Abuse and corruption the Australian way


Rotten apples with the caption 'Australian owned and grown'We should open our eyes and take in what multiple government inquiries are telling us about Australian society at the moment. It is not enough to focus on just one; we should consider the revelations cumulatively. It is little exaggeration to say that almost no major institution in our society, public or private, has been left untouched. We should join the dots and cry.

There are many inquiries underway. The four most significant are being conducted by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption, the New South Wales Independent Commission against Corruption, and the Defence Abuse Response Taskforce. Each of them is broad and the preliminary findings and the content of public hearings, on top of what we already know from previous investigations and trials, point towards damning conclusions.

A significant focus of the Child Sexual Abuse commission has been dioceses and orders of the Catholic Church. But hearings have also focused on the terrible shortcomings of government-run institutions, other churches and secular non-government organisations, including the Salvation Army, the Scouts and the YMCA. The police and the legal profession have also been implicated.

ICAC has examined many cases of criminal and/or unethical behaviour in public life. Both sides of major party politics are implicated. Numerous former and current ministers look guilty of corruption and/or association with dubious if not criminal behaviour. MPs, lobbyists, businessmen, fund-raisers and party officials have been caught in the net, revealing a dark underside to public life.

The Trade Union commission is investigating alleged corruption and widespread malpractice and bullying in many parts of the labour movement, including big unions like the Heath Services Union and the Australian Workers Union. At least one major company is also involved.

An ABC Four Corners report recently cast further light into the long-running inquiries into sexual harassment and abuse within the Defence Force. Investigations are ongoing under Justice Len Roberts-Smith, chairman of the Defence Abuse Response Task Force. There have been several damning reports over the last decade; hundreds of cases, many involving serving officers, remain unresolved. There are calls for a Royal Commission, and Roberts-Smith reckons sexual abuse in the Defence Force is much greater than has ever been publicly admitted.

Publicity about these inquiries tends to be too narrow. Reporters have their specialities and readers have their pet guilty parties: governments, unions, churches, political parties or the military. Too few join the dots.

There are, however, common themes. In each of these institutions there are not just a few bad apples. Whole institutions are dysfunctional and their cultural problems include lack of transparency and giving primacy to their own self-interest. Senior office-holders have abused not just their members but also public trust. It is not enough to say that these institutions also do good things.

Furthermore, this institutional malfunction indirectly touches nearly all of us through our association, support, or identification with one or more of these institutions.

We should look beyond individual inquiries and institutions and take a much broader view. Once the facts have been established, the criminals punished and the victims compensated, the bigger picture of social dysfunction becomes more important, if history is not to be repeated.

Government must take its share of the blame and bear its share of compensation to victims. But stronger or better government is not the solution to bad individual behaviour, no matter how much the law is enforced or new regulations introduced.

Because these institutions are largely run by men the bulk of the perpetrators in all sectors appear to be men. So more women in positions of authority has to be part of any solution.

Finally, individual human responsibility is central. The problems are so widespread that no one political, religious or economic philosophy has the answer. Very few of us can be absolved from contributing in some way to the maintenance of these institutions and to the cultural understandings that support these abuses.


John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and a Canberra Times columnist.

Rotten apples image from Shutterstock

Topic tags: John Warhurst, Royal Commission, child sex abuse, Catholic Church, ICAC



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Existing comments

Kathy Jackson though has been proved to be the most avaricious of the union bosses, Gillard was the cruellest of PM's towards refugees, Roxon was the cruellest AG towards refugees and aborigines. But indeed, in Australia the male mentality has scarcely crawled out of the culture of the rum corps.

Marilyn | 27 June 2014  

I worked for governments that I think could be called, in one case fascist, and in another, communist, and got on very well - because I was raised a Catholic! It isn't the ideology that matters so much, it's the way power is exercised in hierarchies that is the same. Men are seen to be more to blame because they have been mostly in the powerful positions, yet the female orders of the Church have also been called to account for their orphanages and the like. We need more open, consultative, cooperative attitudes and structures based on respect for the person. Power shouldn't be too concentrated, and the exercise of it should be constantly reviewed.

Russell | 27 June 2014  

John, to get a proper perspective you need to look beyond institutions. Talk to a few ordinary caseworkers who handle sexual abuse. That should help in figuring out to what extent institutions per se are to blame, and how much they simply reflect something more widespread in our society.

Paul F | 29 June 2014  

Its very simple really. Western society has abandoned its very foundations and in consequence the house is falling down. The foundation of Western society is a belief in God and Christianity, replaced by the passing thrills of sex, power and money, as much of the latter as possible, acquired regardless of who or what suffers in the accumulation of that money. Won't improve until the human virtues are again recognised for their inherent worth. That does of course demand personal responsibility which has gone missing in this modern world. Calls for its re-institution, as by the current government, are met with cries of foul play. Ned Kelly had it right when he said, "Such is life"

john frawley | 30 June 2014  

I could not agree more with Prof John Warhurst' s comments. Our society has been pervaded with absolute evil in the perpetration of sexual abuse against children for generations. When I was a girl, I knew the police, the judiciary and politicians were not only involved but controlling laws and protecting the worst perpetrators. Many young boys simply disappeared. The community was powerless against this evil. I believe it continues today, perhaps not as much as in the 50s and 60s....but young people disappear every day and are never seen again. There is so much corruption and abuse of privilege in Australia. It needs to be exposed.

Kathryn Jannis | 30 June 2014  

It is a tragedy that human beings treat their vulnerable members with such callousness. The following book details the treatment of children from ancient times until now; 'The History of Childhood' (USA: Harper Torchbook, 1975). Why have human beings learned so little?

Skye | 30 June 2014  

Agree have great concern that tenders in welfare sector are advantaging big church groups. I know in Qld chaplains as DV workers, less qualified ppl getting jobs in sector. Professional standards ethics must b maintained as well as wages which tend to b lower in church charities for frontliners. Excellent feminist NGOs missed out on tenders in NSW...political agenda I suspect.

umi | 30 June 2014  

That's very good to attempt an overview of what those cases have in common. The story of the Magdalen laundries makes you wonder if the problem is all male: http://web.maths.unsw.edu.au/~jim/magdalen.pdf

James Franklin | 30 June 2014  

Hello John You state "So more women in positions of authority has to be part of any solution." If you look at industry across the board in Australia today, women in positions of authority are 99.9% white women. I have met many of these senior executives/ directors only to find they are in the top position not by virtue of merit.(trading on respectability) I'm so tired of white Australia preaching white righteousness, when are you going to have the backbone and integrity to fight for true righteousness and sacrifice to give dark skinned people(including the educated dark skinned people), there human rights for the greater goodness of Australia. Nothing will change until all people are given equal rights and equal worth. Why do you think the racial composition of Australia is not represented in the top hierachy in industry today? Not because the Western educated and Western trained dark skinned professionals don't have their skills and experience - they bring balance, creativity and diversity. Take a look at your university's board, executive team to see the whites only policy thriving. The systems in Australia has been setup like this for generations to promote white prestige, self belief and security.

Jackie | 30 June 2014  

You could also have joined sports organisations to your list of enquiries into corruption.Winning at all costs seems to be a pattern

Chris | 02 July 2014  

as a single parent of 3 children through the 1990s i saw this underbelly in action in all the institutions i had to deal with. it was deeply ugly and cruel. if you look at different epochs in civilization, each era developed their own institutions to address the problems of the day ... then grew to become THE problems in themselves ... just reflect on the relationship that medicine, religion, and law have to society and see how the human condition becomes medicalised or illegal or stigmatised within each era. Social, emotional, spiritual, cultural and physical control are always at its core ...

mary tehan | 04 July 2014  

Does anyone know what the $100 million to continue the enquiry is to be spent on? Has an enquiry been made into comparisons between life in institutional care and home care during the period under investigation?

helen cantwell | 05 July 2014  

With all of the corruption and abuse being exposed via royal commissions there still isn't any confidence that things will change. Women work and produce as hard as men, but in 2014 they are not equally recognised. It's hard to believe the boys clubs of politics, law, finance and industry will allow women to be the guardians of our children's and our workers. Wonderful article, keep trying on our behalf. Trish

Trish Barr | 05 July 2014  

I agree with the article, morality has gone to hell. As an Odinist, personal responsibility is an absolute. You kill a cow, you replace the cow, or it's equivalent. I think they should face the same type of sentencing as any low level Australian. If they were forced to spend the same time and/or %of income in fines, most would not do it to begin with. Further, if we give a finders fee to anyone, as to % value of said corruption, they would soon be exposed.... Regardless of institution....

Odinist | 17 August 2014  

i read your article with interest. 60% of wealth owned by 20% of the people, while 20% have 1% of the wealth, to any sane person its obvious that a country formed on colonisation needs to redistribute the wealth in order to move forward as a society.
Our short sighted politicians waste our valuable resources selling to china when we should be establishing self sufficiency.
I could go on, but i just think the whole system needs a bullet in the head, the legal system is so outdated, the education system endoctrinates kids to be slaves of a corporation. the media is a propaganda machine.

jesse jensen | 25 January 2015  

Your inclusion of the corrupt Coialition's anti-union witch hunt, that found barely anything, quite possibly less corruption than is typical in any private sector for-profit venture or Coalition government program, undermines your credibility. Like the home insulation scheme witch hunt, it only proved the corrupt political motivations of the ideologues behind them when they found LESS malpractice than was typical in the industry to that point. It's the naive inclusion of the anti-union witch hunt and smear that makes this otherwise not worthless article un-shareable.

Dave | 02 September 2018  

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