Where Do We Draw The Line?

In the wake of John Alexander’s gaffe from decades ago, Turnbull is clearly right, but it did leave me thinking: where is the line drawn?

They are revelations that make headlines, and deservedly so. Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and many others are now infamous. The reality is we have only seen the tip of the iceberg. There are many others we don’t hear about at a tine when allegations are seemingly enough to warrant public condemnation. Public opinion sways reputation.

This week, John Alexander, the incumbant Liberal candidate for the Sydney seat of Bennelong, apologised over crude jokes he made 22 years ago which sought to make light of racism and rape. Hilarious stuff, right?…

Framing the apology, Malcolm Turnbull said “statements like that, whether they’re intended as jokes or not, are completely and utterly unacceptable.” He went on to say that “there is no place for joking about violence against women.

There is no question racism is intolerable and unacceptable. So too with violence against women. This is a matter of common decency and meeting the expectations of behaving appropriately.

Turnbull is clearly right, but it did leave me thinking: where is the line drawn?

It took me back to an event in 2006 when I remembered attending a function in Sydney which coincidently was held on the evening of the funeral for Private Jake Kovko, an Australia non-battle casualty while deployed in Iraq.

On that evening I was attending a function, and to get there I stepped into a elevator inside which were a number of flunkies, along with the recently appointed parliamentary secretary who they were fawning over. Out of respect for Private Kovko I was wearing my ‘Returned From Active Service’ badge, issued to veterans who had returned from warlike service.

I knew the politician, but none of the flunkies. He seemed to find amusement in entertaining the others with a cheap joke by asking me how did he know I had really been in the military. I found it unamusing.

I pointed to my badge, and said because of that. One of them piped up with a lame retort seeking to amuse his now-giggling peers. The elevator doors opened, and I exited. It wasn’t worth my time to discuss further.

I was serving at the time, on leave from the Army, and drawing a salary from Defence. The politicians question was an offensive remark, and disrespectful.

Maybe half and hour later, I was standing in a group, talking. The politician again bounded up, and repeated his one-line joke from before, clearly pleased with his gag. “How do we really know you served in the military?”

I responded saying I wasn’t amused, and walked off.

Later, as I departed the event, I went across to this politician to say goodnight who was at that moment standing alone. I had earlier applied for a policy advisor role which had been advertised on his staff, and had later found the job had been awarded to someone else. I explained to him I was disappointed not to have received notification of the outcome.

His response showed a lack of concern. “Maybe we didn’t receive it” he said, speaking of my application. I explained I had delivered it by hand. “Maybe we lost it” he replied, and I explained that a telephone call with his staff assured me it was received. Other dismissive reasons came, but with no responsibility.

I didn’t mention his cheap jokes from before, but by this stage was fed up. Through his comments and attitude to me, he showed a complete lack of respect for those who had served in the military, and no regard for veterans.

And this is where it is important to ask where do we draw the line. During the Centenary of Anzac, such gags would be entirely unacceptable, especially from a politician who was a member of the government. Similarly, John Alexander’s comments were from an informal social event decades prior. Turnbull’s comments stand: it is not a question of then and now. Unacceptable is unacceptable.

But where is that line? I’m not suggesting that veterans are on some pedestal. At a time when there is so much emphasis placed on military service, and the effort to which politicians will lay wreaths to ensure their photos get seen on social media, is it right that this joke dismissed my military service at my expense. Was that wrong?

What happened next begs belief.

The politician grew impatient with my questions, which by now sought some form of apology from him. He remarked “right then, let’s sort this out!” violently grabbing my upper arm fiercely and frogmarching me through the crowded room to the outside courtyard. On the way, he collected one of his flunkies also directing him to come along.

I am no pushover. I’m physically strong as well as having a good degree of self-defence training. I could have easily escaped the tight grip on my upper arm or resisted his direction. But I thought it best not to make a scene. I was by then curious as to where this was all heading.

Arriving on the dimly lit courtyard, the politician directed his flunky to explain to me the facts of the matter. His flunky was bewildered and speechless, having no context to answer the question. I waited not a second longer, and proceeded to berate both the politician and the flunky. With what is commonly referred to as a ‘rocket’, I made it plainly clear how completely inappropriate the proceedings had been.

About two minutes into the dressing down I was delivering, the politician fled to the safety of a nearby couple of dowagers. I finished what I had to say to the hapless flunky, and then turned to go inside and leave.

Passing by the politician inside, he meekly asked if everything was resolved. I replied no. Since that time, no apology has been received from the politician who is still serving in the Australian parliament.

As a White Ribbon Ambassador myself, I’m not suggesting that this event was the same as violence against women. But it does lead to examining what is appropriate and what we as a community ought to tolerate.

Let me ask you again: where do we draw the line? Do I just suck this up? Or are the jokes and violence that were meted out that night by a politician deserving of further attention, as has been the case with the gags of John Alexander from the 1990s?

What would you do?