Leave The Poor Old Chaps Alone

The State Government’s proposed application of anti-discrimination legislation to men-only clubs is an odd priority for a government during a financial crisis. States across Australia are staring down the barrel of deficits, high unemployment and the implosion of our domestic manufacturing industry. But Victorian Attorney-General Rob Hulls has decided to intervene in a private dispute between what he describes as “progressive thinkers” and “crusty old fogeys and young fuddy-duddies” at the exclusive Athenaeum Club over whether to allow female members.

Seriously, does our Attorney-General have no better way to spend his time? After all, if you’re wealthy enough to afford the high membership fees demanded by Melbourne’s exclusive clubs, you’re hardly a victim of debilitating discrimination.

There are many organisations in Australia with membership rules that could be considered discriminatory. There are women-only gyms. There are gay-only nightclubs. There are same-sex schools. There are churches that will only hire you as a priest if you believe in God. And there are places that insist you take off your shoes before you enter, even if you really don’t want to.

Of course, there are pockets in Australian society where people do encounter discrimination on the basis of race, gender or religion. But exclusive clubs are hardly a social problem that demands immediate action from a crack team of legislators. These clubs are a lot more harmless than the government seems to believe. As The Age reported on Friday, less than one-fifth of the Melbourne Club’s membership is also listed in Who’s Who Australia – it’s hardly a centre of power, secret rituals and the manipulation of public opinion.

Put a bunch of men in a room with alcohol and snacks for long enough and it’s fairly predictable what will happen. The conversation will eventually degenerate from business and high politics to cricket, the best songs on Guitar Hero World Tour and the most effective way humanity could defeat a surprise invasion of Velociraptors. Who would win in a fight: Conan-era Schwarzenegger or Bruce Lee? Perhaps the conversation will eventually turn to some gentlemanly wagers – could it be possible for one man to traverse the world in 80 days? And given the demographics of Melbourne’s most exclusive clubs, a typical evening might end with the singing of some vaguely remembered songs from boarding school.

Gentlemen’s clubs date back to 17th-century England. Far from being stodgy, stiff and proper, these original clubs were little more than a place to get drunk away from the wife. Early caricatures of English gentlemen’s clubs consistently show club members red-faced and sozzled, grasping at bottles of wine. Some clubs even provided boarding rooms for the gentlemen to sleep it off.

In the present day, the most exclusive all-male club in the world, the Bohemian Grove club, is really just an excuse for powerful Americans to participate in stupid rituals that have much more camp value than deep meaning.

So it’s no wonder that the gender exclusivity of men’s clubs inspired powerful and wealthy women to set up their own exclusive clubs – in Melbourne, we have the Lyceum and The Alexandra – where the conversations are, no doubt, on average much more sensible. And on the other end of the spectrum, Melbourne’s least exclusive club, the RACV Club, is now best known for its buffet-style dining: the Sizzler of Melbourne’s club set.

Still, at least the RACV Club is doing well. The truth is that some of the longest-standing men’s clubs are in terminal decline, with or without female membership restrictions. There really aren’t that many of Rob Hulls’ “young fuddy-duddies” quixotically tilting against the demographic windmills. Instead, many clubs are struggling to demonstrate to apprentice power-brokers and the next generation of fatcats why joining would be worthwhile. Like a lot of voluntary organisations, they are failing to encourage the generational change needed to survive.

After all, in 2009, it’s far more exciting to get a reservation at Vue de Monde than be served a plate of mutton, mashed potatoes and steamed beans at a gentlemen’s club.

The government’s proposed changes to the legislation governing the Victorian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission don’t just end at forcing private clubs to change their long-standing membership requirements. They also include the power to enter, search and seize documents. So we can look forward to burly anti-discrimination commissioners kicking down the door of the Melbourne Club and ordering scared retirees to slowly place their cognac and copies of The Spectator back on the antique mahogany side-tables.

The commission may also be empowered to act wherever they suspect discrimination is occurring, regardless of whether there have been any complaints.

In a society that values individual liberty, free association is a basic human right. And the right of free association also implies the right to exclude those with whom you do not wish to associate. So if you don’t like the exclusive membership policies of Melbourne’s clubs, start your own.