St John’s patron in racial outrage
Sun-Herald senior investigative writer
A leading Sydney barrister and senior counsel at the trouble-plagued St John’s College has sparked outrage after mocking the Aboriginal community at an official dinner at the University of Sydney.
Jeffrey Phillips, SC, stood in the college’s 150-year-old Great Hall and, in front of more than 250 staff, students and guests, paid tribute to the “traditional custodians of this place” whom he identified as being the “Benedictines who came from the great English nation”.
The comment was made in the presence of several indigenous students, one of whom has lodged a formal complaint and, according to senior staff, remains “deeply traumatised”.
Mark Spinks, a respected member of Sydney’s Aboriginal community and chairman of the Aboriginal men’s group Babana, said: “How disgusting, how disgraceful, how disrespectful are those comments. I am outraged and I am disturbed. For that to have been said at the university, in a room full of students, I am almost speechless.”
The sociologist Eva Cox said: “It’s totally unacceptable but what he’s saying is acceptable, or has been deemed acceptable within the culture of the college. It’s just an indication of how deep the rot goes.”
Last night, the University of Sydney’s vice-chancellor, Michael Spence, condemned Mr Phillips’s remarks. He said: “The university is very proud of the fact that it stands on land where indigenous peoples have been teaching and learning for many thousands of years before us and we acknowledge this publicly whenever we can.”
St John’s College has been in a virtual state of limbo since Tuesday, when the Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, George Pell, asked the five remaining priests on its council to resign, arguing he no longer had “confidence in the capacity” of the council to “reform life at the college”.
The move followed a Fairfax Media investigation that exposed the once proud college to be in a state of anarchy, with widespread vandalism, furniture being smashed and set on fire and faeces routinely left in common rooms.
The story demonstrated that nothing had changed since March, when a first-year student was rushed to hospital with a bleeding stomach after being pressured to drink a toxic cocktail containing shampoo, alcohol and dog food.
Technically, the college council has ceased to exist, as no meeting or action can take place without at least one clerical fellow present. But Fairfax Media understands that several of the non-clerical fellows – or lay fellows – have refused to resign in the hope they can survive the turmoil. One of those hoping to stay is Mr Phillips. In the moments before his controversial comments on September 3, student house president Matt Sunderland had described him as “a mentor” of the student club and a “great” and “fair man”.
Mr Phillips left the college more than three decades ago but today he is back and, on occasions, reliving the good old days. The students appointed him as patron of the student club in 2009 and he is always a phone call away. He drinks and sings with them at formal dinners. He invites a select group to long lunches and “networking” events in the city, including a recent cigar and whisky appreciation night. He helps to find work for the law students of the college and hosts an essay competition each year, with a prize of $500.
The current Johnsmen even tweak the words of a traditional college ditty, normally sung about each other, as if to the include the middle-aged old boy as one of their own. The song goes: “Here’s to Jeff, he’s true blue, he’s a pisspot through and through, he’s a bastard so they say, tried to get to heaven but he went the other way, drink it down, down, down.”
The students also hold deep affection for their patron because he is opposed to the college’s rector, Michael Bongers, and his crusade to stamp out outdated traditions.
As one senior college insider put it: “He is king of the kids at the college and wild horses couldn’t keep him away.”
But while some fellows and staff have overlooked his close-knit relationship with students, his performances with the microphone have grown increasingly hard to ignore.
Numerous sources have said that around the last election, he stood before staff and students at a formal dinner and referred to the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, as a “red-headed witch”.
Fast forward to September 3 this year and Mr Phillips addressed the entire student population with the following: “I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of this place the Benedictines who came from the great English nation.”
The comment drew a combination of laughs, gasps and disbelieving groans from those present.
While he continued to spark controversy by referring to the college’s original founder, archbishop Bede Polding, as someone “who looks like he’s on his way to a Lady Gaga concert”, it was his opening remarks that continued to linger with many.
Fairfax Media understands there were four indigenous students present, one of whom is taking the matter further.
Yesterday, Mr Phillips said his comments had been taken out of context, adding that he had sent the upset student a letter.
“It is a great pity that my speech was misinterpreted by one student,” he said in a statement. “The speech was not intended, nor delivered in any way to disrespect or mock indigenous people. On the contrary, the speech had an important message of forgiveness and tolerance. Neither the rector, Mr Bongers, nor anyone else present at the speech complained. In fact, the Rector personally thanked me warmly for my speech. Whilst I apologised to the student, as she had been offended, it is important, especially in an environment of vigorous debate, such as a university, that simple misunderstandings by one student not be blown out of proportion.”
“I sent the student the letter on the day it was written (Sept 24) by post care of the College.”
The Sun-Herald has been told the student never received it.