Businessman who advised John Howard quits Australian Club after vote to continue banning women

·3 min read

A member of an elite Sydney gentlemen’s club that voted against allowing women to join says those who opposed change were worried about having to make the decor less masculine, including the tapware.

Geoff Cousins, a businessman, quit the Australian Club after the vote on Tuesday. He said the reasons given by some members for continuing to ban women were trivial, including that their wives liked them attending a club that had no female members.

In his address to members before the vote, Cousins cited the importance of gender equality and natural justice, and expressed his fears for the club’s future should it not admit women.

He listed a range of prominent roles and positions now filled by women to emphasise that powerful individuals who had typically sought membership were being excluded.

But Cousins was troubled by the response of those who favoured the status quo. Some claimed the “atmosphere” of the club would be irreparably damaged by including women, he said.

“They were talking about how they would need less masculine decor … the taps changing … men might have to behave differently at lunches,” he told Guardian Australia. “Someone said ‘the wives rather like them going away to a men’s club knowing there won’t be other women there’. This kind of frivolous, silly talk.”

Cousins is a former president of the Australian Conservation Foundation and a one time consultant to former prime minister John Howard.

Related: Elite male-only ‘gentlemen’s club’ in Sydney votes to continue banning female members

The club said on Tuesday a “record turnout” of members at the special general meeting voted on the resolution to amend the club’s constitution to allow female members. A 75% threshold had to be met to pass the resolution.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported that 693 member votes were cast with 62% against allowing women members, 37% in favour and 1% abstaining.

Women are allowed to attend the club as guests.

The Macquarie Street club’s members include Howard and fellow former Liberal prime minister Malcolm Turnbull. Both declined to comment on the outcome of the vote.

But Daisy Turnbull, the daughter of Malcolm and former Sydney lord mayor Lucy Turnbull, said she was surprised how “upset” she was about the “archaic” decision.

“I don’t have an issue with tradition and don’t have an issue with clubs in general,” she told the ABC’s 7.30 program on Wednesday night.

“What I have an issue with is there is so much power tied up in that organisation. And they’ve made an active and very clear choice to exclude women from that power.”

Daisy Turnbull said such clubs would have “decreasing relevance if you can only network with 50% of your colleagues”. “The old boy’s network is not as useful as it used to be and nor should it be,” she said.

Cousins said the vote was even more disappointing given the prominence of some members who acted as judicial officers or chief executives of large companies that are responsible for enacting policies “supporting gender equality”.

“How do they sign those documents and stay members of these clubs?” he said. He believes other members are considering quitting the club in protest because of this exact conflict.

Cousins, who had been a member for more than 20 years, said the lack of women and those from non-Anglo backgrounds meant the Australian Club was unrepresentative of Australia.

A letter circulated by those opposing women members, parts of which were published in the Australian earlier this month, claimed that the push to admit women started after a 2019 meeting where other proposals including “the admission of members of Asian race” were raised.

There is nothing in the constitution that bans men from becoming members if they are not Caucasian, Cousins said, though he had heard – but did not have first-hand knowledge – of prospective members who were not white having their applications refused.

“It wasn’t exactly a diverse group of people,” Cousins said of Tuesday’s meeting.

The club, which was founded in 1838, has not responded to a request for comment.

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