Men in revolt as women turned away from Melbourne's Athenaeum club

The Australian
31 December, 2008
By Cameron Stewart

AN exclusive Melbourne men's club, the Athenaeum, is in turmoil and faces a string of high-profile resignations after it abruptly dismissed a renewed push this month to allow women to join.

Hundreds of club members - among them some of the nation's most powerful men - are furious about receiving a blunt message from the Athenaeum's president, Don Heathcote, in which he banned all debate on the issue as it was too "distressing" for the male membership to cope with.

"The matter is regarded as closed," Mr Heathcote wrote to the Athenaeum's 1600 members.

"The committee now believes most members need a period free of disturbance and, having suffered distress from anonymous press publicity, seek a time for quiet enjoyment of their club."

Australian Competition and Consumer Commission chairman Graeme Samuel is believed to be one of several members to have resigned from the club in disgust over the handling of the women's issue, which threatens to tear apart the venerable 142-year-old Collins Street institution.

Many other members, including prominent leaders of business, academia and government, are thought to be reconsidering their membership when annual fees are due next month.

Anger within the club has bubbled over in the past week, reopening a rift that shook the club earlier this year.

The issue was revealed by The Australian in September.

The push to include women as members has been driven by a 130-strong group including Mr Samuel, former Victorian Liberal Party director John Ridley, former ALP national secretary Geoff Walsh, Prime Minister's Department head Terry Moran, Collingwood president Eddie McGuire, former Hawthorn president Ian Dicker and Monash University professor Gary Bouma.

When their original push for women members was dismissed by the club's committee early this year, the reform group put forward a second discussion paper in October that proposed a vote within two years on the question of women members.

They argued that a club such as the Athenaeum, which was founded to provide a venue for Melbourne's civic, business, academic and political leaders, was doomed if it excluded women.

The club has recently been forced to abandon a century of tradition by refusing honorary membership to the Governor-General and to the state governors of NSW and Queensland because they are women.

Several weeks ago, Mr Heathcote responded to the reform group's proposal, saying the club's committee had decided to end the debate.

"If we discerned a significant change in the desires of the members, we would consider acting in response to the proposal, but we do not discern such a change," he wrote.

He dismissed the idea that the club promoted itself as a venue for Melbourne's leaders, saying it was primarily a social club and that prominent men were welcomed only "as part of our well-rounded membership, but not as our main reason for existence".

He also denied the club was flouting traditions by not extending honorary membership to women such as Governor-General Quentin Bryce and women state governors.

"There is no conflict; we are not required to offer these honours unless we believe all the features of the person comply with our view of who should be invited. We may invite but it is our choice, not extended in every instance."

Mr Heathcote said any ongoing discussion about women members would be divisive and that all members should abide by the committee's final decision.

Mr Samuel declined to comment on the issue yesterday, and Mr Heathcote could not be contacted.

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