Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher

Getting Away With It [February 7]

I’ve found it. The epigram of our age. The dictum of our decade. It wasn’t broadcast in a rousing speech by a visionary political leader. It wasn’t published in the opinion page of a respected broadsheet. It was sandwiched between a poster advertising the forthcoming Rod Stewart national tour, and another one publicising a Starsky and Hutch theme night at a local club. It was pasted onto a fence surrounding an abandoned building site, and I just happened to catch a glimpse of it as my tram sailed past. The words loomed up in stark black ink:

“Get Away With It”.

Everywhere you look, there are people trying to get away with something. They’re cutting corners, finding loopholes, devising scams, sneaking around, crossing their fingers and hoping that no one will notice what they’re up to. Authors are creating entirely fictional versions of their own lives and selling them to an unsuspecting reading public as the heart-rending, true stories of their struggles against injustice. Corrupt cops are doing shady little deals with the criminals they’re meant to be prosecuting, leaving the law-breakers free to rip us off at their leisure.

Cheating athletes are popping pills or sticking needles in themselves to help them run faster or jump higher or pedal further than the next athlete, who is then using needles and popping pills in a crazy domino effect of self-abuse, in order to win. And when they’re caught out, they’re running away from the drug-testers and challenging the results and shooting the messengers, in their desperate attempts to keep getting away with it.

Wealthy corporations are relocating their headquarters to foreign countries in order to avoid paying award wages, or maintain decent conditions, or provide compensation to the victims of their dangerous products. They’re changing their names and divesting themselves of troublesome subsidiaries and hiding behind their ‘responsibilities to shareholders’ in order to avoid taking corporate responsibility for the damage they’ve done.

Meanwhile, the richest people in the country are avoiding paying billions of dollars worth of tax every year. They’re hiding their profits and exaggerating their losses and over-stating their expense claims, so they can get away with contributing less than they should to health care and public education and environmental protection and all the other things that our taxes pay for.

And no wonder they think they have a right to get away with it. While all these people have been busy avoiding tax and skipping the country and popping pills and confusing fact with fiction, their national leaders have been busy re-writing history, or denying the relevance of history, or creating history, whilst telling porky pies about desperate people in sinking boats trying to murder their own children.

One of the things I’ve always quite liked about my fellow Australians is our reluctance to be dobbers. Footballers avoid dobbing in their opponents at the tribunal, workers avoid dobbing in their workmates for taking the occasional sickie, and none of us dobs on each other for over-staying the time limit on our parking meters. Much as I hate it when people cheat on water restrictions or fail to clean up after their dogs in the local park, I could never bring myself to dob them in. It would feel petty, intrusive and embarrassingly self-righteous.

But maybe all this small-time dobbing-avoidance is quietly corrupting us. Maybe our discomfort with dobbing has nothing to do with being kind to our all-too-human neighbours. Maybe we’re hoping that if we ignore their illegal garden watering, they won’t say anything about our million dollar tax dodge.

I don’t know what the solution is. The people who crow the loudest about the deterioration in public morals, the absence of ‘values’ education, and the importance of politeness and civility in our community, are often the same people who are the medal-winning champions of ‘getting away with it’.

On closer inspection, the billboard poster which so beautifully summed up this twenty-first century malaise turned out to be an ad for a new clothing store. ‘Get away with it’ was a fashion statement, not an election slogan. Can I suggest an alternative adage for our times: ‘Don’t Even Think About It’.

(NB. This column was first published in The Age in 2004. Some things never change)