Madonna King: Learning from historic errors of judgment is what really matters

When I was 21, I don’t remember all the stupid costumes I wore to friends’ parties.

Certainly, I went as both a prostitute and a priest to P parties, which were all the rage for a few months.

I also remember going as a toddler, with my bottle filled to the brim with Tia Maria and milk, to an Under 5 and Over 25 party.

And I suspect my lack of creativity extended far beyond that.

At 21, like most people reading this, I was young and my world revolved too much around myself.

Lack of awareness

Certainly I lacked context and an awareness of some of those big complex issues that were also ignored in wider community discussions.

An understanding of the heartache behind much of our First Nations’ policies. A lack of wisdom about global affairs, and particularly those related to histories – our own and others – that had been hidden or rewritten.

The unfairness behind our immigration policies and how we dealt with those in the community who lived longest, and carried a sagacity to prove it, were not as clear then, either.

To be honest, I probably couldn’t spell sagacity.

But it didn’t stop there.

As floods raged in a swollen creek, I joined friends in a swim. I did the same in the murky Brisbane River, after dark, while 21, and at university. I went out with the wrong man, for too long, and quickly moved on from two friendships I would later strongly regret.

Time to own the mistake

Dominic Perrottet made a mistake 20 years ago, and it now risks derailing his election campaign. And perhaps that says more about us now than it does about his silly mistake a long time ago.

Isn’t it time we stopped judging yesterday’s errors through today’s standards?

And isn’t the crucial issue here whether or not Mr Perrottet sees his mistake and owns it wholly?

“When I was 21 at my 21st fancy dress party I wore a Nazi uniform,’’ the NSW Premier said on Thursday.

“I’m deeply ashamed of what I did, and I’m truly sorry for the hurt and the pain that this will cause people right across our state and particularly the Jewish community and Holocaust survivors.’’

Read that any way you like: It’s a fulsome, strong apology, and a personal recognition that he understands the grave mistake behind a Nazi fancy dress costume.

Mr Perrottet was also correct in saying that at 21 he didn’t understand the gravity of what his actions meant, that it was naive, and in his words, “a terrible mistake from a 21-year-old who just had no depth or appreciation’’.

That apology is important, because wearing a Nazi uniform to a party is terribly wrong.

Actions, not words

Like wearing blackface make-up, if he donned a Nazi uniform for a party last Saturday night, our judgment should be more severe.

But actions speak louder than words, and what he does as a leader now is what counts, not what he did as an immature 21-year-old in a different world.

The Jewish community was quick to point out that he had been a supporter and a friend, ensuring adequate funding and encouraging education about the Holocaust.

We should never stop learning along life’s journey. And it’s hard to imagine any politician – or any of us – who doesn’t have some skeleton in the cupboard that would make others think less of us.

The problem with being quick to judgment here is that we risk good people, who at 40 or 50 think very differently to how they thought when they were young, not putting their hand up for big leadership positions.

Or we risk them not using their experience to educate themselves and others.

That would be the real pity here; if Dominic Perrottet’s immature and reckless mistake decades ago coloured our view of public life and those who lead it.

We all make mistakes. The difference is between those who own them, and learn from them – and those who don’t.

And the latter is where we should direct our judgment.

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