in these various communities.

And from the quote attributed to Wiseman it is obvious that his scope is more narrow than the term LGBTIQ might suggest:

“It’s just the prejudice from some of them,” Bryan says, “I have come up against certain police who were plainly homophobic and they basically just didn’t want to attend because they thought it was a couple of gays in the suburbs having an argument.”

The use of LGBTIQ reminds me of the now defunct federal agency known as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), which existed from 1990 to 2005. There were many reasons why ATSIC fell out of favour in the indigenous community, but one of them was that “ATSI” took off as an acronym meaning indigenous Australian, particularly in the public service and even among sections of the indigenous community.

Critics of the use of ATSI in this way found it dehumanising and culturally barren.

I wonder if this will be the fate of LGBTIQ? Its activist proponents will argue that they are entitled to label themselves as they please, even if we cannot be entirely sure who “they” are, and whether they really define themselves as “LGBTIQs”.

If the times deem it appropriate or necessary to contrive a single activist or political community out of the LGBTIQ communities, then I choose to favour “rainbow”, as in the “rainbow community”. Much more agreeable, don’t you think?

 

 

A craven Malcolm Turnbull has placed his political survival ahead of marriage equality

It is an article of faith in Australian politics that a referendum question that does not have bipartisan support will fail to secure majority support. The principle is no less relevant in the case of the half-baked postal ballot foisted on Australian voters to decide the issue of same-sex marriage.

There was never any prospect of federal Cabinet agreeing to join the 21st century and unite in support of same-sex marriage, but it is disappointing that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has chosen to all but absent himself from the plebiscite campaign.

Turnbull, whose time in office has been marked by a conspicuous lack of authority, has been particularly craven on same-sex marriage.

Rather than taking a leadership role in advancing the case for what is a fundamental civil right, Turnbull will limit himself to answering journalists’ questions on the subject and urging people to vote in the ballot.

This is nominally the outcome of a Cabinet decision to absolve ministers – whether ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ supporters – from actively participating in the plebiscite campaign unless within their own electorates. While the Cabinet position applies to all ministers, this is a weasely ruse whose primary purpose is to keep Turnbull out of the marriage-equality campaign.

It hardly matters whether this was a gag imposed on Turnbull or a strategy devised by Turnbull himself. The Right don’t want any star power that Turnbull may still retain to be mobilised in favour of same-sex marriage and the last thing Turnbull wants is to further alienate his colleagues on the right by being identified with the ‘Yes’ campaign, especially in the case of a ‘Yes’ vote.

For anyone hoping that the plebiscite would free up the Prime Minister to show his true rainbow colours on same-sex marriage and act as a champion for marriage equality their disappointment will run deep. Turnbull’s advocacy will be especially missed as the more strident activists on the ‘No’ side turn up the volume and produce ever-more offensive arguments on behalf of the status quo.

Marriage equality ‘a fourth-order issue’

Turnbull’s abandonment of the cause of same-sex marriage can be put down to political cowardice. It’s damnable, but it’s what most Australians have come to expect of him. However Turnbull has done much more than squirm himself out of a prominent role in the marriage-equality debate.

He has also deliberately sought to diminish the importance of marriage equality, partly to justify his absence from the fray, but in the process leaving same-sex marriage campaigners to their fate.

Turnbull argues that his first duty is to “run the government” which includes focusing on much more important issues than same-sex marriage such as national security, the economy and energy prices.

“Same-sex marriage is an ­important issue but there are a lot of other much more important ­issues for me to focus on,” he says.

It’s hard to imagine a prime minister being more offensive. Same-sex couples wishing for the right to marry – in many cases their children joining in their fervent hope – have been told by their government that theirs is a fourth- or fifth-order issue.

Let us reflect for a moment on what this means: the Turnbull government refused to budge from its preferred option of a plebiscite to decide on marriage equality – rather than let Parliament do its job – because such an important and fundamental change should be voted on by the Australian public. Now the Prime Minister and his ministers argue that they have more important things to do than to actively participate in the campaign.

While the government “encourages” people to vote in what is a voluntary ballot they have done everything in their power to belittle the process.

One wonders how seriously the plebiscite result will be taken. It is not a wild stretch of the imagination to suggest that the lower the turnout the less likely opponents of same-sex marriage within the government will be to accept a ‘Yes’ outcome, particularly a ‘Yes’ vote that falls just over the line.

PM swaps wedding tux for khaki

Labor leader Bill Shorten has already stated that even in the event of a negative result a Labor government would still legislate for same-sex marriage.

That may explain why Turnbull had ramped up attacks on his opposite number, describing Shorten as “the most dangerous left-wing leader of the Labor Party we have seen in generations”.

While Turnbull focuses on the big issues, he is not exactly doing so with a cool head.

On energy, he has become increasingly shrill. Even as the Finkel report languishes in the PM’s bottom drawer, he has hit out at South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill, describing his energy plans for the state as “dangerous…ideology and idiocy in equal measures”.

On national security, which Turnbull considers his biggest strength, like Coalition leaders before him, the Prime Minister has gratuitously and prematurely aligned Australia with the United States in the event of war with North Korea.

Swapping his wedding tux for khaki, the Prime Minister thundered that “we stand shoulder to shoulder with the United States”.

“The ANZUS treaty means that if America is attacked, we will come to their aid and if Australia is attacked, the Americans will come to ours. We are joined at the hip.”

If this was meant to sound reassuring it was nothing of the kind, showing the sabre-rattling Prime Minister obscenely willing to fan President Donald Trump’s bellicosity in order to portray himself as a war-time leader.

That is, of course, if Australians are still listening to Malcolm Turnbull. Pulling out of the same-sex marriage campaign will leave a sour taste in the mouths of many Australians. They will recognise that taking a discreet position on marriage equality is all about saving his political skin, even if it means jeopardising the cause he once so freely championed.

He must know – and dread – that if the highly compromised postal ballot delivers a ‘No’ result marriage-equality campaigners will lose no time in dubbing Turnbull as the second Prime Minister to break Australia’s heart.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist and commentator. He is a columnist with The New Daily and is a former columnist with BRW and the Australian Financial Review. He was also a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. He’s on Twitter @DAngeloFisher

 

Malcolm Turnbull may have survived the Pyne tape affair but the same-sex marriage issue isn’t going away

The Christopher Pyne tape has almost certainly ensured that same-sex marriage will not be legalised in Australia while a Coalition government is in power.

In a less febrile political environment the tape would have been of passing interest only. For the most part Pyne’s speech was more pep talk than manifesto: “We are in the winner’s circle, friends, we are in the winner’s circle.”

But it was Pyne’s hopeful reference to same-sex marriage that alarmed conservatives. One imagines the very mention of same-sex marriage is considered abhorrent by the party’s conservatives. But Pyne went a big step further, telling fellow moderates that progress on same-sex marriage was imminent: “I think it might even be sooner than everyone thinks. And your friends in Canberra are working on that outcome.”

Tony Abbott and his fellow conservatives have always considered the position of holding a plebiscite on same-sex marriage – rather than putting it to a vote of Parliament – to be a clever way of keeping the issue in limbo.

Abbott hit on the plebiscite ruse while he was still Prime Minister, giving no indication of a time-table or even whether a ‘yes’ vote would be considered binding on Coalition MPs. When Malcolm Turnbull toppled Abbott as Prime Minister he agreed to support the plebiscite as a pre-condition to securing support from the right. Turnbull had previously been a critic of the plebiscite option.

It is intriguing to ponder what Pyne meant by his “sooner than everyone thinks” nugget of hope. It could only have meant one of two things: either the Government was confident it could secure the support of enough Senate cross-benchers to successfully resubmit the plebiscite bill (which was defeated last year 33-29), or a bullish Turnbull was confident he had the internal numbers to mount an Angela Merkel-like surprise and allow Parliament to vote on same-sex marriage – a pre-election surprise to catch Labor flat-footed and at last herald the return of the “real Malcolm” in time for the next election.

Building political capital

Either option would have been based on the euphoria of the Turnbull Government’s Gonski 2.0 win in Parliament – and in particular the Senate. This was a government getting things done, proving its mettle as a pragmatic negotiator with the Senate cross-bench. Although the opinion polls didn’t provide the Turnbull government with any pats on the back for its Gonski achievement, Turnbull strategists believed their man was starting to accrue some political capital. A few more wins and Turnbull might have the political wherewithal to force the issue on same-sex marriage.

The leak of the Pyne tape put paid to that happy scenario. As if to illustrate how beholden Turnbull’s prime ministership remains to the fragile factional accord, Turnbull hung Pyne out to dry with a swift repudiation: “Our policy [on same-sex marriage] is clear, we have no plans to change it, full stop.”

Pyne himself was forced to issue a fulsome apology: “My remarks were ill-chosen and unwise and I can see how unhelpful and damaging they have been.”

So whither same-sex marriage in Australia? The political impasse on the issue places Australia at odds with much of the world. As the Pyne tape saga consumed Australian politics, causing hasty retreats on even implied positions, Germany’s parliament voted 393 to 226 to legalise same-sex marriage.

Germany becomes the 23rd country to legalise same-sex marriage. It’s becoming increasingly hard to justify Australia treating same-sex marriage as a domestic political issue rather than a human rights issue. It is ridiculous that two men or two women who can legally marry in the US, the UK, Canada, Germany, France or 18 other countries cannot enjoy the same right in Australia.

Turnbull not the master of his destiny

If Pyne was right that there was a chance that a recalcitrant Australia might at last make a move on same-sex marriage, that prospect, however slim, has been unambiguously ruled out. Which all but rules out same-sex marriage while a Coalition government is in power.

Before the next federal election, scheduled for 2019, the Coalition will have to decide on what position it will take to the electorate on same-sex marriage. The Pyne affair has made it abundantly clear that Turnbull is not the master of his political destiny. Presumably, Turnbull will again be compelled by his conservative faction, and by his Nationals coalition partner, to advocate a plebiscite.

Bear in mind that what Turnbull is being prevented from doing is putting same-sex marriage to a free vote in Parliament. The conservatives don’t want such a vote because Parliament will likely support same-sex marriage. The conservatives wish that the issue would simply disappear, but that much of the politics they have lost. Their second-best option is a plebiscite which they believe they would win. Despite polls showing overwhelming support for same-sex marriage, a no-holds-barred ‘no’ campaign may very well triumph. (And then what? Would a ‘no’ vote suddenly make marriage equality less of a human right?)

Turnbull may have momentarily placated conservative elements in his party room in the wake of the Pyne tape affair, but the issue of same-sex marriage has not gone away.

Turnbull must sooner or later confront the reality that there is a difference between leadership and saving his leadership. Same-sex marriage is an issue capable of splitting the Liberal party, the Coalition and the nation.

The true test of Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership will be not by what machinations he manages to retain his prime ministership, but having retained it, what steps will he take to ensure that Australia takes its place in the world as a nation that says ‘yes’ to marriage for all.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW and the Australian Financial Review. He was also a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. Follow him on Twitter @DAngeloFisher

 

Patronising, crass and condescending: it’s time to end the Vinnies CEO Sleepout

The only time my back-page column at the Australian Financial Review was spiked was when I wrote that the St Vincent de Paul Society’s annual Vinnies CEO Sleepout was well-meaning but patronising, crass and condescending. But it was not what I wrote about the venerable “Vinnies” that concerned my skittish editors and the Fairfax defamation lawyer.

My biggest spray was reserved for the corporate grandees that sign up to pretend to be homeless for one night, doing it tough “with only a sleeping bag, beanie and piece of cardboard”. The CEO Sleepout was and remains a PR stunt of the most cynical kind, this year rendered even more offensive by providing CEOs with virtual-reality goggles to heighten the “experience” of being homeless.

In my Financial Review column I named several of the CEOs on mega-million salaries who were going through this faux sacrifice, CEOs who could write a cheque that could easily eclipse the amount they were raising.

“And when they emerge from their doubtless uncomfortable night, many will hop into their chauffeur-driven limousines, luxury cars or family four-wheel-drives to be taken to the comfort and warmth of their Toorak mansions (or five-star hotels, for those who have travelled first-class from interstate). Unlike the homeless Australians in whose name this event takes place, these self-satisfied campers have a home to go to.”

So why does this event cause me such unease? It might seem harmless enough. Leaders from business, government and the community get to “experience what it is like to be homeless for one night in winter” and in the process raise awareness of homelessness and raise money to help the charity’s work with the homeless.

St Vincent de Paul is to be saluted for its vital work in the community but who is not aware of the national shame that is Australia’s homelessness?

Homelessness is getting worse not better

For all the awareness being raised, homelessness is getting worse not better. Anyone walking through the Melbourne CBD will know that the homeless, once barely visible, now occupy vantage points throughout the city. When the men and women can’t be seen, their bedding can. It’s unlikely that there is a city worker who has not been approached at least once by a homeless person seeking money.

Anyone taking the train into the city can see bedding along the Yarra; anyone who walks through the city will almost certainly strike the detritus of makeshift sleeping quarters on benches, in alcoves and on the street. Bedding can even be seen in the Botanic Gardens.

As well as the horrors of being homeless men and women sleeping rough are increasingly finding themselves subjected to assault, theft and rape.

The homeless have never been more visible. When a deranged motorist ploughed through pedestrian traffic in January, among the eye-witnesses interviewed by TV news crews were homeless Melbournians; as they were in June when a motorist drove along a Swanston Street footpath (in this case taking aim at bank premises rather than pedestrians).

Police earlier this year were required to remove around 20 homeless people who had made camp outside Flinders Street Station on one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares, the arising pitch battles making for uncomfortable viewing.

We have all the awareness we need. Homelessness has reached epidemic proportions. While politicians celebrate Australia’s economy as one of the successful in the world the number of homeless Australians grows before our eyes.

Have we not seen enough stories about homeless people – very often women escaping family violence – living in their cars? There are so many Australians “sleeping rough” that they no longer fit a smug stereotype. They are all of us.

An annual PR staple

The ABC recently ran a story about Stephanie who fled her abusive husband five years ago and had to leave her 20-year nursing career. For the past two years she has lived out of her van. She wants to get back into nursing but just surviving is a job in itself.

“My whole life has just been disrupted by homelessness,” she says.

“I don’t have stable accommodation, I don’t have a place of safety. I don’t have enough rest so I wouldn’t be able to meet the practical terms of getting to my job and be reliable enough and be awake and switched on enough.”

Try as I might to see the best in the Vinnies CEO Sleep Out, I find it crass and condescending. For many companies it has become an annual PR staple. While it is obviously not the intention of organisers, or the participants, the Sleepout mocks the homeless. It would take only a moment’s reflection to understand that this is so.

Participants could easily sign a cheque for such trifling amounts without their much-publicised “sacrifice”. For many of the business leaders who take part in this patronising gesture, the money raised is mere pocket money.

I get what St Vincents is trying to do, and in previous years when I’ve written about this, I’ve been contacted by business people who feel genuinely hurt by my observations and who insist that they simply want to do their bit. In which case they would be better off manning soup kitchens, handing out blankets and distributing food parcels.

Rather than photos of self-satisfied CEOs posing next to their pieces of cardboard, it would be far more heartening to hear from our leading chief executives what they are doing to stamp out the scourge of homelessness. What programs do the companies represented have in place to rehabilitate, employ and skill the most marginalised in our community?

Tell us about that and spare us the hollow claims of “sleeping rough”. We need to hear how wealthy executives and entrepreneurs are sharing their smarts and good fortune to improve society. Forget the camping. Just tell us how you are building a better, fairer society and you might inspire others to follow your lead. That’s the sort of awareness we’re looking for.

And St Vincents: we know your heart is in the right place, but it’s time to put the CEO Sleepout to bed.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW and the Australian Financial Review. He was also a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. Follow him on Twitter @DAngeloFisher

 

 

Malcolm Turnbull’s get-tough stance on English skills for migrants is just more dog-whistle politics

The Turnbull Government’s insistence on a tougher English-language test for migrants seeking Australian citizenship is at the very least perplexing and at worst alarming.

At first blush it might appear a reasonable requirement of new citizens, but what problem is the Government seeking to remedy? Why does the world’s most successful multicultural society, as Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull so often describes Australia, suddenly need to overhaul its citizenship test, headlined by the requirement of English-language skills that many born-and-bred Australians may find challenging?

The absence of a clear explanation for a tougher English-language test can only invite the worst interpretation of the Government’s motives.

When it comes to using (and abusing) English language requirements as a barrier to migration, Australia has form going back to the very beginning of nationhood and the White Australia policy.

The Immigration Restriction Act of 1901 authorised immigration officials to dictate a passage of 50 words to a new arrival, who was required to write down and sign the given passage. The test was usually given in English, but if the migrant passed but was otherwise considered undesirable (that is, non-white), the immigration officer could repeat the test in another European language. This was the infamous Dictation Test.

The Turnbull Government is proposing nothing so blatant or draconian, but the intent would not be entirely unfamiliar to immigration officials enforcing the White Australia policy. Again, in the absence of a cogent explanation as to why Australia needs a tougher English-language test, the only available conclusion is that the Government wishes to filter out a certain group of people.

Those who support the Government’s tough stance on English-language skills say the same thing: “What’s wrong with expecting new citizens to read and write English?”

Of itself, nothing. But the tougher-test school makes various assumptions that simply do not stand up to scrutiny.

The first is that English deficiency has led to problems in the past. Of this there is no evidence; and even if it were to be demonstrated that this has been an issue, presumably it would be no greater than the problem caused by illiteracy levels in the wider Australian community. It would be unfair, not to say discriminatory, to requite new citizens to have higher English-language skills than born-and-bred Australian citizens.

The other assumption is that poor English is an unfailing indicator of character – of someone’s values, work ethic and good citizenship. New arrivals to Australia – or any country for that matter – do so with the intention of building a new and better life, with all the social and economic spin-offs that entails.

More about political optics

English or no English, some new citizens will immerse themselves in their new country, while others will leave it to their children and grandchildren to stake their claims as Australians. (And often there will be conflicts of cultural adjustment between generations, but that is a dynamic all of its own.)

The converse assumption that high English proficiency and a high score in the proposed values test would necessarily point to outstanding citizenship is simply naïve.

Criticism of the Government’s tougher approach to citizenship qualification is not to suggest that simply anyone can make Australia their home. But the Government’s get-tough approach is more about political optics than dealing with real deficiencies in our migration system. The continuation of John Howard’s infamous “we decide” mantra demonises rather than celebrates migrants to Australia; it places a question mark over the head of each person who does not sound or look like the rest of us.

If changes are needed, they should be considered at length, impartially and independently, based on public submissions and informed by Australia’s pre-eminent record as a multicultural society. Migration since the 1950s, a time of record migration to Australia, has not been without occasional social disruption, but on the whole it has delivered the society – and wealth – that most of us celebrate today.

We know what we have come to expect from Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, but surely we should expect better of Malcolm Turnbull. Their gratuitous call for tougher English-language testing is no better than those hurtful cries heard most frequently in the 1950s and 60s, “Why don’t you learn to bloody speak English!”, or more lyrically, “Why you no learna t’speaka da English?” Turnbull and his attack-dog Minister have given renewed license for such calls to be heard again.

My maternal grandparents migrated to Australia from Sicily in the 1950s. My grandfather had a rudimentary education roughly the equivalent of grade 3; my grandmother was illiterate. Neither learned to speak English, other than some basic words essential in the days of pre-self serve: milk, bread, butter, eggs. According to family lore, when my grandmother sat for your citizenship exam the English-language component involved her having to recite five English words; her selection included “Rinso” and “rump steak”.

I never heard either of my grandparents speak a whole sentence of English; they didn’t even qualify for “broken English”. Yet their contribution to Australia is beyond question.

He was always ‘Joe’

My grandfather worked in factories as a labourer for 20 years before he retired. “Giuseppe” was too difficult for his Australian workmates, so he was always Joe. Giuseppe was of a dark hue; in 1920s Australia he would have been classed as a “white alien”. (As in fact was my paternal grandfather when he migrated to Australia in 1925, except he was fair-skinned, reflecting Sicily’s own multicultural/racial history over millennia.)

But Giuseppe knew nothing of Australia’s vexed history of grudging tolerance and outright intolerance; or if he did, he did not let it get in the way of becoming a passionate Australian. His most prized possession was his citizenship certificate and his most abiding loyalty was to the Queen.

My grandmother, Rosa, was fair and blue-eyed. When she worked in her beautiful front garden, passers-by would assume she could speak English and would stop for a chat about the garden. Perhaps gardening is a universal language, because Rosa’s lack of English didn’t stop her from having the most animated conversations with little old ladies who wouldn’t have known Italy from a gum boot.

Despite their English-language “deficiency”, Giuseppe and Rosa bought a house, their five children, most migrating with them as adults, all worked and bought their own homes. Their grandchildren went to public and private schools, some played footy for local clubs, several went to university, and all went on to work in a variety of occupations: journalist, accountant, teacher, public servant and various trades.

So what’s the problem, PM? Loaded calls for tough English-language tests are clearly designed to appeal to a section of the Australian population – and backbench – whose intolerance hardly needs further stoking. The calls are presumably aimed at Muslims – or seen to be aimed at Muslims – buy they are a slap in the face for all migrants who over the decades have come to Australia with only positive ambitions: to rebuild, prosper, enjoy freedoms and to give back as best they can.

For Malcolm Turnbull to say otherwise is to repudiate his own boast that Australia is the most successful multicultural society in the world.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW and the Australian Financial Review. He was also a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. Follow him on Twitter @DAngeloFisher