The Road to Ruin: Niki Savva is under fire for being sexist, but feminist critics should leave their agenda at home

Niki Savva’s book The Road to Ruin has proven a polarising chronicle of the destructive co-dependency between Tony Abbott and Peta Credlin and its role in the demise of Abbott’s prime ministership.

Some of the critics have aimed their wrath at Savva for daring to give currency to the long-circulating Canberra gossip that Abbott and Credlin were having an affair. Savva makes no effort to settle the veracity of that virulent rumour, nor does she offer any indication of her own view on the matter. The alleged affair, per se, is not the point of her book.

Her point was to illustrate the undisguised intensity and peculiar, not to say bizarre, characteristics of the relationship. It’s possible at a generous stretch that Abbott and Credlin were not aware of the rumours circulating through Canberra, but at times it certainly seemed that they were daring observers to come to that conclusion.

Frankly, the idea of a senior politician having an affair with a staffer is hardly breaking new ground. Mercifully, in Australia, what happens in the anteroom traditionally stays in the anteroom. Occasionally journalists push the envelope, but if journalists were to make a practice of gratuitously revealing every extramarital indiscretion involving politicians and staffers – not to mention the odd journalist – our media would be filled with nothing else.

Matters of public (as opposed to prurient) interest aside, affairs should be none of our affair. What is different about politicians behaving badly through the decades is that they and their paramours have behaved with discretion and secretiveness.

Affair or not, Abbott and Credlin were so bizarrely in-your-face and completely lacking in public decorum that of course they were going to be a talking point.

One MP recounted to Savva being present at a Melbourne restaurant when Credlin used her fork to feed Abbott from her plate. And after the meal “she put her head on his shoulder to complain about being tired”. On another occasion Abbott was spotted patting his chief of staff on the fundament.

There was nothing gratuitous about Savva’s detailed and richly sourced account, but there certainly have been some gratuitous insults hurled at her.

One commentator opined that Savva included rumours of the affair to boost sales of her book. Such a specious claim is an insult to Savva who is a well-connected, seasoned and fearless political journalist (as anyone who reads her columns in The Australian will know).

The intensity of the corrosive relationship between Abbott and Credlin and its toxic impact on Abbott’s private office and the governance of the country – and within two short years his prime ministership – was hardly a matter of Savva’s invention. But her book does break new ground in revealing just how obsessive and caustic this relationship was.

As Savva herself explained: “This was not meant to imply an affair; it was meant to describe the depth of the dependence, the consuming obsession, and what Abbott was prepared to sacrifice for it.”

Too much for a troubled government to bear

Far from being simply a matter of Canberra intrigue, Abbott’s closest colleagues were deeply concerned about Credlin’s micro-management – which extended to over-ruling ministers’ staff appointments and travel arrangements – and the extent of her influence on the Prime Minister and the workings of government.

On top of these deeply and widely held concerns about Credlin’s power lust, rumours about the nature of Abbott and Credlin’s relationship, and their seemingly wilful fanning of it with their outlandish behaviour, was simply too much for a troubled government to bear.

It was of such concern that NSW Liberal Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells confronted Abbott about the rumours. As has been publicised, Fierravanti-Wells made this blunt assessment to her Prime Minister: “Politics is about perceptions. Rightly or wrongly, the perception is that you are sleeping with your chief of staff. That’s the perception, and you need to deal with it. I am here because I care about you, and I care about your family, and I feel I need to tell you the truth, the brutal truth. This is what your colleagues really think.”

It was a gutsy intervention, not one that would have been made lightly. Her counsel was of course ignored. Abbott did not sack Credlin; in fact nothing changed. Quite apart from the impact of this reckless relationship on his government, Abbott was also becoming a laughing stock in public over the relationship.

A widely circulated gif on social media in which Credlin could be seen making goo-goo eyes at her boss in the back seat of the prime ministerial car – and some none too subtle accompanying comments – would have confirmed Fierravanti-Wells’ worst fears.

Savva has been criticised for not putting these matters to Abbott and Credlin. But why would she? For the inevitable mealy-mouthed denials or explanations, or threats of legal action? Perhaps as a pro forma exercise she should have, but the book is no less revelatory or relevant for the lack of the protagonists’ input. In any case, it was well known for some time that Savva was writing the book; did they seek input? This was not an authorised account of the failed Abbott government. It was an exposé. And a well written, thoroughly researched one at that.

Of the many criticisms levelled at Savva, none has been about the accuracy of her account. It seems inconceivable that an account of the demise of the inept and dysfunctional Abbott government could have been written without delving into the principal architects of its disintegration; and when Savva delves, she delves.

The most fiery criticism of Savva has been over Credlin’s central role in the narrative. This was to be expected, although perhaps not its vehemence.

Previous media reports about Credlin’s divisive and destructive role as Abbott’s chief of staff also attracted the ire of feminists, so it’s not surprising that Savva’s book should come in for like condemnation. Throw in the matter of the alleged affair and Savva was guaranteed a hostile reaction from her sisters. Although she might not have anticipated the extent of the condemnation and accompanying accusations of betrayal of feminist ideals.

Fatuous feminism

But fiery feminism is not necessarily infallible feminism. In this case, fatuous comes closer to the mark (or marcia). One female critic, for example, sought to demonstrate that Savva was being sexist. She argued that despite the intense bond between former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his spin doctor Alastair Campbell, nobody accused them of having sex. Ergo, the only reason people were speculating about an affair in Canberra is because Credlin was a woman.

Well, yes.

Where does one begin with such absurd logic? I’m not aware of any sightings of Campbell feeding his boss forkfuls of cake that might have set some people wondering. But as it happens, the Blair-Campbell alliance was very much the subject of heated discussion, criticism and condemnation.

Criticisms of Campbell mirrored the concerns expressed about Credlin. He was criticised for having too much influence on Blair and government policy, more so than ministers in some cases. He was condemned for bastardising Westminster politics. Campbell’s influence was all the more egregious, critics argued, given that he was not an elected official. These are familiar criticisms in the context of Credlin’s time as Abbott’s chief of staff.

Critics have variously argued that the book’s focus on Credlin is another example of Australian society’s problem with powerful women, is “insulting to women everywhere” and will dissuade girls and young women from seeking positions of power or influence because they’re only going to be dragged down by an unreconstructed patriarchy.

Which is tosh. Savva, to state the bleeding obvious, is a woman, clearly a powerful one, and as tough as nails. She also knows the turf; not only as a veteran political journalist and commentator but as a former staffer to Peter Costello and John Howard. Far from being a negative influence she may even inspire a new generation of female political and investigative journalists.

Society is the better for the gains that have only come through feminist agitation and insistence. And there are more battles to be fought and won. But using the simplistic rationale that an attack on Credlin is an attack on all women is simply another way of saying that women should be beyond judgment or criticism.

Savva’s book does not posit that the problem with Credlin was her gender; the problem with Credlin was Credlin; and the problem with Abbott was very much Abbott. Savva’s book is about the  poisonous combination of Abbott and Credlin and their dysfunctional approach to government.

The critics presumably must know that the behaviour of Abbott and Credlin would not be tolerated in any Australian workplace. A male CEO patting his female associate’s arse (or vice versa) in view of others would almost certainly only end one way. A CEO who lets himself be fed at a restaurant table, have his hair brushed or tie straightened by said female associate would presumably be sending one and only one signal to all those watching agog at the table.

Quite apart from the power and influence wielded by Credlin and the inadequacies of Abbott as Prime Minister, there are norms of behaviour that must be observed, if not for the sake of decency, for the sake of professionalism.

The Abbott-Credlin relationship was unprofessional, wilful, self-indulgent, selfish, narcissistic, provocative and inevitably destructive. Savva has nothing to apologise for; but Tony Abbott and Peta Credlin most certainly owe their party, if not the people of Australia, a very big one.

 

 

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Elizabeth Proust’s warning should be heeded, but boardroom quota for women is not the answer

Elizabeth Proust, the new chairman of the Australian Institute of Company Directors, has expressed support for quotas for women on boards. This will come as a significant boost for quota activists. The AICD is as conservative as it is influential – its members include the most powerful board members in the country – so a nod from the institute on quotas carries some weight.

Carrying even more weight is the fact that the highly regarded Proust, a distinguished company director and chairman in her own right, is a long-time critic of quotas.

The AICD has actively campaigned for more women on boards – including the introduction of scholarship and mentoring programs – with some notable success, albeit at a rate that has fallen short of activists’ expectations.

Since 2009, the proportion of female directors on ASX200 company boards has grown from 8.3% to 21.5% at the end of November 2015. In 2009, women accounted for just 5% of new board appointments; this year it’s 34%. These are good figures, but it’s also true that 28 ASX200 companies have no women on their boards – so there is still work to be done.

With Proust joining the cause, it’s not just activists who are saying that progress is too slow.

“When I started my career in the 1970s I never imagined that we would still be having this conversation 40 years later and the fact there has been so little change over time leads me to think there needs to be some action,” she says.

“If three years from now we have still not managed to achieve at least 30% female directors on all ASX200 boards then quotas is something that has to be put on the table as an option.”

Proust’s advocacy of quotas as an option to be considered in 2018 is more a shot across the bow than a full embrace of quotas, but it’s a shift in rhetoric, if not yet policy, nonetheless.

As recently as April, AICD CEO John Brogden argued against quotas. Instead, the AICD set a target for ASX200 companies: 30% of board positions to be held by women by the end of 2018.

“We believe that the director community setting its own 30% target is a better approach than a mandated quota imposed by government,” Brogden says.

“We have always said that companies should set their own measurable targets for gender diversity and to facilitate their efforts we are now nominating a standard that we consider appropriate.”

This of course invites the question: “What happens if that target is not met?”

This is the question Elizabeth Proust has answered: if you don’t hit 30% by the end of 2018, expect the government to step in. Self-regulate, or be regulated.

Perhaps it’s a dose of realpolitik that needed to be injected into this debate. Proust has made her warning more in sorrow and frustration than in a fit of feminist fury.

But is government fiat the answer? Progress is slow, but it’s progress nonetheless. If the proportion of women on ASX200 boards was stuck on 10% the need for government intervention would be more clear-cut.

But seeking government intervention because progress is below ideal is no progress at all.

Quotas: a wall between the enlightened and unenlightened

The obstacles to equal representation for women on company boards is about attitudes and cultures.

What we have been observing in the past decade or two is a welcome change in corporate cultures and male attitudes. Women in positions of power may not be the norm, but nor are they uncommon.

Government-mandated boardroom quotas would build an immediate wall between the enlightened and the unenlightened, with the latter feeling little or no need to reconsider long-held views or behaviours when gender simply becomes a compliance issue.

It has been recognised in recent years that diversity is not an end goal in itself. Without real inclusion in an organisation, diversity is just a human palette. Having one, two or three women on a recalcitrant board will not necessarily make it any less masculine or myopic. In any case, there is nothing to stop a male-dominated board from choosing women in their own image – be it conscious or unconscious bias at work.

The overseas experience is that imposing more women on company boards does not translate into more management and executive opportunities for women in the company proper. Quotas offer no cultural dividend.

There is more to the equal representation of women on boards than numbers alone.

The cultural, attitudinal and behavioural impetus behind the growing proportion of women on ASX200 boards is as important as the numbers themselves.

There is a lot of tosh spoken when it comes to presenting the case for more women on boards, and the AICD’s John Brogden, well meaning as he may be, is just one of many to make the “undeniable case for gender diversity on boards”.

“It is not only the right thing to do but the smart thing to do, because it means better business performance,” Brogden says. “Numerous pieces of research demonstrate a positive link between the level of female representation on boards and improved corporate performance.”

These surveys do no such thing. They establish no causal link whatsoever between the number of women on boards and the performance of their companies. There may be a whole range of factors at play. It might very well be the case that successful companies are more open to diversity and present as more attractive for professional female directors.

Intuitively, it makes sense that an organisation which recruits and promotes the very best talent – and has the systems and practices in place to ensure that they do – will have a workforce and leadership that is genuinely diverse.

Arguing for the greater inclusion of women on boards because surveys say it’s better for business is statistical sophistry; it also implies that were these surveys to establish the opposite case that companies would be entitled to discriminate against women. It would be equally spurious to point to a wayward chairman who is female, or a slapdash board that includes two or three women, and deduce that female directors are poison.

Female directors are neither silver bullets nor innately illsuited for governance responsibilities.

We don’t need bogus surveys

There is no need to invent reasons for the inclusion of more women on company boards and senior management positions: women are entitled to the same career opportunities as men, women are entitled to be as ambitious as men, women are entitled to work in an environment that does not present barriers to progress and fulfilment on the basis of their gender, and it is self-evident that the best and brightest women are as capable as the best and brightest men.

We do not need bogus surveys to tell us that the more diverse and inclusive a workforce and its management, the richer the pool of talent to choose from.

Accepting the case for quotas is simply raising the white flag in defeat. There would be nothing to celebrate were government to mandate quotas tomorrow.

Plainly, there are companies not giving women a fair go.

As Proust argues: “With the exception of engineering, women have been coming out of universities in roughly equal numbers as men in most disciplines for more than 25 years now so the argument there are not enough qualified women just doesn’t wash.”

The fact that women account for 20.5% not 30% of ASX200 positions is not reason to hoist the white flag. It is every reason to redouble efforts to make the case for change in corporate Australia, and to build on the success that has been achieved to date.

There has been much good work in this area. The AICD has done much of it, so has the ASX which in 2010 recommended that ASX-listed companies disclose in their annual reports achievements against gender objectives set by the board.

Organisations such as the UK-based 30% Club, which set up a chapter in Australia this year, prefer persuasion to mandatory quotas. The nub of their advocacy is that when women occupy 30% of positions on a board – presumably suitably qualified women – they are no longer novelty or token directors and are thus able to demonstrate their value.

One of the founders of The 30% Club in Australia, company director Patricia Cross, told Women’s Agenda in May:

“I have sat on seven listed boards and other government boards and when you have at least three women then gender ceases to be an issue but you get the benefit of diversity in thought around the table.”

Persuasion will make for a richer, more sustainable, diverse and inclusive corporate sector – with diversity hopefully not stopping at gender,

Writing for ANZ BlueNotes on December 15, after the Turnbull government brought down its innovation policy statement, Narelle Hooper, co-author of the book New Women, New Men, New Economy (Federation Press, 2015), makes a direct link between diversity and innovation:

“The most disruptive thing you can do for innovation is to mix things up on the people front. That means different genders, racial backgrounds, sexual orientations, ages, ways of thinking and disciplines. Diversity matters because the more different lenses you can bring to complex decision making and developing new products and services the less likely you are to get blindsided.”

The reasons for more women on company boards and in leadership positions is clear, although emphasis, focus and rhetoric may vary.

What is also clear is that the tide has turned. Change is happening. And if change is not happening quickly enough in Australia’s biggest companies, the rising generation of nimble, paradigm-busting digital businesses is setting a much brisker pace of workplace transformation that puts their bigger rivals on notice.

I get what Elizabeth Proust is saying: change, or have change imposed on you. One imagines she is hoping to put the fear of Government into some of her more wayward members. But quotas are neither necessary nor desirable.

There is no reason to assume that the 30% target cannot be reached by 2018. But if that is the thinking, then everyone who believes this is a fair and worthy target must simply work harder to achieve it.

Shame on us if we believe the only solution is a government-mandated quota.

The media’s role in driving workplace diversity: the risks and rewards of a sometimes rocky road

We’ve heard about the role of diversity in business, why it’s important and the strategies and challenges involved in seeking and managing a diverse workplace. But how well is that diversity reflected in the media? And what role does the media play – and what role should it play – in promoting and shedding light on the diversity agenda?

As journalists, it’s our job to hold a mirror to the business community and the nation’s workplaces. Our role is to challenge, to champion change – to act as a medium through which change is championed by others – to moderate and filter.

The media has been an agent of change for diversity. If you have any doubts about that, compare any of the daily newspapers through the decades and the differences will be stark – both in editorial and advertising content.

From the media’s perspective, however, seeking to reflect diversity can be fraught with unexpected pitfalls.

There are some senior women in business, for example, who flatly refuse to be interviewed about gender issues. They argue that there is more to being a successful woman in business than simply talking about women in business. They do not want to be seen through the prism of gender activism.

Diversity can be a sensitive topic, and occasionally in the eye of the beholder. One manager of Asian heritage told me of his annoyance at being asked by his company’s in-house communications team to be featured in a story about diversity. This man was a fourth-generation Australian and he resented being seen in that light.

In 1998, I was a staff writer with The Bulletin magazine and I covered what was dubbed “the Gutnick tapes” affair. The story involved the disclosure of taped telephone conversations in which employees of Melbourne stockbroking firm JB Were were heard to make anti-Semitic comments about businessman Joseph Gutnick and other Jewish investors.

My story examined the question: is there an undercurrent of anti-Semitism in Melbourne’s business community? I spoke to and featured comments from several Jewish community leaders and businessmen, and Gutnick himself.

The story won praise for shedding light on the contentious and uncomfortable issue of anti-Semitism; but it also attracted criticism, from members of the Jewish community, that the story might potentially fan anti-Semitic sentiment. These critics were basically arguing against rocking the boat. One Jewish leader who had become aware that I was writing the story contacted my editor to express his concern.

It’s important to write such stories, even when they may cause discomfort to some. Experience shows that lasting and substantive change doesn’t just happen. Discredited attitudes take root in silence and indifference.

Recently on my site I revisited the subject of anti-Semitism, which in recent years has assumed a much higher and more disturbing profile. To eradicate anti-Semitism it must be confronted, but it’s a subject that still causes great discomfort, within the Jewish community, and within the media itself.

When ‘the right thing’ is not so obvious

Sometimes the media can tie itself in knots in attempting to do the right thing.

A few years ago, an internal debate raged at a Fairfax magazine when it was proposed that magazine run a list of Asian directors on the boards of ASX 200 companies. The story was framed in the context of the Gillard government’s Asian Century whitepaper and its call for more Asian experience on company boards. Internal critics of the list argued that such a list was racist.

In the end a list was run, but it was limited to Asian-born directors on the top 100 boards – that is, not the original list which would have also included Australian-born Asians. This distinction, it was felt, removed any racist overtones.

BRW magazine used to run several very popular lists throughout the year: the top entrepreneurs, the fastest 100 growing companies, the leading franchises, the best companies to work for… and so on.

With each ranking came the usual complaints: why aren’t there more women on these lists? The answer was simple: these lists were dependent on individuals and businesses nominating themselves: but relatively few women did, even when they received a prod from us to do so.

In 2012, I wrote a cover story for BRW about Carolyn Creswell, the woman behind the hugely successful Carman’s range of muesli products. Carolyn is a very warm, very successful entrepreneur who many women – men and women, but certainly women – find inspirational. Even so, I wasn’t really surprised when we started receiving letters from readers complaining that it was typical that a “male-centric magazine” like BRW should feature an attractive woman on the cover. (At the time, the editor of this “male-centric” magazine was Kate Mills.)

It’s just a fact of life that you can’t please all of the readers all of the time. Editorial judgment doesn’t get side-tracked by that kind of criticism. But it can be tricky terrain.

Most prominent women in business would assert that the business media is sexist.

Melbourne company director Carol Schwartz is perhaps the most vocal critic of the business media for being dominated by male editors, male journalists and male businessmen. I just don’t think that’s true anymore.

Overall, I believe we are seeing more female bylines and more ethnically diverse bylines, and we are seeing more women and non-Anglo people in the business media.

But it does raise the question: How far should the media go in ensuring diversity is well represented in its content?

When I write a feature on a particular topic I will start by working on a list of sources. Some will come from my own network or knowledge of the subject matter, but in many cases I will also cast the net with PR contacts for someone or some business that may fit the bill.

Thinking outside the diversity square

My priority here is to find a relevant contact, but it’s also a way of ensuring that my stories don’t comprise the usual suspects. When I send out the call for potential contacts, I don’t stipulate that diversity be a consideration: my interest is in finding the most appropriate contacts. But the PRs I approach are free to think a little bit outside the diversity square in who they nominate.

In most cases, that contact list will be a diverse grouping, reflective of the wider community. But it won’t always be the case; and even so it may well transpire that the women or non-Anglos on the list may not be available, or interested or necessarily be right for the story.

The view that there is an institutional gender or cultural bias in the media is wrong. Editors, by and large, are very much attuned to the issue. Diversity is something that most editors are conscious of – as one of the many aspects of a publication that must be considered in producing the best possible product.

At BRW, in recent years, there were conscious efforts to get more women in the magazine. A couple of years ago, BRW editor James Thomson – now companies editor at the Financial Review – dedicated an entire issue of the magazine to women to coincide with International Women’s Day. It was a landmark issue.

Also at BRW, to overcome the male-dominated, self-nominated lists, we introduced lists such as the ’30 richest self-made women’, which was based on our research, rather than relying on self-nominees.

But how far should the media go in ensuring diversity in their publications? In the United States in November last year, Bloomberg took the radical step of introducing a “quota for quotes”. Now retired editor-in-chief Matthew Winkler issued this directive: “All Bloomberg News [stories] must include at least one woman’s voice, and preferably a balance of men and women. Women are engaged in every topic we cover. Our journalism should reflect that variety.”

I can’t see it working, nor do I think such hard and fast rules are desirable. Journalistic red tape is not the answer. And if a quota for female voices is desirable, why not for other groups? That said, I certainly understand the motivation.

Journalists have a critical role in promoting diversity – in many respects simply by doing their jobs professionally rather than taking on the mantle of social activists. Communication practitioners, too, can promote diversity in and through the media.

Most journalists are interested in writing stories that are relevant, accurate and engaging, which necessarily means reflecting their audience and the wider community; and most journalists, I believe, are interested in being socially responsible.

How corporate comms can promote diversity

Communication professionals – whether in-house or external media advisers – can play an active part in advancing the diversity agenda:

01 For communications professionals who want to promote diversity in the media: I will start with this very basic but fundamental advice – understand the media, understand the role of the journalist, understand what is news and what is newsworthy, and always consider your pitch not simply in terms of what’s ideal coverage for your organisation, but what fits the interests and audience of a particular journalist and his or her publication.

02 When pitching a diversity-based story – for example, how a company has implemented diversity management targets – think beyond the HR director as the media contact, avoid diversity jargon, and try not to take the high moral ground. Provide meaningful data, illustrate how the program has worked, provide names and details of people who have benefited from the program, and convince your CEO to be prepared to talk about the program and the value of diversity to his or her organisation.

03 When issuing media releases, provide alternate contacts, even if they don’t feature in the body of the release, to provide journalists with optional contacts that reflect the diversity of your organisation.

04 When arranging speakers for your own conferences, or providing speakers for external conferences, be mindful of the opportunity to promote diversity through your choice of speaker.

05 Compile contact lists for journalists that reflect the diversity of your organisation. A directory is one option, but also consider tailoring a less expansive list to the particular interests of a journalist, with maybe half a dozen contacts. If you’re targeting a writer who specialises in workplace issues, tailor a list accordingly – it may be the chairs of in-house diversity, cultural or LGBT committees, for example, or a list of employees who have won awards or have some special achievement. You can issue a fresh list every month or quarter. Journalists will keep the names they want for their own contact books.

06 Various organisations compile media contact or speaker lists; these are usually for women in business, such as the Women’s Leadership Institute which compiles a Women for Media Database. Encourage notable women in your organisation to be on those lists. If your organisation is part of an industry association, consider the creation of an industry-wide database of contacts.

07 If you’re not already part of the content marketing revolution, becoming your own publisher is an ideal way to promote the diversity of your organisation with key stakeholders, including the media. ANZ BlueNotes is a perfect example.

This is an edited transcript of a presentation to the International Association of Business Communicators (Vic) forum, ‘Driving the Diversity Agenda’, Melbourne, 18 March 2015.

Kings Cross rapist Luke Lazarus was sent to prison for just 3 years: when are we going to get serious about this most horrific of crimes against women?

Convicted rapist Luke Lazarus, the son of a Sydney nightclub owner, was recently sentenced to a maximum of five years’ gaol for raping a teenage girl in a Kings Cross alley. Lazarus will be eligible for release after just three years. When a convicted rapist is sentenced to three to five years’ gaol, something is very, very wrong.

This is not another “tough on crime” tub-thump. This is specifically about rape and how it is viewed by society. What the Lazarus case demonstrated with unmistakable clarity is society’s untroubled view of rape; a view which neither accords with the horror of the crime, nor with the shameful reality that women continue to be preyed upon by men as a matter of entitlement and power lust.

The refusal to confront the horror and prevalence of rape is in great part a gender issue, a manifestation of some men’s ingrained view of women. It is also a much wider social and cultural issue. Men who have a less than enlightened view of women are given sanction by social and cultural norms that remain tolerant of aggressive male behaviour towards women.

The continued endemic incidence of rape is a manifestation of a society that – irrespective of whatever progress has been made towards equality of the sexes – condones a level of risk that women must endure simply and precisely because they are women. That is, there is a price attached to being a woman, which can be an ostensibly benign wolf-whistle at one end of the spectrum, and rape (and murder) at the other extreme.

We know that society is sickened by rape-murder cases. Recent incidents, which need not be reprised here, galvanise communities in grief, sorrow and even guilt like few other crimes of savagery do. But when it comes to rape itself, somehow a completely different set of values applies.

There was upset expressed when a stand-up comedian recently made a joke about rape, but it came to no more than a social media brush fire, with arguments for and against the comedian’s right to tell the joke (such as it was).

In the 1960s comedians could tell jokes about rape without raising a murmur; casual references to rape would feature in TV and film dialogue with impunity. In these instances “rape” is used as another word for “sex”, albeit understood to be forceful or meeting with resistance, but ultimately framed in the self-serving mythology that “no really means yes”. Such sanguine references to rape carry the understanding that women deserve and/or come to enjoy it.

The use of the word “rape” in its sanitised form, and the stylised depiction of it, has hardly disappeared. It is still to be found in all forms of popular culture: in film, music and advertising, on television and social media, and comedians’ routines. Since the rise of the feminist movement in the 1970s, however, it’s more likely to meet with condemnation when it is encountered. Hopefully by men and women. I still hear the word used in the most cavalier – and blokey – way and it shocks me.

A failure to confront the horror of rape

Feminist theory calls this “rape culture”, a social conditioning or normalisation of rape perpetuated by language, stereotyped gender roles and male attitudes towards women, and the popular portrayal of women. But it doesn’t require feminist dogma to understand that as a society we have yet to fully confront the horror and prevalence of rape, which brings us back to the Luke Lazarus case.

Lazarus, 23, was in his father’s King Cross night club, the Soho, in the early hours of the morning, when he approached the 18-year-old woman on the dance floor, told her he owned the club and invited her to the VIP area. He led her outside – she willingly accompanied Lazarus – and they kissed. At this point the woman said she wanted to return to her friend inside, whereupon Lazarus pulled her stockings and skirt down, ignored a second plea to be allowed to leave, and ordered the terrified woman to “Put your fucking hands on the wall.” (Try to imagine the overwhelming terror felt by the young woman at this point, alone and in a dark alley.) Lazarus then told her to get on her hands and knees and ordered her to “arch your back”. He then anally raped her, deaf to her plea that she was a virgin. The ordeal lasted around 10 minutes. The next day Lazarus would boast to a friend by text message that he “took a chick’s virginity”.

District Court Judge Sarah Huggett described the attack as “spontaneous and opportunistic”. Opportunistic I can begin to understand, but spontaneous? I find it difficult to fathom rape as a spontaneous act; it strikes me as a very deliberate, calculated and debased assault. It is an act that reeks of power, entitlement and callous indifference. Lazarus claimed the woman was a willing participant because she didn’t physically resist or scream. “I still 100% state that I believe everything that happened on that night was consensual.” The traditional defence: she wanted it.

Judge Huggett dealt forcefully with that canard: “She [the victim] had the right to go to Kings Cross, to be intoxicated, to kiss a man. She also had the right to say she wanted to return to her friend. The offender ignored that.”

The Lazarus case underlines that sentences imposed on convicted rapists – or available to judges – are too lenient and wholly at odds with the horror of this vicious crime. Can there be a more debased and destructive assault on someone that stops so short of taking that person’s life? As the victim said in this case: “A part of me died that day.”

It simply should not be possible for a convicted rapist to be sentenced to 3-5 years. Such a sentence says to society that rape, while serious, is just an inevitable part of life. “What are you gonna do? Boys will be boys.”

At the sentencing hearing references were heard in support of Lazarus’ “good character” and urging the judge not to impose a custodial sentence. These testimonials likewise reflected society’s ambivalent attitude towards rape.

Can a rapist be of good character?

These were leading citizens who spoke for Lazarus: Waverley Mayor Sally Betts, the secretary of the Consulate-General of Greece in Brisbane Tsambico Athanasas, Bank of Sydney chairman Nick Pappas and Greek Orthodox parish priest Fr Gerasimos Koutsouras.

But it is precisely because of the standing and good reputation of these community leaders that the impact of their testimonials gives cause for concern.

Their comments were doubtlessly made in good faith and with evident affection for Lazarus and his family. But in speaking for Lazarus in such high terms they, however inadvertently, undermined the suffering and torment of the victim, and the gravity of the crime itself.

Ms Betts urged Judge Huggett not to gaol Lazarus. “The conviction is inconsistent with the gentle, well mannered and respectful young man that I know.” Quite apart from the obvious that she plainly did not know him as well as she thought, one can only wonder what the mayor’s female constituency made of her plea that a convicted rapist be spared a prison sentence.

Fr Koutsouras declared: “The possibility of imprisonment is completely undeserved for this promising young man.” It is hard to fathom that a man of God would state a belief that imprisonment is “undeserved” in the case of a convicted rapist.

Dr Pappas, a lawyer and respected businessman, said of Lazarus: “I have always observed him to be a respectful, courteous and obliging young man who has, on my observation, never displayed even a hint of unlawfulness in his conduct.”

The conviction, of course, reflected not the pious Lazarus that his referees had occasion to know, but the swaggering rapist who on 12 May 2013 committed an act of utter depravity on an 18 year old girl whose life will never be the same again.

At issue is not the integrity or honour of these community leaders called on to speak for the reputation of Luke Lazarus. The issue is that in doing so they have sent out ambivalent signals about rape as a serious crime.

Why the justice system even permits this roll call of testimonials in the case of rape is beyond understanding. This is not the robbery of a 7-11 convenience store. This is about an angry, aggressive and arrogant young man who felt entitled to defile a young woman he had plucked from the dance floor with that very intention.

Given that a conviction has been made, having leading citizens speak glowingly of the convicted rapist is in effect, however unintentionally, saying to the victim: “Sorry about that little fracas at the Soho, but Luke is really a good kid.”

Those who spoke for Lazarus would have done well to consider that their words may have brought comfort to his family, but also hurt and insult to the family of the victim. They will have caused confusion and anger in the community, and in some cases given succour to those men of who might be wondering what all the fuss is about.

Rape is not only a crime against one individual, it is a crime against all women, and it is a crime against society.

Sentences for rape should reflect the depravity and life-long impact of the crime; they should send a message loud and clear that there are no grey areas when it comes to rape.

The sentencing process, where such testimonials are permitted, should reflect on the hurt such glowing tributes bring to the victim, and the message they send out to the community. Those who would speak glowingly of convicted rapists may wish to reflect on the wider impact of their statements.

As for the self-pitying Lazarus: “My life, at least in Australia, has been completely destroyed and now I have to live the rest of my life knowing every single person in Australia, or at least Sydney, knows I have been convicted of a sex offence.”

Not just “a sex offence”, mate. Rape.

No more tinkering around the edges: time for a royal commission into violence against women

When Julia Gillard announced the royal commission into child sex abuse in November 2012, it was a decisive and historic moment in the life of her troubled government, and long-overdue formal acknowledgement of the horrific suffering endured by thousands of defenceless children. The royal commission will be remembered as one of Gillard’s greatest legacies.

Like most royal commissions, this one had a somewhat ungainly title: the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. But it makes sense. The commission isn’t just collecting harrowing stories – albeit an essential function; it is also “investigating how institutions like schools, churches, sports clubs and government organisations have responded to allegations and instances of child sexual abuse”.

Crucially, “It is the job of the Royal Commission to uncover where systems have failed to protect children so it can make recommendations on how to improve laws, policies and practices.”

Taking the lead of this landmark commission, it is time for another long overdue royal commission: a royal commission into institutional responses to violence against women.

On 17 May 2014, Victoria’s Leader of the Opposition, Daniel Andrews, announced that a Victorian Labor Government would establish a Royal Commission into Family Violence. This was a welcome call and reflected deep community unease over a spate of heartbreaking examples of this scourge.

But we need more, and Australian women in particular need more. Women are victims of unspeakable violence in the family home, but violence against women is a society-wide blight that seems deeply ingrained in our culture. Any inquiry must delve more deeply into violence against women, not just in the family home, and any response must be a national response.

I can anticipate the reaction to such a call; I might have made it myself once: why a royal commission into violence against women only? If such an inquiry were necessary, why not into violence against men and women?

Because the violence I have in mind is not random violence in which the gender of the victim is incidental. It is violence – sexual, physical, mental – which specifically targets women, committed through a sense of entitlement, superiority or right by some men.

It is violence (very often family violence) which considers women a possession, a spoil or prey. It is violence predicated on a sense of superiority, power and conquest. It is a violence as old as time itself, and which despite every progress by humankind, remains an evil undiminished.

Simply and only because they are women

Yes, anyone can walk down a dark, isolated street at night, jog through the park in the early hours of the morning, wait alone at a bus stop at dusk, or pass a mob of drunks in a club district, and be robbed, bashed or harried.

But only women are targeted simply and only because they are women.

Only women are subjected to assault and physical violence by male partners who feel this is a legitimate – even natural – expression of power, entitlement and manly authority. Only women face sexual harassment in the workplace because some men consider them available fruit; only women must fend off the unwanted advances of men who believe that buying them a drink or dinner entitles them to just reward; only women walk a lonely street or secluded pathway and wonder if this will be the night that a stranger will consider it his right to claim her body and possibly her life.

Women are enjoying unprecedented and overdue freedoms, opportunities and recognition. This is a testament to those feminist activists who over generations have demanded their rights, and also to the ability of societies to adapt to changing times and attitudes.

But women know there is much more to be done and that progress is often illusory; women know that entrenched attitudes, norms and laws that disadvantage them and them alone remain; women know that being a woman, even in 2014, is enough to expose them to danger.

The very fact that the unspeakable crime of rape persists to the extent that it does is society’s shame. That women continue to be victims of violence in the family home demonstrates that age-old power relationships remain undiminished and too little challenged. That women feel unsafe and vulnerable in a whole range of settings and circumstances that would not trouble a man reveal fundamental flaws in a society that considers itself refined, enlightened and fair-minded.

This is not a sudden and dramatic awakening of my inner feminist. The sisterhood and I have many points of disagreement, and on the corporate front I’ve written against boardroom quotas for women, “panel pledges” and the existence of the glass ceiling. But such matters are on the edges of this discussion.

Indeed, when a male CEO stands up and declares his support for the Panel Pledge – promising not to participate in any conference panel that does not include a woman – there are congratulations all round about the wonderful advances women are making in society.

“This is not the kind of society I want to live in”

But in the real world, too many women are finding that too little has changed.

When I hear of the latest Jill Meagher (the Melbourne woman who was raped and murdered, her final moments before meeting her predator captured on CCTV) or Rosie Batty (whose 11 year old son Luke was killed by her estranged husband), my heart breaks and I think, “This is not the kind of society I want to live in, it’s not the kind of society women should be living in: why are we letting these women down like this?”

Whenever one of these tragedies occur there’s a spontaneous community call for action and a flurry of activity ensues: governments vow to toughen sentences, police promise to overhaul internal processes, government departments appoint task forces to improve communication between agencies, newspapers launch campaigns.

But this is just tweaking around the edges, and somehow, no matter how genuine or well intentioned these responses are, nothing seems to change.

A national royal commission into institutional responses to violence against women is the best hope of achieving meaningful systemic change across all jurisdictions and instrumentalities. To adapt the wording quoted above, the job of the royal commission would be to “uncover where systems have failed to protect women so it can make recommendations on how to improve laws, policies and practices.”

It would hopefully make state and federal governments obsessed with “efficiency dividends” think twice before cutting funding for women’s shelters, community programs, police forces, judicial systems and legal aid services.

A modern, liberal and wealthy society such as Australia should find it intolerable that violence against women continues so endemically and habitually. Something is desperately wrong. We need to understand why violence against women occurs, how we as a society respond to it, and how we can more effectively act to stamp out this blight on our community, and in the meantime better protect those women who are its victims. Only a royal commission can place us on this path.