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Guilty, yes, but entitled to some respect

Marcus Einfeld’s exemplary public service record has been overlooked in the rush to condemn him, says Barry Cohen

29 April 2009

12:00 AM

29 April 2009

12:00 AM

Marcus Einfeld’s exemplary public service record has been overlooked in the rush to condemn him, says Barry Cohen

They just can’t help themselves. In the recent Four Corners programme on Marcus Einfeld, much of the introduction was devoted to highlighting the fact that he is Jewish. There he was with his son practising with Sydney’s Great Synagogue choir, followed by interviews with prominent members of the Jewish community that begged the question of what his religion has to do with his ‘crimes and misdemeanours’.

As I have pointed out previously, this practice is now commonplace with many journalists who feel it is beholden upon them to mention that a person is Jewish, particularly if they have been naughty.

When asked why they do, journalists invariably respond: ‘It’s part of the story.’ When further asked why they don’t highlight the religion of other prominent Australians they have no answer. I don’t know the religion of Rupert Murdoch, James Packer, Kerry Stokes, Twiggy Forrest, Gerry Harvey or, for that matter, Alan Bond, and frankly I couldn’t give a rat’s arse. So why did Four Corners mention Marcus Einfeld’s religion? Could it be because they wanted to show that his desperate attempts to avoid paying a speeding fine of $75 were linked to a genetic propensity for Jews to be mean?

Am I paranoid? Probably, but as the saying goes, ‘even paranoids have enemies’. This column, however, is not about anti-Semitism, but about Marcus Einfeld and the sentence imposed on him for perjury and his attempts to pervert the course of justice. He received three years in custody with the possibility of a year off for good behaviour.

By comparison, a few years ago a young lady living in Canberra got four years for killing her boyfriend. Shortly after Marcus Einfeld was sentenced, Stephen Linnell, one of the top advisers to Victoria police commissioner Christine Nixon, pleaded guilty to three counts of perjury and disclosing confidential information of the Office of Police Integrity. He received an eight-month suspended sentence and a $5,000 fine. The glaring difference between these crimes and the punishments incurred is extraordinary. Why?

No one is questioning Marcus Einfeld’s guilt, which he compounded in the Four Corners programme by refusing to acknowledge that he had been dishonest. He had, he claimed, just made a mistake. As one ‘letter to the editor’ writer noted, ‘He just doesn’t get it.’

What was totally out of character was his stupidity, for Marcus Einfeld is not a stupid man. What possessed him? And for $75? As one of my Labor colleagues commented recently, ‘At the end of the day, the only thing a public figure has is their reputation.’ Most people who enter public life do so because they hope to make some small contribution to improving the society in which they live. Marcus Einfeld’s reputation and life are now in tatters, and that is a tragedy for him, his family and his friends.

Why did he do it? I have no idea. Arrogance? Conceit? Egoism? Or the belief that as one of Australia’s Living National Treasures, he could get away with it?

Ironically, when it was clear his fantasy tales were unravelling, the opportunity presented itself for him to own up, pay the fine and suffer some embarrassment. Once he decided to brazen it out and perjure himself, however, he was beyond hope. It’s not as if he didn’t know what he was doing. He was a federal court judge, for God’s sake.

However, this is not about his guilt but the incredible severity of the sentence. Marcus Einfeld is 70 years old and suffering from a severe illness. That was taken into account, but what appears to have been ignored, or seriously downplayed, is his extraordinary record of public service.

Our families go back a long way. Our fathers were in the same class at Fort Street Boys’ High School in the early 1920s under the legendary Alexander Kilgour. Marcus and I have appeared on public platforms together for more than 40 years. I have admired and been inspired by him on countless occasions.

It is impossible to convey the vast reach of Marcus Einfeld’s involvement in so many issues and good causes throughout a lifetime of public service. The difficulty is conveying to readers how vast it has been. I ask you to contemplate his record.

UN peace laureate
Co-chairman, Australian Foundation for Democracy in Burma
National Advisory Committee on Aids
Inaugural president, Australian Paralympics Federation
Council, Sydney Symphony Orchestra
UNICEF ambassador for Children
Children of Chernobyl
Australian Campaign for Tibet
Aboriginal Medical Co-Op
Association for Victims of Torture
Australian Bangladesh Association
Ted Noffs Foundation
Director, Sydney 2000 Olympic bid
Austcare Ambassador for Refugees

And that’s just a sample. Few Australians have a record of public service to compare with that of Marcus Einfeld. Most are in awe of it.

I spoke to a number of prominent people about his likely sentence. I was stunned at their response. ‘He’s a judge — they’ll make an example of him,’ was the consistent prediction. ‘Are you serious?’ I asked. ‘That’s not justice, that’s politics.’ I had been anticipating a suspended sentence or some community service. The latter would have been too easy.

Some would have gone much further and taken away his AO and his pension. What next? The stocks? The gallows?

Marcus Einfeld committed a crime that has ruined his life and reputation. He deserves to be punished, but a lifetime of good works and a previously unimpeachable record appear to have counted for nothing. It will be to Australia’s eternal shame if he is left to rot in jail.

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