Would we judge Top Cop Nixon any differently if she were a man?

I admired Christine Nixon throughout her nine-year tenure as Victoria’s chief commissioner of police and then head of Victoria’s Bushfire Reconstruction and Recovery Authority. Recently, we were on the same flight to Queensland. While disembarking, I tapped her on the shoulder, introduced myself, and told her so.

Now, with the publication of her memoirs, Fair Cop, Nixon returns to the spotlight. My impression is of a woman fighting to rescue her reputation from media coverage surrounding what the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission ultimately concluded – and she agreed – was her ‘'inadequate approach’‘ to emergency co-ordination on Black Saturday, the day 173 men, women and children lost their lives. The commission’s final report said: ’‘Ms Nixon herself acknowledged that leaving the integrated Emergency Co-ordination Centre and going home at about 6pm on 7 February was an error of judgment. The commission shares this view.’'

Nixon’s achievements are considerable. She tackled the vast under-representation of women and minorities in the police force, disbanded the drug and armed offenders squads after corrupt and questionable tactics were exposed, stood up to the aggressive, old-school tactics of police union boss Paul Mullett and drove crime down by 25 per cent. Advertisement: Story continues below

It is interesting to wonder – in her case and that of other public figures – whether isolated errors of judgment should forever cast a cloud over long, and otherwise upright and accomplished, careers.

But Nixon has raised the stakes. In media interviews, and in her book, she has played the gender card. In an interview on ABC TV’s 7.30, she contended that in the judgments made about her by the commission and the media on a number of matters, “I … have been harshly done by … and I think perhaps being a high-profile woman is part of that, and I guess that’s what I’ve spoken out about at this time'‘.

‘'Speaking out’‘ is a pedigreed feminist rite. It is the start of a process by which a woman’s personal experience can merge with those of other women, and any political causes or implications discerned. But in Nixon’s case, and other instances like hers, is it really helpful?

I’m not convinced. The truth is that Nixon’s suggestion that if she were a man things would have been different can’t be tested. We can’t rewind nine years, wave the wand that would turn her into Chris Nixon – identical to Christine in all ways except for being male – and run the tape again. Because the charge of sexism and double standards can’t be proved, it leaves Nixon vulnerable to the accusation it is nothing more than special pleading and excuse-making from a woman unwilling to be held to the same standards of accountability and scrutiny applied to men. More worryingly, it could lead some to believe that all complaints about sexism are matters of opinion, too.

Now, before anyone comes after me with clubs, I want to be clear that I am not saying that women should not name, shame and complain when it comes to gender bias for fear of being doubted or disbelieved. What I am saying is that if we want to have public conversations about gender discrimination that are helpful to present and future generations of women – something Nixon is admirably concerned about – we might be better to stick to naming the bias we can prove beyond reasonable doubt.

My approach in this matter may signal the inevitable changing of the feminist guard. Women such as Nixon faced a hell of a fight getting to the top. At times, the resistance must have seemed insurmountable. Perhaps to overcome it, an argument developed about the benefits of having women on the job, and in traditional male roles.

These arguments accepted the age-old binaries about men and women, but flipped them on their head to favour the female side. Women were better listeners, more ethical and more co-operative than men. The implied corollary came next – that’s why you should hire, promote or vote for them.

But such gendered claims can turn on those who make them. What happens when getting women into senior positions doesn’t make politics more ethical, or the corporate world less cut-throat?

One response would be to conclude that the entire equity enterprise was a time-waster and we should return to blokes-as-usual forthwith. When I address audiences about gender equity, I talk about a brand of feminism that is dedicated to getting women half of what’s on offer – not because they deserve it, but because we are roughly half the population, and it’s only fair.

I wish Christine Nixon happiness and success in the future. I have no doubt she did her best to serve us well.

Publication history

Would we Judge Nixon any Differently if she were a Man?   The Age