Review of Power and Consent, by Rachel Doyle

This review was first published in The Weekend Australian.

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Rachel Doyle’s Power & Consent is about as well-timed as a book can be. Published as allegations of rape and a ‘culture of silence’ swirl around Canberra, it is a formidable salvo aimed at a field already strewn with casualties. Indeed, it is almost too well timed. A few days ago its author was invited to discuss her conclusions on RN Breakfast, but spent almost the entire interview talking about the mooted inquiry into the allegations of historical rape against the Attorney General Christian Porter. As a barrister herself, she was happy to oblige. But her book barely made it in before the news.

Because it is focused primarily on the workplace, Power & Consent has only limited relevance to the allegations against the AG. But the government’s response to that allegation, which was to emphasise ‘the rule of law’, does chime with one of Doyle’s core themes, which is the way that institutions dealing with sexual harassment will tend to mimic the formal processes and standards of proof that obtain within the courts. For Doyle, this places too large a burden on the accuser and too light a burden on the accused, with the result that significant cultural change within the workplace remains elusive. The arcane processes of the law simply do not accord with most people’s lived experience.

This is a particular problem, it seems, within the author’s own profession, where confidentiality, high standards of proof and the inadmissibility of certain kinds of evidence are part of the occupational scenery. Nor does it help that the legal profession is deeply hierarchical, with experienced and (necessarily) powerful judges expected to work with young ‘associates’ who are just starting out on their legal careers. Doyle’s book begins with an account of the inquiry into the conduct of the ‘cadaverous’ Dyson Heydon, the former High Court judge discovered to have harassed no fewer than six of his female associates. Citing both statistics and personal experiences, Doyle suggests that such behaviour is common, and the responses to it often coated in slippery legalese.

For Doyle it is necessary to move away from the simulated legal approach in order to break the culture of silence and address the obvious power imbalances that obtain in all workplaces, not just legal ones. In particular she recommends shifting the focus from the victims of sexual harassment to the perpetrators of it in a way that educates the latter cohort about the nature of both power and consent. A man, she argues, should raise his own ‘red flags’ in the event that a fancied female colleague is either younger or less senior than him, while women should be afforded greater scope to share experiences and highlight unwelcome behaviour. ‘It may be too late to throw out the clunky definition of sexual harassment in the legislation,’ she writes, ‘but it is not too late to overhaul the way we explain what is welcome conduct and what is not, and it is not too late to teach a new way of talking about consent.’

The focus on perpetrators does not mean that Doyle is in favour of the kind of feeding frenzy often witnessed on social media. On the contrary she clearly dislikes the atmosphere of accusation and recrimination that passes for ‘justice’ in some corners of the internet, and distrusts as well the sort of mutual surveillance to which ‘call-out culture’ and ‘shaming’ can give rise. She knows that workmates flirt and fall in love and doesn’t want to see workplaces transformed into humourless seminars on ‘appropriate’ behaviour. But she does recognise the urgent need for more open and responsive processes than the current legal model allows, especially given the momentous changes to the workplace in recent decades, and the broadly subordinate position of women in the majority of occupations.

This is all set out persuasively, but if I have one reservation about Power & Consent it’s that its conclusions feel more relevant to professional workplaces than non-professional ones. No doubt this is related to Doyle’s examples, which reflect her own experience, but I found myself wondering nevertheless how some of her recommendations would play out in, say, a cleaning company or a pub kitchen, where work is precarious, wages low and administration minimal. The most important ‘power’ in the workplace is that of the employer over the employee, and that power is much greater in some workplaces than in others. In general, however, Power & Consent is a sane, humane and magnanimous essay. I can only hope it finds a readership in the current, fraught environment.

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Rachel Doyle, Power & Consent

Monash University Publishing; $19.95; 89pp