Last week, an Australian Crime Commission report into links between drugs and sport was released in the most theatrical of circumstances. Its public launch was attended by Home Affairs and Justice Minister Jason Clare, who introduced ‘shocking’ findings that he said would ‘disgust Australian sports fans’. He was joined by Sports Minister Kate Lundy who contributed the interesting double of both vowing to catch wrongdoers and pleading with them to identify themselves. Both ministers were flanked by the heads of all major Australian sporting competitions. This, in particular, was a striking image. Fully-grown CEOs, fearsome figures within their own sporting worlds, standing by like guilty schoolchildren outside the principal’s office.
As a spectacle the event was extraordinary. Part federal politics, part Mel Gibson in Ransom. On reflection, it is surprising that Clare missed the chance to conclude the launch by swinging an axe into a barrel of bootleg liquor.
The report itself, however, fails to rise to the level of its fanfare. It contains few concrete revelations and reads like the prospectus of a middling biotech company. A few stock photos of bottled medicines and syringes. Vague references to things that could, might be, or are at risk of occurring. A spicy reference to Lance Armstrong, but otherwise a striking absence of names and detail.
Indeed, to read the report is to share the experience of a man opening the sealed section of a magazine to find nothing but photos of empty couches. Just captions making the claim that, well, if you could just see these ladies you would understand that they are really something.
As it is, we are left with a series of tremendous allegations trailed by no prosecutions, no arrests and no proven crimes. After a week of supposed bombshells, the ‘findings’ remain as foggy as an Oliver Reed hangover. The public has been provided with few details that might incriminate the guilty or exonerate the innocent. And so it seems that for little purpose, damage has been done to the reputation of the entire Australian sports industry and its participants.
Subsequent to the launch of the report, public sentiment has demanded that the government release the names of those under investigation for alleged wrongdoing. Sporting officials have sought the public disclosure of details withheld from the report. In a sense such demands can be unfair, because of the strict confidentiality imposed on intelligence gathered by the ACC. As a matter of law, in many cases significant disclosure just can’t occur. Such legalities were, however, plainly known before it was decided to pursue a strategy of maximum publicity at the launch of the report. Perhaps the idea was to encourage guilty persons to identify themselves, but was this tactic really worth the wholesale suspicion created on what has been described as the blackest day in Australian sport?
The ACC is a respected and important organisation. Its work must never become a location for political grandstanding. It must be acknowledged that ministers Clare and Lundy were reportedly invited by the ACC to attend the report’s launch. A softer role was, however, surely appropriate.
Significant claims of criminal conspiracy and promises to catch and punish offenders create expectations that successful prosecutions will occur and that significant penalties will be imposed. Only dispassionate legal process can determine whether either is necessary or desirable. If the public is encouraged to expect certain outcomes, before such processes have been completed, this can place inappropriate pressure on the administration of justice.
Clare is by some accounts a skilled performer within the government and a potentially capable cabinet member. Alongside colleague and contemporary Chris Bowen he is considered part of the next generation of potential Labor leaders. He should be disabused of the idea that playing the tough guy is part of the role of a Justice Minister. His talents must be redirected towards quietly and competently administering his difficult portfolio.
Unlike in Australia, the US political landscape has long been afflicted by the concept of the ‘perp walk’. This occurs when a politically ambitious prosecutor obtains the arrest of a high-profile or unpopular accused amid maximum publicity. It is so named for the alleged perpetrator being walked, wearing handcuffs, in the view of assembled media. The concept is based upon a premise that Australia must continue to reject: that political figures share the risks and rewards of outcomes in the justice system.
The last time the Australian community was confronted with spectacular allegations, leveled by only inference and innuendo, the subject was ‘the Goanna’. For many years Kerry Packer, identified with a nudge and a wink from journalists and officials, faced baseless allegations of serious criminal conduct. Only time can tell whether the events of last week will be looked back on as a ‘Goanna moment’.
The issue of drugs in sport attracts a volatile public response. It is a dangerous playground for a government at any time, let alone in an election year. If the interests of sport and politics are seen to be in conflict, public sympathies will be easy to predict. Consider this: the membership of the Australian Labor Party is estimated to be around 30,000. Collingwood Football Club, just one AFL team, counts more than 70,000. Australia is a country that reads the back page of the newspaper first.
By seizing a prominent role in this issue, the government has embarked upon a strategy of high political risk. Its challenge will be to convince the public that it is acting in, not against, the interests of the teams and players they treasure. If the concerns identified by the ACC are quickly and efficiently addressed, perceptions of the government’s competence may improve. There is no political dividend in a drawn-out public brawl. It is in everyone’s interests that there is no repeat of the spectacle of last week.