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The good old days and why they weren’t so good, even considering COVID

Times have changed. Once such a drawer was a place for a reporter to keep a bottle of Scotch to turbo-boost while racing to deadline.

Deflated (unlike the nearby balance ball) I decided to leave. Later that afternoon the Editor produced free hampers for those still in the office. I missed out. It was a bad day.

Walking through the city, looking at the empty shops, the homeless and the scarcity of foot traffic made the city eerily similar to the movie On The Beach, set in Melbourne in 1959.

The plot was a dramatic version of today’s reality. A nuclear war left a deadly radioactive cloud spreading through the world and heading to Melbourne. It led to the famous quote from film star Ava Gardner (fabricated by a journalist who later worked at The Age) that Melbourne was “the perfect place to make a film about the end of the world”.

A deserted Melbourne in the 1959 film <i>On the Beach</i>.

A deserted Melbourne in the 1959 film On the Beach.

The final scenes were of an empty Melbourne with newspapers blowing down the streets. We haven’t quite got there but it’s pretty damn close.

Melbourne was a capital city with a country town mentality. Pubs would shut at 6pm, shops couldn’t open on Sunday, a day reserved for roasts and Jack O’Toole on theWorld of Sports woodchop.

Pot was the container taken to the Chinese cafe for a big dish of beef chow mein, ecstasy was getting the double at Flemington and ice was delivered by a burly man to families yet to purchase a Kelvinator refrigerator.

What would Lord Mayor Sir Frank Selleck, who welcomed the Olympics, think of his city now?

In those days online referred to the washing on the Hill’s Hoist, Tinder was kindling used to start a fire, and Zoom was planting the foot in the FJ Holden. Crime was simpler too, with a few stick-ups, light-fingered dock workers and young bucks in leather jackets who caught the train into town for a punch-up outside the dances.

Around that time the number one hit was Slim Dusty’s Pub With No Beer. A remake now would surely be called Supermarket Without Toilet Paper.

Australian Ron Clarke circles the track in Melbourne Stadium before lighting the Olympic Flame during the 1956 Melbourne Olympics

Australian Ron Clarke circles the track in Melbourne Stadium before lighting the Olympic Flame during the 1956 Melbourne OlympicsCredit:The Age Archives

In those days the closest we came to a Middle Eastern crime gang was watching Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves at the Forum Cinema.

The view is that police had a no-nonsense attitude to crooks, the courts punished offenders to the letter of the law and if there were any do-gooder, civil liberty types their views were confined to beatnik cafes over plates of sausages and beans.

The truth is, the view that law and order has slowly been eroded by skivvy-wearing, crook-loving atheists is as false as Liberace’s teeth.

Back then corruption was rampant; police stations were paid off by SP bookmakers, the government’s telephone authority bribed to install banks of phones for illegal bookies, abortionists protected for a fee, child-molesting priests given a free pass, bent police allowed to resign rather than be prosecuted and lazy cops fabricated admissions by producing unsigned confessions Hemingway would have been proud of.

In fact police have been given more powers over the years. The question is, has it made any difference?

In those days an accused could make an unsworn statement from the dock – a licence to lie. Suspects stood up in court to give a false alibi and, as it was not under oath, were free to perjure themselves. One said he couldn’t be the offender as the gunman had tattoos on his fingers, theatrically thrusting his clean hands towards the jury.

He had covered his tatts with theatre make-up.

CCTV is now pivotal in building cases. A handful of cameras were introduced in 1981 for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. Now we are filmed more than Elvis.

Police have helicopters, aircraft and drones to watch us from the sky and number plate recognition cameras on the ground.

One of Victoria Police’s new helicopters.

One of Victoria Police’s new helicopters.Credit:Eddie Jim

We used to pay cash. Now we leave a daily credit card footprint. Our medical records are computerised, our bank records centralised, our movements tracked on toll roads and our phones leave a trail like an oily ute.

Police have increased power to take fingerprints and DNA now cracks previously insoluble crimes.

Only in the last 30 years have police had the power to (legally) tap telephones.

The right to silence has been thrown out the window (back then it was the occasional suspect thrown out a police station window). Suspects are forced to answer at hearings held by the Office of the Chief Examiner, the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission and the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission.

These initiatives were meant to make it easier to catch and convict crooks and simplify the court process. If the evidence is overwhelming there should be more guilty pleas, less contested trials and quicker jury verdicts.

Yet the exact opposite is true. Court delays have never been greater, with a backlog of 140 murder cases circling the airport. Prosecution briefs of evidence now make War and Peace look like a Noddy and Big Ears. I am a witness in a case where the suspect was charged nearly two years ago. There is still no court date.

On July 31, 1993, serial killer Paul Charles Denyer was charged with the murders of three Frankston women and 141 days later was sentenced to life with no minimum by Justice Frank Vincent. On appeal a minimum of 30 years was set. Today it would be life, further proving sentences today are actually tougher.

Court delays are a disgrace – profoundly unfair to victims, accused, witnesses and police. There is no evidence making cases more complex makes them more just. The acquittal rate has not altered markedly. The only winners are lawyers, as the longer the process is, the bigger the fees.

No wonder legal participants are change-averse. As every industry strives for efficiency, too many in the law cling to the past.

Take the much-publicised case of barrister-turned-informer Nicola Gobbo. In December 2018 the High Court slammed Victoria Police for using Gobbo as a secret source. Premier Daniel Andrews immediately appointed a Royal Commission, relying on the legal system that produced Gobbo and failed to deal with her unethical behaviour to get to the bottom of the mess.

There were allegations that up to 1000 convictions may be unsafe due to Gobbo’s involvement. Instead of dealing with that, the Commission went on for two years, costing (with legal fees) more than $100 million to conclude that police were naughty to use Gobbo and Nicola was naughty to be a tattletale. Meanwhile there may be people in jail who shouldn’t have been convicted.

The justice system does not need police with more powers but to jettison clutter and examine only core issues. To travel faster you must first lighten the load. You don’t win Bathurst in a station-wagon.

Want to speed up homicide trials? How about a Harvey Norman system of discounts? Confess during the police interview and get 50 per cent off, plead guilty before committal 30 per cent, after committal 10 per cent and if you are found guilty by a jury after professing innocence (ie. lying) you get 10 per cent added.

While a minimum sentence should be set by the court, the maximum should be mandatory life. This would give the prison and parole systems greater control of inmates and the prisoner greater incentive to reform.

It makes old-fashioned sense, which is why it will never happen.

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