by Stephen Scott
5 May, 2021
Even ten-year-olds on the netball court can’t escape the tyranny of power.
On April 30, the ABC reported the story of a young girl who, in 2018, was brought to tears listening to MP Dr Andrew Laming tell her mother that he makes the rules, he makes the laws, and so he can do whatever he wants, wherever he wants. According to the mother, she reminded Dr Laming that he would likely need a permit to be filming a netball game when he insisted that his position as a Federal MP meant that he could do whatever he wanted.
The structure of this story is starting to sound very familiar.
Dr Andrew Laming, the Federal MP for the Queensland seat of Bowman can’t escape a day in the headlines at the moment. His documented history of bullying his own constituents, both in person and online, has led to the LNP disendorsing him, and the Prime Minister recommending that he take medical leave to undergo empathy training.
I firmly believe that everyone deserves a second chance and that everyone deserves the help of their superiors. In a world where stories like Dr Laming’s are few and far between, maybe this would be an indication that the leader of Australia was demonstrating a heretofore unseen level of understanding and compassion for those who serve under him.
However, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to me that the standards in the highest offices of Australia should be just a little bit higher. I recognise that everybody makes mistakes, and that the opportunity to learn from them is really the only thing that makes them useful (and indeed, makes them even more useful than getting things right all the time). In Ethics Trump Power, I recount the story of a young man I met while working at the Royal Australian Air Force College.
The young man was a gifted pilot who wouldn’t respond to authority, and he was on thin ice by the time his case was handed to me: his superiors saw no hope for him and wanted him out. The natural human inclination to always search for faults leads us to, naturally, find nothing but faults. Making an effort to approach the troubled young pilot’s situation from a place of compassion showed me that circumventing the brain’s confirmation bias can lead to productive results if we try hard enough. The young man went on to become a highly successful pilot after graduation, evacuating soldiers from combat zones in the Middle East, and proving that his natural talent did not have to be wasted because of some behavioural mistakes.
However, Dr Laming’s mistakes are frequent. When one makes a mistake, is publicly reprimanded for it, publicly apologises for it, and then does it again immediately, the rest of us are left to wonder if the mistake was the action itself, or if getting caught and called out is the only thing that went wrong.
And as I say, Dr Laming is not in training. He’s not new. When you are a member of the body that governs an entire country, the margin for error must be much slimmer than almost anywhere else. Saying the wrong thing under stress is one thing, but being advised by the Prime Minister to take medical leave to undertake empathy training is something else entirely.
We could all do with some empathy training.
Empathy, at times, is difficult, especially when the stakes are high, as they most certainly are for men and women in jobs like the one Dr Laming holds. But if someone scores so poorly on the empathy front that the leader of the nation advises you to get some training, there might be other issues at hand.
Once again, I want to stress that this could be a great learning experience for Dr Laming. What an incredible story it would be for him to step away from the limelight as a public nuisance, and to return in time as a more measured, empathetic leader, ready and willing to make up for his mistakes and regain the trust of his constituents.
According to another ABC report, “The Prime Minister indicated he would not expel Dr Laming from the party, nor ask him to resign, which would trigger a by-election in the south Queensland electorate.”
Of course, the wording here is that of the news outlet, and not Prime Minister Scott Morrison himself, but the sentiment is hard to dispel: Dr Laming is a publicity nightmare for the LNP, to such a point that they have dis-endorsed him, and yet Mr Morrison expects him “to continue to represent his constituents until the next election.” The phrasing here denotes responsibility, an acknowledgement that the job is not done until the next election. Indeed, but now the job is to be done by a man who has been dis- endorsed by his own party: Mr Morrison is insisting that a man his party no longer believes in should carry out the rest of his term.
Furthermore, my last article urged the Prime Minister to take more responsibility as a leader, especially when it comes to the treatment of women, and the controversy surrounding Dr Laming is, if not the same story, at least has the same flavour.
According to the ABC, “More women are speaking out about the alleged behaviour of controversial government MP, Andrew Laming, saying it made them feel uncomfortable… One academic says he made her feel uncomfortable on a domestic flight and another woman says Dr Laming persistently asked local female staff on an overseas delegation for their phone numbers.”
The exact nature of Dr Laming’s misogynistic behaviour might be an unfortunate coincidence: it’s likely that he would be excused for almost anything at this point if it means avoiding a by-election, but that coincidence, if it is that, should instead serve as an opportunity for the Prime Minister.
He has been dragged through the mud for his response to Brittany Higgins’s story, and expelling a man like Dr Laming could have served as Mr Morrison’s first step towards retribution. Expelling a man who consistently displays misogynistic behaviour, even though his expulsion would lead to a by-election,
would have sent a crystal clear message from the head office of Australia: this behaviour is not tolerated, even at the expense of political safety for those in power.
Alas, this is not the case. Mr Morrison is withholding the right of the Australian public to choose their leaders. Mr Morrison is leading from a place of fear, clinging to power at the expense of ethics.
This is incredibly disappointing, but I don’t write this simply to express disappointment. I don’t write – or do anything – simply to complain. Instead, once again, this is a call to action. The first three Disciplines in Ethics Trump Power are:
Be Your Best Self
Take the Lead
The disciplines begin with the individual for a reason. Leadership is action. Good leadership is about taking the right action, and only the individual can take that action. But that is not an excuse to turn away from big, seemingly shapeless issues like those in Parliament House.
Your action could be like mine here: write and talk openly about the issue. Own and share a devotion to ethical leadership. But just as powerful as spreading the word is living the word. If we as Australians, and as teachers, managers, principals, business owners and everything in between, make a commitment to living and leading ethically, behaviour like Dr Laming’s will become more and more the exception, and free passes for men like him from men like Scott Morrison will eventually become impossible.