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Sleazy private lives should not affect our judgment of professionals


Spurr and Slipper caricature

Last month a set of private emails from Sydney University professor Barry Spurr went public and created controversy because they were racist and sexist, and therefore highly offensive in the public domain. It was reminiscent of the episode two years ago when the media and courts trawled through the private text messages of parliamentary speaker Peter Slipper.

A former student of Spurr – ‘Kristen’ – posted a comment online in which she expressed deep offence at the emails. But she insisted that view was not at all relevant to any assessment of Spurr as a professional. 

In her experience, Spurr was an outstanding teacher. Kristen recalled that her personal dealings with him at the time were 'coldly civil', which is all she required of him in his role as her teacher.

But the editor of New Matilda, which published the emails, suggested the persistent turn of mind behind the emails may have affected the professor’s impartiality as an English curriculum panel advisor of the Federal Government. If that is the case, he insisted, it is a ‘no brainer’ that the public has a right to know.

Public appointees are routinely required to declare private interests that may conflict with their public duty. Those interests are usually taken to be financial, because people have been known to offer personal financial inducements as a means to expedite favourable public policy outcomes by those in a position to influence outcomes. 

New Matilda did not reveal its source but it appears editor Chris Graham received the emails from a person who believed there was an issue of conflict. The professor, understandably, questioned whether his private correspondence should ever have been made public. A court will shortly decide on that question.

Kristen saw a side of Professor Spurr that spoke to his professional standing in her eyes, and it was all good. 

With respect to Slipper, the nation was given a good opportunity to see how he performed professionally. The consensus among those who observe parliamentary proceedings was that his style may have been idiosyncratic, but his even-handedness, good judgement, and competence in the Speaker’s chair, were all beyond question. Whatever else might be said about him, in that role Slipper was a consummate professional.

Yet unrelated and unresolved private utterances have destroyed Slipper’s career, and reportedly wrecked his marriage and his health. These included abuse of Cabcharge entitlements and a more serious sexual harassment allegation made by his former employee James Ashby.

The federal court, it seems, had been treated as a plaything. In December 2012, Justice Rares wrote: ‘Mr Ashby’s predominant purpose for bringing these proceedings was to pursue a political attack against Mr Slipper and not to vindicate any legal claim he may have’.  

He insisted that parties before the court cannot be allowed to misuse the court’s process by making damaging allegations knowing they would ‘receive very significant media coverage’, and then seek to abandon the claims.

On the position of the court itself, Justice Rares said: To allow these proceedings to remain in the Court would bring the administration of justice into disrepute among right-thinking people and would be manifestly unfair to Mr Slipper.’

By granting leave for Ashby to appeal, and then being deprived of the opportunity to hear the appeal, has the federal court ‘allowed the proceedings to remain (unresolved) in the court’? 

Or alternatively, has Ashby allowed the original Rares’ judgement against him to stand by not taking up the permission granted him by the court to pursue an appeal?

Whatever the answers to those questions, it would appear the federal court has probably been abused, and that Slipper has been the victim of an immense injustice.

The argument of the columnist in The Australian that the above mentioned Kristen was responding to is that private thoughts create no public harm. If there is any validity to this, Professor Barry Spurr would be hoping that the federal court finds a better way to resolve the private-public issues in his case than it did in the Peter Slipper matter. 

Paul BegleyPaul Begley is a Melbourne based writer who works in public relations.



Topic tags: Paul Begley, Barry Spurr, Peter Slipper, professional standards, University of Sydney, James Ashby



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Existing comments

You raise a question where the answer may not be as simple as it seems. Professor Spurr and Peter Slipper are neither, IMHO, particularly likeable or empathetic individuals. I certainly would not share the opinion expressed in many of Spurr's leaked emails. They are now part of general public knowledge and no legal decision can reinstate his good name. The general, intelligent Australian public - a far larger demographic than the intellectual and political elite think exist - have a right to question whether, given personal utterances which he seems to have attempted to explain as partly satirical, Professor Spurr is an appropriate choice to advise on the content of a proposed national curriculum. I think this is a vital and valid question. Messrs Slipper and Ashby have, hopefully, disappeared from national life and are a wee bit of a red herring here.
Edward Fido | 26 November 2014

I find this a problematic comparison. There is no either/or. The treatment of Peter Slipper was appalling and a court said so. There was the cab charges issue, which speaks to his following of procedures (and rules!). A court has also rules here. With Professor Spurr, Kirsten has commented on his professionalism, in his role as a teacher/professor and she a student. Having read the report he contributed to, for the Australian Government, the recommendations that favoured the western 'canon' did so in direct comparison to there being too great a focus on indigenous works. Professor Spurr's comments in the emails included derogatory comments about indigenous Australians. A deeply held personal view should be known, before it unduly influences the teaching and learning in hundreds of classrooms, across Australia... A place which is much better representing in indigenous literature than in the canon - but that's just my personal view as a reader of both. The power given to Professor Spurr suggests he should have considered his own personal biases, which we all know thanks to New Matilda. I'll let the court decide on the public interest, but this part of the public found it useful to see.
Name | 26 November 2014

There are a number of dimensions to these two cases and it would take up too much space to comment on all. I'll comment on only one: perception. To start, I offer two quotes. Firstly, from Horace, written long, long ago (but not in a galaxy far, far away): "And once sent out a word takes wing beyond recall." Secondly, from William Blake: "If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite." It's very possible that Barry Spurr and Peter Slipper, both intelligent and well-educated men, perceived it was safe to send texts and emails which contained material, if revealed, that could bite them rather ferociously. There would be very few of us who haven't made a mistake of perception.
Pam | 26 November 2014

I agree with the premise of this argument, but I remain unconvinced that Spurr's views on race would not influence his role in the curriculum review. Slipper's case is much more cut and dried.
Omid | 26 November 2014

In their dealings with other people who depend on their advice or actions, true professionals would never allow their personal views to dictate their professional practice. If they did , they would be, by definition, no longer a professional - one who offers an exclusive expertise (such as teaching, the law, medicine and religious ministry) for the benefit of society, if necessary without reward or personal gain.
john frawley | 26 November 2014

It is obviously true that an individual can be a competent professional, or even a great artist (e.g. Wagner), and also hold racist views that most people would find obnoxious and absurd. But in the case of Professor Spurr, an academic who, presumably, grades essays and theses submitted by his students, the question arises: can an Aboriginal or other non-white student be confident that their written work will be impartially graded by a man who is, clearly, a virulent racist?
Monty | 26 November 2014

Professor Spurr's emails should have been kept private & it was not so. Like all imperfect things in life, he and his employers must now deal with what has happened. Mr Peter Slipper played "politics" to get the Speaker's job from PM Gillard. While he may have been a good Speaker, his integrity as an MP was often questionable, irrespective of his questionable Cabcharge voucher useage, or of his legal and media conflict with Mr Ashby. From all accounts as a local MP in his electorate, it appears he was mostly MIA for some years. While we can all feel some compassion for his current physical & mental health issues, LIKE MANY OTHER MPs, Mr Slipper has been less than honest as an MP with his expenses claims. He also appears to have acted without much integrity as a local MP who was often missing in action for his constituents. John Cronin, Toowoomba Q
John Cronin, Toowoomba Q | 26 November 2014

Actually, Ashby did pursue an appeal against the judgment of Justice Rares, and the Full Court of the Federal Court overturned Justice Rares' decision, deciding in favour of Ashby. You can read it here: http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/cases/cth/FCAFC/2014/15.html. It was only after that that Ashby decided not to continue the proceeding against Slipper.
Macca | 03 December 2014

Macca, thank you for the link to the Federal Court judgement. It refers to an application by James Ashby to appeal against the original decision of Justice Rares which dismissed his sexual harassment allegation as an abuse of process. After lengthy discussion, the Full Court agreed to allow Ashby's application to appeal. My point is that the appeal was never heard because Ashby promptly withdrew the allegation against Slipper and decided not to proceed with an appeal. To that extent the case remains 'unresolved'. In the wash-up, all the allegations against Slipper over cab charge irregularities and sexual harassment were eventually dropped by Ashby yet Slipper's life has been destroyed.
Paul Begley | 05 December 2014


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