SUSAN RYAN. Cricket cheats and Australian culture.

The big question for Australian culture is not which of the three cheats is most remorseful, but why this bad behaviour by cricket heroes, once exposed, has apparently caused greater distress to Australians than any other cheating currently in the public domain.

Banks cheating their customers is the subject of a current Royal Commission. The Australian Tax Office publicly warns against claiming unjustified concessions for holiday houses. Everyone is aware of cheating by insurance companies who try to refuse valid sickness and disability claims by policyholders.

The current frenzied focus of mainstream and social media on ball tampering could lead an outside observer to form the view that cheating at cricket is the worst catastrophe facing Australia at this time.

Perhaps that observation should be recast: getting caught cheating is what has inspired the frenzy. The big question for Australian culture is not which of the three cheats is most remorseful, but why this bad behaviour by cricket heroes, once exposed, has apparently caused greater distress to Australians than any other cheating currently in the public domain.

The prevalence of banks cheating their customers is the subject of a current Royal Commission. The Australian Tax Office publicly warns against claiming unjustified concessions for holiday houses. Everyone is aware of cheating by insurance companies refusing valid sickness and disability claims by policyholders.

Despite exposure, franchise store bosses continue to cheat their employees of fair wages. Politicians are forced to resign positions when exposed cheating on their travel allowances. Perhaps worst of all, some of us illegally use disability parking spaces, crucial to the wellbeing of people with disability.

All these cases of cheating by Australians against Australians involve perpetrators with wealth, power, and access to endless expert legal advice and public relations assistance. This is overwhelmingly the case with the three members of the Australian cricket team who cheated in South Africa. They enjoyed great rewards for being good at cricket. They were paid huge sums, attracted almost universal admiration and adulation, and were promoted as role models for children. They were icons of Australian culture, a culture we like to believe is based on the fair go.

A useful examination of why talented, powerful, and privileged individuals cheat should go further than these instances.

The cricketers specific undoing came about not because of the cheating itself, but because they were caught doing it. One could ask if the incriminating video hadn’t appeared, would they still be doing it? Undiscovered, would they feel the shame and remorse they have expressed post exposure? The exposure has erupted into widespread and highly emotional public discourse, containing a lot of anger but also significant expressions of forgiveness and even of the hope that they will get over their troubles, “move on”, and regain their positions as Australian icons.

What does all this mean for Australian cultural values? Many Australians do regard cricket, and particularly its stars as embodying much more than sports excellence. Cricket is for them emblematic of Australian culture, indeed the best of Australian culture. From this perspective, the cheating has upset a lot of people.

So where in this discourse do we place the cheating by financial institutions that have robbed people of their financial security and often of their mental and physical health? How much part of “who we are” are the exploitative employers who damage the life chances of young employees trying to get established in Australia? Stealing a disability parking spot may cause a person with a disability to miss a crucial hospital appointment. Are these behaviours a part of the Australian culture of the fair go?

How are they linked to the ball tamperers? If the main ethical lesson powerful and privileged people absorb is don’t get caught, all these cheating behaviours are part of our cultural morality.

Australians like to think that the fair go is foundational to our culture. If so, cheating of any kind should be out. Instead, it is widespread and not just in sport. How does this happen? A child by age seven or so can tell the difference between telling the truth and lying. We were taught by the nuns that telling lies was wrong. We were also warned that as well, you could never get away with it because God was always watching. This belief was a useful back up to the moral exhortation to honesty. These days it is more likely to be the ubiquitous phone camera than the eye of god that will catch the wrongdoer.

If Australians want a national culture based on fairness and honesty we must deal with all the cheating that damages our national life, not only the episodes that lead to telegenic tearful expressions of regret.

It is up to parents, coaches, and teachers to discuss with young cricket fans the causes and meaning of the cheating episodes, and the associated public remorse and other consequences. It is up to Royal Commissioners to decide about the damage done by financial institutions breaking the law. It is up to individuals to remind themselves that a bit of tax cheating deprives needy Australians of important services. We should all know that stealing a disability parking spot could prevent a person getting to a hospital.

We have been reminded many times over the Easter break by cricket supporters including religious leaders that none of us is without fault, and that everyone makes mistakes. Could we add to that public homily the reminder that some “mistakes” are more damaging to our fellow citizens than others, and we need to be able to tell the difference? Cheating such as the current cricket crisis does cause national embarrassment and mortifies the guilty individuals, but we can’t leave it at that. Much more damaging cheating goes on all around us. This tawdry cricket episode would prove useful if it could leverage more public determination to protect consumers and vulnerable citizens against the damage done by dishonest major institutions and those who run them. Where human decency fails, the law must step in. Australians who want a decent national culture must insist. That is what living in a democracy with the rule of law requires.

Susan Ryan AO was a member of the Hawke Cabinet. She recently served as Age and Disability Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission.

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Susan Ryan was Minister for Education in the Hawke Cabinet and Age Discrimination Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission 2011-2016. 

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