Back in 1983, a trilogy of feature-length telemovies were made by the ABC called Scales of Justice. Written by Robert Caswell, and directed by Michael Carson, each story was a fictional examination of corruption at three levels of the Australian legal system.
The first story The Job started at the ground level of the legal system, the police force, with a new rookie Constable Leonard Webber (Simon Burke) joining an inner-city Sydney police station. Fresh out of the Police Academy, with the police ethos of right and wrong and what it means to be perceived in the community as a police officer – the blue uniform representing the conscience of society – he is gradually exposed to age-old corruption.
It starts out small, while out on duty with his senior officer, Constable Borland (John Hargreaves). Although an efficient teacher, showing him how to carry himself while saving a mentally ill lady from committing suicide, he also teaches him the first of what could be a series of lifelong bad habits: drinking on the job, ignoring small misdemeanours in order to avoid excessive paperwork; as well as the dubious difference between a “bribe” and a “gift”. He also describes the police uniform as an unofficial “discount card” for making purchases.
But at a much deeper level, he is also being taught the importance of looking after your friends, which is more of a social code of not dobbing in co-workers. When some money in the station goes missing, the evidence of a bribe, all the on-duty officers are forced to chip in a few dollars to make it back up, rather than report it missing and bring in outside scrutiny on their policing.
The rookie takes on some of the habits, and reacts against others; but his own dilemma begins when a friend in his football team who has been charged with petty-theft, asks him to put in a friendly word with the investigating officer on his behalf. After thinking about it for a while, the rookie mentions it to Constable Borland, who tells him to go see the detective; which he does. The detective he visits describes how the system of favours work, not explicitly; but lets the rookie know that his friend now owes him a favour, and suggests that he could help the rookie by becoming an informer.
But crunch time comes for Constable Webber when he is out on night-patrol with Sergeant O’Rourke (played by veteran Australian actor, Bill Hunter) and they investigate a robbery of a fur coat store. The sergeant tells the rookie to check around the back, and in the meantime, steals some of the coats. The rookie comes back out just as the seargeant is closing the boot of his car. He quickly works out what has happened.
The sergeant leaves him to guard the broken door to prevent any passerbys from helping themselves to the merchandise, while he returns to the station. Two detectives then show up who also help themselves to some of the coats. The rookie ignores it, but the next day, he finds that someone has put one of the coats in his locker as a “present” for his fiance.
He takes the coat home with him, and wonders what to do about it. He then asks the advice of a female officer who has just found out she is to be transferred to a remote police station for investigating a rape case that Sergeant O’Rourke had wanted her to ignore. She advises the rookie to get rid of it, throw it away, and don’t say anything.
But thinking he is doing the right thing - by the law at least, Constable Webber decides to report it to the head of the station, without naming his sergeant at first; but when pressured from an outside investigator, he does.
Sergeant O’Rourke is investigated by internal affairs by officers who are like him in age and attitude. The seargeant claims the reverse of what had really happened, that the rookie took the coats while the sergeant was out the back checking the store, and they accept it: it’s easier to write off a new rookie, who is disloyal, than indite a senior officer, and let it reflect badly on an organisation who, up until then, had not detected his corrupt ways.
Thinking that it will all turn out in his favour, the rookie is stunned when he is asked to hand in his badge and leave the force; and although this ending is not explicit in terms of content, it is cold and brutal in a uniquely Australia way.
If there is such a thing as a hardboiled Australian crime film, that bears a close relationship to reality without being sensational, then this it. This episode has elements of Serpico, but without a clearcut hero.
The series was shot in a documentary style, and had a big impact on Australian audiences when it was first shown; and over the years, it has become part of High School English curriculum for students sitting their final year exams.
This particular episode also contains some great night-time footage – the industrial areas, the harbour and shipping yards of Sydney (that are sadly disappearing).
Here is a link to a short clip on the Australian Screen website, with some background information about the series.