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The eradication of rehabilitation

By Bernie Matthews - posted Thursday, 19 April 2007

The appointment of Michael Coutts-Trotter as the new Director-General of the New South Wales Education Department on the recommendation of NSW Education Minister, John Della Bosca, has embroiled the Iemma Government in political controversy because of a criminal conviction and prison sentence Coutts-Trotter received 23 years ago.

Opponents to the Coutts-Trotter appointment argue that his criminal record should prevent his elevation to one of the state’s highest paid jobs while others contend he is an inexperienced public servant ill-equipped to overseer the complex education department.

The Opposition Liberal-National coalition are using the Coutts-Trotter appointment as ammunition to target and potshot the Iemma Government in a political point-scoring exercise.


Somewhere the real Michael Coutts-Trotter and his achievements have been buried beneath mud-slinging innuendo and a knuckle dragging neanderthal attitude that belongs to an era when they burnt witches at the stake or judged people by the pigmentation or colour of their skin.

It is an attitude that has no place in current society. And it is an attitude that belies the traditional Australian concept of “giving a bloke a fair go”.

Michael Coutts-Trotter became a slave to the heroin plague, and like so many other teenagers, was addicted to the drug during the 1980s. To support his habit, the 19-year-old Coutts-Trotter became involved in a conspiracy to import narcotics. He was arrested, charged and convicted for the offence. Coutts-Trotter served three-years imprisonment. During that one and only term of imprisonment an amazing transformation took place.

Coutts-Trotter went cold turkey in a period of pain to beat his habit. He succeeded. Then he not only had to cope with a brutal and uncaring incarceration process but he also had to resist succumbing to the omnipresent temptation of the prison heroin trade that was rife during his period of incarceration. His prison sentence became a daily physical and mental endurance test to defeat the lure of “chasing the dragon”.

Coutts-Trotter was released from prison and continued his self-imposed transformation. He graduated from NSW’s University of Crime with a determined resolve never to return.

He not only turned his life around but also defeated the heroin addiction that created his criminality. While on the road to recovery, Coutts-Trotter studied hard and earned a journalism degree at the Sydney University of Technology. He had successfully turned his back on drugs and criminality - an accomplishment not achieved lightly.


In 1996 Coutts-Trotter entered the NSW Public Service to become a press secretary, and later rose to Chief-of-Staff, to NSW Treasurer Michael Egan. He was then promoted to Director-General for the NSW Department of Commerce, a position he held until his present promotion.

Coutts-Trotter has not only exhibited a determination to turn away from crime and drugs for 23 years but he has also exhibited an expertise within the NSW Public Service that surely must make him one of the most versatile and efficiency equipped Director-Generals the NSW Education Department has ever had.

Still his critics, both inside and outside the NSW Education Department, offer his criminal conviction and imprisonment 23 years ago as sufficient reason to overshadow his subsequent rehabilitation. It is an intense magnification of the widely held belief that ex-prisoners are incapable of rehabilitation or offering worthwhile contributions to society. It is a belief that is completely out of sync with reality.

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ABC Radion National Redemption Panel discussing the issue available here.

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About the Author

Bernie Matthews is a convicted bank robber and prison escapee who has served time for armed robbery and prison escapes in NSW (1969-1980) and Queensland (1996-2000). He is now a journalist. He is the author of Intractable published by Pan Macmillan in November 2006.

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