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Bureaucratic punishment: when public servants act as judge and jury

By Bettina Arndt - posted Wednesday, 29 May 2024

Michael is a typical Aussie kid who grew up in Sydney’s beaches. Confident and cheerful, he was vice president of his school, a popular and good-looking boy who’d spent his whole childhood in the surf. By 18 he was a qualified beach lifeguard. That’s all he’d ever wanted to be.

But then, in August 2021, came the accusation. Sexual intercourse without consent. He says that the girl had boasted to friends beforehand that she planned to have sex with him at the party. That she was the one who initiated things, dragging him off to another room where they started making out. But he stopped when she looked distressed after someone barged in on them.

Her story was totally different. She claimed he’d beaten her up and forced her to have sex against her will.  


Her allegations were enough to have him charged and sent to jail for a couple of nights before being let out on strict bail conditions, never to leave home without a parent present, nighttime curfews and so on.  

For well over a year the whole family was under siege, as the parents struggled to raise funds for expensive barristers and Michael’s distressed siblings supported their frightened brother who spent desperate month after month alone in his room. Mum and dad worried themselves sick about his emotional welfare.  

Eighteen months later it all culminated in a gruelling 6-week court case, resulting in a unanimous verdict of not guilty. It was revealed in court that his accuser had lied consistently to the court and to police. Naturally, she got off scot-free.

But it didn’t end there for this family. Despite the not guilty verdict, Michael discovered there was a whole new phase of punishment about to kick in. Bureaucratic punishment.

Even though the lifesaving organisation had kept his position open, for Michael to resume work he needed his “WWCC”- a working with children check which had been cancelled 4 days after he had been arrested.

It turned out that the bureaucrats who administer the WWCC – from the Office of Children’s Guardian - set themselves up as another judge and jury. They take it upon themselves to decide if this young man should be kept away from children.


Michael plunged into despair as this mob put him through a series of phone interviews, questioning him, interviewing him again and again. For month after month, they left him hanging as they went through the motions, whilst the  deadline for resuming his beloved job slipped away.  

In stepped Michael’s dad, a professional man well versed in bureaucratese, who knew just how to placate the officer in charge, grovelling to her every whim, digging out court transcripts, the testimonials, references, detailed chronology of events – everything that the apparatchik decided could possibly help their deliberations.  

Seven months after the process began, the officer finally rang him to announce Michael would receive the precious certificate. She told him that without his dogged dad Michael most likely would never have received it.

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This article was first published on Bettina Arndt.

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About the Author

Bettina Arndt is a social commentator.

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