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Quality v equality: Going the way of the dinosaurs in our ever-more-perfect world

Opinion

In our growing quest to be perfectly fair to all concerned, are we in danger of forgetting the things we’re really good at, asks Michael Blucher.

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Just the second month of the year, and there’s already been plenty come hurtling across the desk, a lot of it, it must be said, at some level bewildering.

January kicked off with a story about a bloke I know well, a bloke who’s been a junior school teacher for in excess of 40 years. Every kid’s favourite “sir”, admired near and far, even by blokes who are now nudging 50.

Apparently he said something “inappropriate” in a staff meeting, some trifling, immature, throw-away line to lighten the mood. Got it wrong. Apologised.

A young female teacher who has been at the school for eight minutes, however, took offence. Demanded action be taken.

As a consequence, old Mr Chalk is basically back “on probation”, his 40- plus years of outstanding service accounting for next to nothing.

Yep. Got to watch what you say in 2021. Best not to open your mouth. Ever.

Another long-serving educator – again impeccable record and reputation – took a group of Year 6 students away on a short school camp. On his watch, one of the younger staff members at the “venue” apparently made an inappropriate comment to one of his students – a 12-year-old girl.

She reported it. He investigated it, confirmed it had happened, and fed it back to the school board. He’s been under investigation ever since – apparently didn’t fulfil his obligation in keeping adolescents in his care sufficiently safe.

Note to self: resist any temptation to make a later-in-life foray into education. Not any easy space in the current “climate”.

Nor, would it seem, is the professional services sector. A senior partner of an eastern seaboard law firm speaks of the opportunity to place a young lawyer on a three-month secondment interstate. A female associate put up her hand. The client came back, stipulating they would prefer a male – the “secondee” would be working with a team of six women. That would make sense – a bit of balance. Dare we use the word “diversity”?

Granted, the matter wasn’t particularly well handled – poor communication at a number of levels, but the associate had now filed a complaint on the grounds of “sexual discrimination”. The fact that there’s six women in “the cell” already – and no men – you’d think would have been sufficient evidence of “nothing to see here, folks”. Apparently not.

We’ll watch where that one finishes up. I’m guessing it’s not going to be pretty.

Week three, over in thrill-a-minute engineering land, I hear of a covering letter the principal of a multi-disciplinary firm received, outlining details of a tender process they were contemplating entering.

The letter stipulated that to be considered, tender applications would need to “reflect the diversity of modern-day Australian society” – in other words, your nominated team should include most if not all of the following – members of the LGBT community, Muslims, Christians, Indigenous folk, a team member with a disability …

I’m paraphrasing of course, but the ground rules were abundantly clear.

Boss man deleted the email from in his inbox. “What chance are we?” he said despondently. “There’s nothing more male-pale-and-stale than engineering. Boring blokes in brown safari suits – good at physics, not so good at human interaction. We’d welcome any level of diversity, but try finding somebody who ticks a different box. You can’t.”

Yes – it seems that’s where we’re heading, at an increasingly dangerous speed.

Nobody in their right mind is suggesting that the working world has been perfect – even close to perfect – in the past.

All sane and fair-minded people acknowledge that working women, in particular, have been treated appallingly, deprived opportunity, promotion, equal pay and goodness knows what else, for reasons that are far too complex to properly explore here.

In some organisations this gender bias still looms large. I’m aware of one mega-powerful Australian businessman who still refuses point blank to be in a boardroom with women. And without wanting to be a party pooper, It’s safe to predict these small pockets of workplace purgatory will persist for a decade or more to come, until the remaining dinosaurs die off.

Putting that to one side, credible and ethical business people I talk to point to a tangential problem.

In our eagerness to right the obvious wrongs, identity is now rapidly assuming the place that should clearly be occupied by competency.

Instead of making employment and promotion decisions based on ability and experience, with a healthy dollop of cultural fit mixed in, we are now box-ticking. Filling quotas, based on gender, race, creed and sexual orientation.

Good people with impeccable records and qualifications are finding themselves on the outer.

As I’m writing, I receive a call from another mate, a consulting engineer with 35 years’ experience. He’s ringing to tell me as of Monday, he now reports to a 30-year-old woman who he says “wouldn’t know a bridge from a barge”. He has no problem reporting to a woman, nor a 30-year-old – he’d just prefer somebody who understands what he does. Competency v identity.

Again, perhaps through dinosaur eyes, one of the upsides of COVID-crazy 2020 was the apparent abeyance of the burgeoning PC agenda.

In challenging and uncertain times, we quickly refocused on the critical issues. You know, like survival.

But with growing comfort and complacency (fuelled by favourable global comparisons) that we now have COVID in check, we can once again return to the peripheral matters. What we call our cheese, for instance. Cheers to the new packaging.

Australia is once again consolidating its status as the world leader of PC BS.

To think, we were once a country defined culturally by the phrase “no worries, mate, she’ll be right.” Now everything thing is a worry, nothing is right. Instead, it’s a problem, it’s an injustice, and increasingly it’s offensive. To somebody.

By the letter of the PC law, we probably shouldn’t even use the term “mate”.

There’s only one conclusion to draw.

Gee, we’ve got it good in Australia. So bloody good. Every basic human need is being met. And then some. Abundant food, water, space, fresh air. And comparatively bugger all COVID cases.

How lucky are we? So little to worry about.

Until of course, in pursuit of the perfect, immaculately egalitarian society, we strangle ourselves to death.

Riding clause: I apologise if you find this offensive.

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