Australians are abusing power like never before – and it’s time we did something about it

May 17, 2021

1.    Gymnastics: a sad example of our growing tolerance of power abuses

It was the recent release of an Australian Human Right’s Commission report into Australian gymnastics that finally brought home a sad fact: Australians have a problem with power. A very specific problem. We seem increasingly happy to tolerate the abuse of power, particularly the abuse of the weak by the strong, of the vulnerable by the powerful.

Why is the Human Right’s Commission reviewing gymnastics? For very good reasons. Sadly, the Commission had been asked to investigate the sport because of an all too familiar pattern ofabusive, coercive, and neglectful behaviours perpetrated on vulnerable participants in the sport. For example:

- Sexual abuse of young athletes by adult coaches

- A ‘win at all costs’ attitude that chewed up and spat out young sports people

- Bruising and damaging training routines that left some athletes with long term injuries

- Verbal and psychological abuse that regularly reduced children to tears. In some gyms crying was banned. Young girls reported that they went to the toilets to weep

- Relentless, systematic ‘fat shaming’ - even at major government-funded sports institutions - and obsessive pursuit of thin,waif-like body types

- A culture of cover up and minimisation ofcomplaints whether made by athletes, parents or even whistle blowing officials

Keep in mind gymnastics is a sport whose participants are largely young and female. Even at elite international levels many of the participants are under 18 years of age. They are minors. As such, they cannot legally give consent to sexual activity with a person in a position of authority over them; nor are they able to demand accountability from the adults in their sport. They are in an unequal power relationship.

Alison Quigley, for example, was a teenage gymnast. She was raped by her coach. He was later tried and gaoled for the offence after being tricked into confessing by Quigley and the police. On the release of the Human Right’s Commission report, Quigley wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald (May 5, 2021) of what she termed ‘the huge cultural troughs’ of her sport. These include:

‘The cost of the so-called pixie model, the hypocritical difference between attitudes to male and female gymnasts, and the sad fact of massive power imbalances between coach and athlete.’

At the trial of her coach the presiding judge was scathing in his summing up, noting:

‘Sexual offending by adults against vulnerable children is a scourge on our society.’

He went on to focus attention on the vast power imbalance between adult and child, of the coach’s position of authority over Quigley’s career, his disregard for her (sexual) inexperience and of the risks of pregnancy and venereal disease.

Journalist Greg Baum penned the following summary of the Human Rights Commission’s findings. It is worth reading in full:

“The body of the report makes for grim reading. On culture, it talks of the ‘inherent power imbalances in the coach-athlete relationship, a culture of fear and control instilled by coaches and an overall tolerance of negative and inappropriate behaviours’.

It outlines coaching practices described in one submission as ‘archaic and authoritarian … fear-based,extremely regimented, aggressive’ using ‘guilt’ as a key driver, ‘built on negativity’ and ‘focused on perfection’. It speaks of ‘culture of compliance’ and of the grooming of parents to accept crushing training loads for their daughters because ‘this is what has to happen’. One parent tells of a girl who was forced to perform a whole routine on a broken ankle, leaving her doctor flabbergasted.

The report highlights one submission that claims ‘some administrators, medical professionals, sports physicians, physiotherapists, sports psychologists and nutritionists” were complicit in abusive practices’.”

This last paragraph is damning. Where were the adults, the grown-ups in the room, those who had authority to intervene and protect children? They were out to lunch it seems, a very long lunch. And many of these wrongs had been known about for years.

2.    Gymnastics in perspective: Australia as a whole has a problem with power

I could dwell on gymnastics but that would give the false impression that this sport is a one-off, an outlier. Instead, I want to stop for a moment and remind us that we have heard and seen this all before. The sport of gymnastics is the most recent in a long line of documented abuses of the powerless by the powerful across our nation.

There have been many investigations and exposes in recent years across a range of industries and sectors that tell a tale all too similar to that of gymnastics. These include the at time horrifying reports of royal commissions into banking, institutionalised sexual abuse, aged care, the 30 year old royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody (there have been 400 or more deaths in custody since), the sexual and other abuse scandals revealed over past months in politics and the family and domestic violence crisis. We need to remind ourselves that one woman is murdered every 9 days by a current or former partner. In what might be the ultimate abuse of power, some men murder their wives and partners also murder their own children.

Looked at together, I believe the evidence is sufficient to point to significant concerns about how power is used in this country.

3.    There are patterns of abuse if we have the eyes to see

Australia used to be known as the nation that ‘stuck up for the underdog’, now we do the opposite, we ‘stick it to the underdog.’

We need to open our eyes to the unpalatable pattern before us. A raft of investigations and exposes have provided the evidence of systematic abuse of the weak by the strong. The results hold a mirror to us as society. If we are willing to look.

What I see in the mirror is this. We are a nation of power abusers or, at the very least, a nation that has a high tolerance for the abuse of the powerless.

Perhaps Australia has always been like this, or perhaps we are just now coming to terms with some of the ugliness that lurks deeply embedded in our community.

4.    The unlikely solution – better governance

Rather than focus on the character flaws of the individuals who abuse power, or the organisations or industries that similarly fail their clients or users, I want to focus on the system. More specifically, how we design and regulate organisations and institutions in such a way that power imbalances are addressed, and transparency maximised. Put another way, how we can most effectively govern ourselves and our organisations in the interests of the weak as much as the strong. There are no easy solutions here, but better governance systems will,over time, contribute to a lessening of the abuse of power.

There are two definitions of governance I draw on. Although they focus on corporate governance, they can apply more broadly. For example, to a sport, and industry sector or to a whole complex enterprise such as school education. The first comes from the OECD:

(Governance is) “The framework of rules, relationships, systems and processes within and by which authority is exercised and controlled in corporations.”

The second was coined by Lord Cadbury, who conducted a review of corporate governance for the UK government. His definition states:

“Corporate governance is concerned with holding the balance between economic and social goals and between individual and community goals.  The governance framework is there to encourage the efficient use of resources…The aim is to align as nearly as possible the interests of individuals, corporations and society.”  

The OECD emphasises the framework within which authority is exercised and controlled. Lord Cadbury notes the need for balance between economic and social goals and for alignment of interests vertically and horizontally. Both imply that the exercise of power and authority must be limited, be held in check, or balanced, in a way the recognises that different groups (stakeholders)have different interests.

A robust governance framework should also recognise and address differences in the means individuals and groups possess by which to achieve their interests. For example, a 10-year-old gymnast and an end stage dementia sufferer share the same inherent situation: each has limited power and means by which to communicate and protect their interests. They require others to represent them, and such representation cannot be left to chance. One off whistle blowers in gymnastics, aged care and even banking were ignored - as they largely are elsewhere. Many of the abuses of power brought to national attention over the past decade have come about due to the fact we have not recognised and addressed inherent power imbalances.

5.    Checking the powerful: a bias to the weak

There are at least five mechanisms or principles that together work toward redressing power imbalances and minimising, but never eliminating, abusive behaviours.

1.       Designing in checks and balances to power

Embedded power imbalances lead to abuse. Power imbalances rarely address themselves without intervention: they have to be acknowledged and then dealt with in a systematic way through explicit policies and arms-length processes. In many situations, making a complaint or notifying a concern is fraught simply due to lack of confidentiality and independent investigation. The absence of confidentiality and independence serve the alleged perpetrators and disempower their victims. For example, one gymnast made this very sad and revealing comment to the Human Rights Commission:

‘It’s always “Try and fix it yourself” or “Talk to your nearest adult or someone who you trust”. But there’s no near adult we can trust.’

Another said:

‘When you complain to Gymnastics Australia, your complaint is sent to Gymnastics New South Wales, then Gymnastics New South Wales sends your complaint to look at, to the club, to the actual abuser, against whom you made a complaint.’

This scenario holds true from Parliament House to aged care, from religious institutions to professions such as medicine, from major corporations to community organisations. All too often there is not an independent, confidential route for complainants to take - either for themselves or on behalf of others. In some situations, this in simply unfortunate. For others, where sexual, financial, or physical abuse is involved, it can result in significant financial loss, severe injury or even death.

Those with less power, or unable to exercise power for themselves, must have their interests protected and represented. One of the recommendations of the Gymnastics’ report, for example, is that all allegations of abuse of children must be reported and investigated externally to the sport’s administration.

Where there are power imbalances there must be explicit, independent, and confidential processes put in place.

2.       Regulatory oversight

There are many regulators and oversight bodies in Australia, but they all too often lack teeth, are under-resourced or focus on the wrong things. Funding regulatory bodies costs money, but so do royal commissions, redress schemes, court cases and compensation. Some industries and sectors argue that they cannot afford to fund effective regulators and independent review mechanisms, and governments at times argue the same. Yet when things go seriously wrong the taxpayer comes forward as the funder of last resort.

It is often stated in business circles that the one regulator Australian companies and boards fear is the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC). This national regulator at least is seen as having teeth and enforcing its remit. But all too many of such bodies are seen as weak and unwilling to enforce their own rules. This was particularly at issue in the banking royal commission where both regulators –APRA and ASIC – were criticised for poor or overly secretive enforcement (see openness and transparency below).

Effective, consistent, and independent regulatory oversight is essential to ensuring a balance of power, particularly for the powerless and those unable to represent themselves for whatever reason. Timeliness is also an issue: taking 12-18 months to investigate a complaint is not fair to anyone involved.

3.       Openness,transparency, and clear governance lines

Abuse of power thrives in the absence of openness and transparency. In general, too many governments and government bodies in Australia hide behind a veil of secrecy and confidentiality. Commercial and not for profit organisations similarly cloak themselves in secrecy. Systematic sexual and physical abuse of children and vulnerable adults could not have gone on for decades without institutions being complicit in systematic cover ups and secrecy. In fact, this is exactly what the royal commission into sexual abuse found as has the aged care royal commission. Secrecy and lack of transparency work to further empower those who abuse their power. In contrast, openness and transparency, in conjunction with independence and arms’ length investigations - favours the powerless and those unable to defend themselves.

Abuse of power also thrives when there is a lack of clear lines of governance and accountability. For example,w here review or complaint mechanisms are not independent, where policies are vague or non-existent or where there is a mess of accountability and reporting lines across national, state and territory jurisdictions as was the case in the sport of gymnastics. In addition, serious complaint investigations must report directly to the board or governing body not to management.

Examples abound. As noted, staffers in Federal Parliament hold their jobs at the whim of their supervising Minister or MP. They have no recourse to an independent body to take complaints to let alone to open and transparent review processes. They are thus powerless. Perhaps not as powerless as the elderly or the 10-year-old gymnast, but the system is stacked against them. The UK and NZ have already acted to change this scenario in their parliaments, Australia is way behind.

Openness and transparency should mean that as far as possible, data on the number and type of complaints, and their resolution, should also be publicised. Sadly, even when data is made available there is no guarantee that it will be acted upon. More than 400 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have died in custody since a Royal Commission into this very tragedy 30 years ago. Yet it is still not clear who will take accountability for this travesty.

4.       Culture

Culture has been defined as the unconscious,often unspoken assumptions people hold about how the world is and how it ought to be. These tacit beliefs then determine our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours.

Much has been written in recent years about ‘good and bad’ organisational cultures, often with a naïve view that culture is easy to define. Cultures are complex and even contradictory. For example, sometimes there is a clash between what is said and publicised about a particular organisational culture - that is, what the organisation supposedly believes in and supports - and the underlying assumptions or beliefs that culture is based on. A school might state that it values children and seeks to protect their well-being. Yet when children or parents complain, they are told by officials that the reports of children cannot be trusted or that a particular teacher would ‘never do something like that.’ Such contradictions are confusing and dismaying for alleged victims of abuse and those supporting them.

All too often, when faced with uncomfortable allegations, the first response of many organisations is to:

- Deny the reality of the complaints (it never happened or could not happen);

- Minimise the seriousness or impact of the alleged behaviour (if it did happen, it was a minor incident or a once off);

- Take up a legal battle with the complainant (bring in the lawyers);  before finally:

- Admitting a wrong has been done (sorry, we stuffed up)

In hindsight it is easy to identify some of the actual negative and perverse cultural assumptions of that entity. These negative assumptions are never written down, but they explain behaviours like those listed above. Negative cultural assumptions include:

- Complainants are trouble makers;

- Cover up and denial are legitimate responses to complaints;

- The reputation of the organisation, sport, religious organisation, or company is more important than the well-being of individuals. Another might be:

- ‘The truth does not matter if we get away with it’; or even: ‘we are above the law.’

Positive cultures welcome and embrace checks and balances, seek out oversight, are transparent and open in their processes and have clear lines of accountability. Bad cultures condone and/or practice the opposite.

5.       Penalty and legal recourse

Sanctions, financial penalties and/or legal recourse are the last resort but are a necessary part of a well-governed system. Physical assault on an elderly patient is not unfortunate, it is a crime, as is the abuse of children. Covering up such instances so as to protect the brand and reputation of organisations or perpetrators may also be a crime. Manipulating vulnerable customers to your advantage or stealing from them is an offence. Failure in the duty of care for Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal persons in custody is not just sad, it is a potentially serious breach of regulations and even the law.

Some who abuse their power and coerce the weak fear little else except being caught. When such people are caught, they should feel the full force of the law.

6.    It won’t be right mate

When I was growing up, I often used to hear the expression ‘She’ll be right mate!’  Meaning, ‘don’t worry yourself, things will sort themselves out in the end.’ It was in its time an endearing if somewhat sexist retort to fussiness from bosses and others who stuck their noses into things they did not understand.

Clearly, ‘she’ll be right’ has not worked in protecting the vulnerable from those who would abuse them either maliciously or from neglect. We will not stamp out power abuse by telling abusers to stop or to follow their better angels. We will make it harder for those who misuse and abuse power if we act consistently to put in place structures and systems to hold their behaviours in check.


Philip Pogson FAICD

May, 2020.

Philip has been a company director, Chair, and business owner for more than 20 years. He consults and advises on strategy and governance across a range of business sectors and also co-owns and operates a music production and promotion business.



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