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Best of 2010: The crucifixion of Christine Nixon


Christine Nixon, Herald SunFirst published in Eureka Street 9 April 2010

'In Australia, a lone woman
is being crucified by the Press
at any given moment.'
–Les Murray, A Deployment of Fashion, 1997

John Brumby, as Victorian Premier, wants it both ways: rejecting calls for Christine Nixon's removal as chief executive of the Black Saturday reconstruction authority, yet agreeing with vitriolic remarks about her 'mistakes' on 7 February 2009. This is unworthy of him.

What did then-Commissioner Nixon do? On a day she was not rostered for duty she went in to the emergency centre to contribute to fire-fighting management, worked in her office for a bit over an hour, returned to the centre, made arrangements for some briefings to ministers, and nicked off for tea.

For reasons best known to counsel assisting the Royal Commission, Nixon was cross-examined on her 'need' to leave at 6.00pm — before the insanely out-of-control firestorm status was known — and replied she had no such need. Hostile questioning from journalists after the public hearing had her admit the terrible truth: she hadn't cooked tea at home but slipped into a nearby pub with her husband and two friends for about an hour.

Did (dog-whistle: overweight and middle-aged) Commissioner Nixon get pissed? No. Did she party? Evidently not: the meal took about an hour. Did she take rest of the night off? No: she kept in touch from home. Had she shrugged off responsibility as police commissioner for responding to the firestorm? Well, no.

Should she have waited another hour to listen to the ministerial briefing, knowing by that stage that deaths were likely? Why? What benefit, even in hindsight, would it have been to hang about looking concerned, when there was nothing more she could possibly do? The full horror was not to be known until light on the following day.

The Royal Commission can't even begin to pin blame on Nixon for the widespread failure to predict the savagery of the firestorms, to save more people, or create or mend failed radio/telecommunications — all of this was in others' hands.

Nixon's only 'mistake' was to say that she 'could have done better' on Black Saturday. Everyone could have.

No man would have said this. Linguistics Professor Deborah Tannen's research into the communication patterns of women and men (Talking From 9 to 5) proved that even at work men communicate as they have been socialised as boys, to build up status and social credit in the hierarchy they learned in the playground. Women aim to establish relationships and commonalities, an approach that they, too, learned among their peers.

Interrogated by a woman, even a tough, sometimes ruthless manager of operational police officers could slip into a reflective acknowledgment of fallibility.

Perhaps Nixon was unnecessarily honest, too, in telling a journo where she had eaten that night, because women leaders' vulnerabilities make airborne news, and politicians who sniff the wind (better than the CFA did that horror night) will run before it.

The tongue is a little instrument, Commissioner, which does much harm. The Secretary of the Police Association — at war with the first woman Chief Commissioner of Police and first Commissioner who would neither accept nor turn a blind eye to bullying — was quick to strike more matches. Opposition politicians in an election year struck poses and opened their mouths to add more fuel. Blame splashed around, but not from all of the bushfire-affected survivors (notably, not from Kinglake). Yet she is burning, burning.

Let us put it out. No firestorm of blame would be raging in Victorian papers or in Canberra nor would Christine Nixon herself be scorched by it, were she not a woman, a decent woman, a strong woman, a prominent woman and an ethically sound woman of an age and with the experience to possess a raging integrity of her own and, by her very being, to offer ruthless men a soft target.

Julia Baird wrote in Media Tarts, her book about press treatment of women politicians:

'[W]hat drives a lot of the ... coverage ... is a questioning of their humanity. Those with right-wing views, who are not seen as particularly compassionate, are portrayed as almost subhuman monsters, with grotesque features ripe for satire or caricature ... Those seen as honest, decent and warm-hearted are canonised and showered with praise for being human, real, and like the rest of us ... They are cheered for representing the politics of change.

'But then, when they show emotion, make mistakes or behave like the men in playing political hardball, they are fiercely castigated ... if they crack under the pressure, the ensuring criticism makes it clear we actually want them to be superhuman.'

Anyone who, as Christine Nixon did, takes the lead in the war zone of policing is in exactly the same position.

Let us admit our own mistakes. One would be to blame 'the media' for it all, and I don't. Our attitudes to strong women are grievously at fault. The other would be to fail to acknowledge that even saints are fully, humanly fallible. Christine Nixon's flaw is a noble one: the learned law of all women, to accept personal responsibility.

Moira RaynerMoira Rayner is a barrister and writer. She is a former Equal Opportunity and HREOC Commissioner. She is principal of Moira Rayner and Associates.

Topic tags: Christine Nixon, Black Saturday, Victorian Bushfire Recovery and Reconstruction Authority



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Existing comments

watch out Anna....your next

marcel campbell | 05 January 2011  

Thanks for this article.I am still in 2 minds about this whole saga, not about Christine's possible error of judgement in leaving the tactical emergency rooms or the fact she had dinner at a "pub". But for the fact that a woman who had worked tirelessly for the many months, many hours overtime and spent an incredible amount of her energies with those communities affected so badly by the devastation and forever life-changing fires in Victoria. The hidden hours away from the limelight and public eye where work went on and on and the commitment of giving continued well beyond any pub meal or lack of presence on that fateful night.No, I don't condemn Christine but I do protest a media who could too have been drawn over the coals for their many intrusive and insensitive reporting especially in those early days can then turn around and condemn a woman like Christine for what may have been an error of judgement. Fair go and remember as a wise man once said "If you begin pointing your finger at another, just look around and see how many fingers are pointing at you." And to those who don't know or understand the situation and can condemn, please listen deeply with compassion and discernment when faced with trial by media.

sue mcgovern | 05 January 2011  

Christine Nixon is a great example of the "Peter Principle". She was unable to perform in her role as Police Commissioner and caused a huge drop in the morale of the Police force with her style of governing and she ruined the abaility to allow Police officers to do their job and mismanaged many police programs. She has a large ego and a thick hide but no intelligemce for a most responsible position as Police Commissioner. However, she became a "darling" of the Leftist mob and thus was guaranteed higher positions because of her leftist, feminist ideology not because of merit. A conservative woman would find it impossible to attain such a position as she would be deemed unsuitable for anything in this 'brave new world'

Trent | 05 January 2011  

I see the same treatment being meted out to Anna Bligh for having joined her family in Sydney on NY Eve. Given modern communications, what benefit remaining in Queensland?

michael skennar | 05 January 2011  

She is amongst many in the Public Service with a “don’t care” attitude towards people outside their social cycle. In such cases we actually need the media to remind all that Public Servants and Government officials are actually paid by the taxpayers.

Beat Odermatt | 05 January 2011  

when a small fire starts in the bush, they should let it burn on the fuel as managing the fire not to grow big. wildlife rescue should be there. otherwise, leftover fuel from a victory of firefighting can only make the next year fire only to burn with more fuel. if not wanting the fire, firefighting should mean removing the fuel from the bush whatever cost the government wants to pay. allowing small fire that comes naturally will prevent large fire from happening - which can also do more destruction to both people and nature. i don't like supporting fire management that just regularly set fire here and there. but i prefer the nature does its both good and dirty works. but i don't want to blame her for not knowing what came next - but her misjudgment was obvious although it could be forgivable. nobody seemed to be more qualified for that day than these people working for firefighting for long. humans make silly mistakes. i guess she might not forgive herself for such silly mistake which she had all powers to avoid.

AZURE | 05 January 2011  

Trent, don't be like that ... Not being from Victoria I know little of Christine Nixon, but I too believe she has been completely mistreated over that night. Even the media, who has been so critical, did not report on the fires on television until around 11pm on Black Saturday. Every time a woman is promoted to a position of authority, people always say it's not on merit, but because she is a woman. I think that is truly unfair. And how do we know what her beliefs are? We should be careful not to make assumptions about her ideology on the basis of her career. I don't think it's fair to castigate Christine Nixon for the way she does her job. Even for her subordinates, to voice such an opinion in a public forum is not fair. Much damage is done in the world by casting judgement on situations and people we do not know. 'Love one another' - people deserve the benefit of the doubt.

MBG | 05 January 2011  

Well said - there should never have been blame attached to that night and Christine Nixon!

Judy Sampson | 05 January 2011  

I read this article with interest and then with a big sense of justice being denied. Was there no one to come to her defence on the day? Victorians ought to be ashamed but it is all too late.

Paul Hemsley | 05 January 2011  

Once again, Trent's prejudice blinds him to the point that Moira was making. See the last paragraph - "Our attitudes to strong women are grievously at fault". And note also that Moira is not only talking about women 'from the left' - "Those with right-wing views, who are not seen as particularly compassionate, are portrayed as almost subhuman monsters, with grotesque features ripe for satire or caricature ..." Does that remind you of the way Julie Bishop is depicted in the media as the 'cockroach'? Take the blinkers off Trent and judge Moira's piece for its intrinsic value, not on the basis of the gender of its subject and author.

Ginger Meggs | 05 January 2011  

I am always concerned when complex issues are reduced to gender as a single factor. The 'execution' of Christine Nixon in the media was tough but was it just because she was a woman, and honest and fallible and vulnerable? In the past I have been a public figure and most of my actions were under the microscope from the community where I was supposed to set the example and to model exemplary behaviour. I just knew that if at a time of crisis, even if my oven at home did not work, I had gone to a public place for a meal, I would have been judged similarly. That is how the critical public works, even when there seem to be mitigating circumstances. One of the issues of being a highly paid public servant is to accept that some issues will be blown out of proportion and to adjust your lifestyle accordingly. It might not seem fair but that is how the world works. I don't think that gender is the issue, it is the small-mindedness of the ignorant. I sympathise with Christine but them's the breaks.

tony london | 06 January 2011  

Thank you Moira Raynor. The persecution of Christine Nixon was the most disgusting witch hunt of a good, strong , determined and conscientious woman, led by a wholly malicious, female legal persecutor. I felt ashamed of our media and community throughout.

June | 14 January 2011  

Anna Bligh is a member of Emily's list and at heart a social democrat - both policy positions diametrically opposed to my own. Plus, if you insist on throwing it into the mix, she's - gasp! - a woman. Yet I and "conservatives" such as Andrew Bolt - we who gave Nixon a big fat "F" for her Black Saturday non-response - unhesitatingly tip our hats to Premier Bligh for her sterling performance this week. She had infinitely more presence than the sainted Rudi Giuliani of 9/11.

Of course, that is not to lose sight of the big (pro-life) picture, but can we cut the rubbish about sexist stereotyping?

HH | 14 January 2011  

I don't agree with the argument although for some people it may be true that they viewed a woman appointed Police Commissioner as unacceptable. Not I. However I believe she had a responsibility in the crisis that was not able to be delegated - although in a practical sense she could bow to greater knowledge in crisis management. Had she remained at work as a figurehead demonstrating leadership and even esprit de corps (after all, members of the emergency services were actually putting their lives at risk for the community) she would have been praised.

I think her evidence at the commision was embarrassing to many members of the force(which is why she qualified it out of court - badly). I would hesitate to accuse her of dereliction of duty but there was something missing. I really do not believe that 'crucifixion' is a justifiable description of what followed. I think she (as a political appointment) disappointed with her failing at the moment of great need. I cannot see the comparison with Anna Bligh as justified.

Joe | 21 January 2011  

To understand adult behaviour I look to the playground of my youth. It is my impression that only very few ever grow up to be responsible independent adults while most stay in the playground and play life by the rules learned there. Boys are self focused tear-away boisterous types, little concerned with group behaviour-more intent on carving a niche for themselves. It may involve bullying but not of the deep charachter-destuctive sort. Girls superficially seem so much more sociable, interacting, playing cooperatively and being more mature. Until! or Unless! Until they want to play with the boys. Then watch the reaction of the girls. Character assasination-thy name is woman. Christine Nixon wanted to play with the boys.

Graham Patison | 22 February 2011  

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