Diarist-at-large Richard Ackland flys about the nation. By Richard Ackland.

Ashby pulls out

Sighs of relief were audible in the Canberra air as news spread among Coalition revellers at the Midwinter Ball that James Ashby had pulled the plug on his sexual harassment action against Slippery Pete.

One of the grounds Ashby gave for this magnificent sacrifice is that he wants to spare the defendant “great harm”, due to his fragile mental state.

What a mensch.

If the case went to trial, heaven knows what may have emerged to distract government MPs from the good job they are doing running the country.

The whole Ashby v Slipper enterprise had a surreal quality and Ashby himself was an unsettling character – the honey-trap-turned-victim.

Justice Steven Rares threw it out as an abuse of process, finding that there was a clear political motivation to unstitch the traitor who was lured by “Albo” Albanese from the Liberal National Party to the white tie and frockcoat Speakership.

In a rambling and at times mystifying judgement, the full Federal Court reversed Rares, but not on all the points pleaded by Ashby and his unfortunate solicitor Michael Harmer, who must now be whistling for his costs.

Rares was on the money when he said this was not so much about money.

Now that the Coalition has its backside on the Treasury benches there was no need for this sideshow action by backroom plotters, particularly as Slipper had no money of his own to satisfy the miserable amount of damages if Ashby proved his case.

1 . Numbed by the numbers

Is that Charlton Heston presiding over the trade unions royal commission, asked one of the Twitterati? 

Dyson Heydon does a passable impression of the former head of the National Rifle Association, clenching the terms of reference in his cold, dead hands.

This week it’s the turn of the Health Services Union, but a sure way to slow things down is putting accountants and bookkeepers into the witness box.

Serried rows of lawyers look glazed and blow their noses while counsel assisting grinds through the questions: “what’s an exit audit ... what does CD stand for?”

Lever-arch folders stretch as far as the eye can see. Watching paint dry is comparatively exciting. As Heydon once put it so movingly in another context: “The torpid languor of one hand washes the drowsy procrastination of the other.”

Fortunately, several Norwegian forests have been sacrificed so that Hedley Thomas in The Australian can explain all the dizzying details.

As far as the AWU saga is concerned, Hedley is convinced everyone is missing the greatest story of the millennium. A headline decorating one of his reports last week said it all: “In Julia Gillard’s words, you can work out who you believe. The commission clearly has.”

The rest of us should get a grip on ourselves and suspend our tiresome insistence on seeing the tiny bit of hard evidence that says Gillard knowingly used AWU slush funds to restore her Abbotsford mansion, replete with Liberal Party-inspired white picket fence.

If only someone would hurry up and confess.

2 . Ode to Joh

The slush money paid to the AWU Workplace Reform Association came from a construction business owned by the Thiess group.

This rings a bell. And it gets louder when you come to the great case of Thiess v Channel 9 arising from allegations on A Current Affair in August 1989 that Sir Leslie Thiess paid bribes of up to $1 million to his patron saint, Sir Johannes Bjelke-Petersen, in exchange for government construction projects and coal concessions.

After a trial that went nearly three months, the jury found the basic bribe allegation was true, but other bits of the Channel 9 broadcasts weren’t. In Sir Les’s parlance, the damages of $55,050 were “chicken feed”.

3 . Hard to stomach

The prime minister’s global tour of monuments to fallen and unknown soldiers was hailed by the appropriate authorities as an “outstanding success”.

Tony Abbott introduced an important innovation that may catch on among world leaders.

Americans have this practice of putting hand on heart for their national anthem, inspecting guards of honour and other ceremonial moments.

Australians are not quite so expressive and more or less look a bit discomforted, with their hands at their sides in a vain effort to stand to attention.  

But in Washington, Abbott and Ambassador Kim Beazley did something new: hand on tummy.

There they were inspecting lines of gleaming troops with the PM a little uncertain about what emotional signal this required – until he found his tummy as the suitable resting spot.

For Bomber Beazley clutching his stomach on ceremonial occasions is entirely understandable.

4 . Under the counter

Potiphar’s Wife is the hot new book about the Vatican and the child sexual abuse cover-up.

It’s written by former Sydney lawyer and trainee priest Kieran Tapsell, who traces the way canon law was developed to close down the ancient requirement to hand transgressing priests over to the civil authorities for punishment.

The Catholic Church hierarchy doesn’t much approve of this sort of historical analysis and it’s unlikely you’ll find a copy of Potiphar’s Wife on the shelves of the Pauline bookshop in Sydney.

You have to ask at the counter, where a copy is dragged from somewhere very low down and out of sight and then silently slid towards you. As I slunk out, I felt as though I’d bought a copy of Nude Hot Rodder in a brown paper bag. 

The nun in charge of the shop told the publisher, Hilary Regan, “We have to stop airing our dirty laundry and move on.”

Also, the launch of a book written by Bill Morris, the bishop who got the flick by Rome, is not permitted to be advertised in the Adelaide archdiocese.

Where’s Freedom Boy when we need him?

5 . ACO and MIA

To Sydney’s City Recital Hall for the big Australian Chamber Orchestra’s Mahler and Sibelius show. It’s a packed auditorium and apart from everyone rubber-necking to see who else is there, the important thing was to hear the newly acquired 300-year-old Guarneri violin.

Scads of legal types and captains and cabin boys of industry turned out for the experience, from the cherubic Kim Williams down. However, no one spotted the biggest Mahler fan in the entire wide, brown land – P. J. Keating. “Where’s Paul?” was the question on scores of glossy and high-powered lips.

6 . In his defence ...

Queenslanders have been enjoying the experience of Tim Carmody, the newly appointed chief justice, taking to the airwaves to defend himself against attacks that he is a pawn of the Newman government and doesn’t command the respect of the legal establishment.

In the course of his credibility-restoring campaign, Carmody has fired off a number of gems that surely will find their way into the precedent books, including: “The other criticism of being too close to the government, nobody has defined that for me. How far away are you supposed to be from the government?”

And at the event described by the government as “the launch of the chief justice”, Timbo reassured assembled dignitaries: “I’m sure nobody will argue that I may not be the smartest lawyer in the room, and if you were in a room with me and I was the smartest lawyer, it would be a good time to leave it.”

No one left the room.

7 . Sophie's-BS

Talking of government appointments, the people at SBS are bracing themselves for the prospect of Sophie Mirabella’s arrival as chairperson of the public broadcaster following Abbott’s refusal to extend the term of businessman Joe Skrzynski.

Since her rejection by the electors of Indi, Mirabella (nee Panopoulos) has been bringing her famed charms to the board of the Australian Submarine Corporation, where she was appointed by Minister Mathias Cormann because of “her extensive experience working with the manufacturing industry”.

Ideal for the SBS boardroom.  

Tips and tattle: [email protected]

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 21, 2014 as "Gadfly: Ashby pulls out".

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Richard Ackland is The Saturday Paper’s legal affairs editor. He publishes

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