dyson-heydon
Former High Court judge Dyson Heydon (Image: AAP/Joel Carrett)

Here we go again.

Forgive me if I find it difficult to get too hopeful about major reform, or even belated recognition, of the sexual harassment issue in our judicial system after the sensational revelations against former High Court judge Dyson Heydon.

My cynicism could be based on over 30 years of watching the evolution of sexual harassment laws in this county only to end up not much further along even in the supposed enlightened Me Too era.

And it’s not just here. It has been 29 years since the world was gripped by the sexual harassment allegations against potential US Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas by one of his former employees, a young woman called Anita Hill.

Fast forward to today and Thomas is now the most senior judge on the US Supreme Court, while the senator who oversaw the hearings which might have stopped him is running for president.

Joe Biden recently apologised for not doing enough to support Hill at the time. He’s lucky there’s no cancel culture there and he’s apparently been able to redeem himself.

It was only two years ago the US went through another bruising Supreme Court nomination process involving allegations of sexism and misogynistic behaviour against Brett Kavanaugh. He won.

We in Australia used to think we were above such sleazy partisan battles. Think again.

Thanks to Australia’s 70 year age limit for High Court judges, two positions will become vacant in the next year including one of the female justices.

The jockeying for position is always keen, but in recent months the political aspect has been gaining traction, and now, you would think, the whole gender issue might play a part.

Not if you read a lengthy piece in The Australian Financial Review by Aaron Patrick yesterday detailing the current frontrunners for the position headlined “Epic struggle for the High Court”.

It was a timely and telling piece on the boys club atmosphere that pervades the top echelons of our legal and judicial fraternity.

Candidates are judged not just on their competence but their social and networking skills. Nothing new there. However there was an increasing emphasis on political supporters and a noticeable lack of gender awareness.

The main reference to the two current female High Court judges quoted a male QC who disparagingly referred to them as “alpha females’ and added for good measure “they both can be difficult”.

The momentous claims against former High Court judge Heydon received only a passing mention as a scandal that “will increase the already acute political sensitivity about selection of the judges”.

You reckon?

Later we hear of the virtues of another popular candidate from NSW, one Andrew Bell whose main claim to fame, according to the article, was that “in 2017 he conducted the case against Amber Harrison, a Seven West Media secretary who had an affair with the CEO and published their private messages. Bell was so effective that Harrison eventually fired her lawyers and didn’t bother offering evidence in her defence”.

No mention of the words sexual harassment there — and why would you when you’re lauded for demolishing a young woman’s case against her powerful boss.

As the conservatives relish the prospect of a Morrison government getting to “tilt” the court in coming months, it remains to be seen whether we’re that much better than the US after all.

After all it will be politicians who get to decide and it was only two years ago that former PM Malcolm Turnbull was forced to employ the notorious “bonking ban” in response to Barnaby Joyce’s workplace relationship.

Turnbull talked of the power imbalance and right wing media railed at the prospect of an avalanche of salacious stories on pollies private lives.

Didn’t happen. Either they’ve all stopped bonking each other or nothing changed.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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