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

The vices of King Malcolm

Is there a point with politicians when their capacity to compromise produces horrible facial twitches? Apparently not.

Take the case of the glamourpuss Member for Wentworth and Minister for Communications, Malcolm Turnbull.

He’s in charge of delivering $300 million in budgetary downsizing to the ABC and SBS over five years, despite the solemn pledge from his leader that there’ll be “no cuts” to the national broadcasters.

He bats away annoying complaints, saying that the chops are not too bad and should not affect programming.

There are other pressing matters where the minister has had to purse his lips like Andrew Peacock and stare into the distance.

He had to vote against same-sex marriage even though he supports it. He has to swallow the party line against an emissions trading scheme, even though he supports it. He is a sponsor of the data retention legislation, even though he railed against it in his 2012 Alfred Deakin lecture.

If you’re dead keen to keep your backside on a cabinet seat in the Abbott government then never mind the dreadful compromises.

And what of Mal’s gigantic infrastructure plaything, the NBN? The natives in the most densely populated nooks of his electorate, such as Kings Cross, Potts Point and Elizabeth Bay, are getting twitchy. They keep checking the NBN website only to be told: “The rollout has not started in your area.”

How come he remains so adorable?

1 . Lazarus reprises

New South Wales solicitors were alarmed to receive their current edition of the Law Society Journal with a front-cover photo of a grinning John Howard.

The former PM looks more terrifying than ever since he had his eyes lasered and threw away his specs. An interview spread across four pages dealt with father Lyall Howard’s war on the Western Front and bits of Little Johnnie’s own history.

He shared a scary piece of information that in his last two years at school he was a “little bit attracted to journalism at one stage”.

However, his brother Stan Howard arranged for him to get a job as a barristers’ clerk at Denman Chambers in Phillip Street, where among other things he used to do the banking for John Kerr. “He had quite a good practice.”

Johnnie advocates a clean desk policy and keeping on top of your paperwork. He is, however, “animated” about the issue of a bill of rights for Australia. “I don’t think we’ll ever have a bill of rights in Australia and I hope we never do,” he says gleefully.

He points to three fabulous safeguards: a “vigorous” parliamentary system, “a free and sceptical press” and an incorruptible judiciary. What could be more reassuring?

Strangely there were no questions about his “embarrassment” that no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq.

Never mind. As he lounged back in his taxpayer-funded office, with his parliamentary pension and masses of coin from the speakers circuit, he signed off saying: “Anyway, if you get to 75 and you’re living in Australia, what have you got to complain about?”

What a mensch.

2 . Purse the duchy

So soon after the wizened mogul Old Rupe lectured the G20 central bankers and finance ministers about the evils of Google and other multinationals getting away without paying their full share of tax, Neil Chenoweth made a handy contribution to the debate.

In the Financial Review this week Neil revealed that in 2009 News Corp reported a $US1.2 billion windfall ($A1.4 billion), which depended on a favourable tax ruling from the gnomes in the chocolate-box Duchy of Luxembourg.

It concerned a scheme to unlock the cash stored in a News Corp subsidiary, NDS Group, by selling it
to a private equity outfit, Permira.

NDS was the subject of earlier examination by Chenoweth, in which he revealed that the company used its pay TV smartcards to pirate subscriber information from a rival satellite broadcaster.

This sounds horribly familiar.

Luxembourg officials kindly waived speculation tax on the Permira–NDS takeover transaction that allowed Rupert to squirrel away a $US1.2 billion profit from the deal.

News Corp has tended to prefer moving its profits through Bermuda, the Cayman Islands and the British Virgin Islands, so it is nice to see that Luxembourg is also getting a look-in.

The tax lurk has come to light because of a leak of documents from the landlocked secret banking playground. Don’t say Rupe was delivering a whole pile of humbug to the G20 money men.

3 . Comrade in alms

Congratulations go to comrade Jeff Sparrow, former student activist and Trot. In spite of tremendous work at the barricades (busted as part of the Austudy Five in ’92), he was delisted by the Trots and helped found the Socialist Alternative, then moved to something called Civil Rights Defence.

The indefatigable comrade is outgoing editor of Overland, co-author (with sister Jill) of Radical Melbourne: A Secret History and Radical Melbourne 2: The Enemy Within, the editor (with Antony Loewenstein) of Left Turn: Political Essays for the New Left, and the author of Communism: A Love Story, Killing: Misadventures in Violence, and Money Shot: A Journey into Porn and Censorship.

All this pounding it out for the proletariat must merit some reward. And in a gesture to delight the hugely generous hearts of A. Bolt et al, Jeff gets $160,000 over two years from a grant that “allows artists to develop their creative work without financial pressure”.

What unalloyed joy it would have given the arch capitalist and clothes merchant Sidney Myer to know the creative fellowship bearing his name supports a comrade.

4 . Swiss watchers

To Switzerland on Wednesday night. Not the place full of cuckoo clocks and Toblerone, but the Drama Theatre at the Sydney Opera House to see Joanna Murray-Smith’s cracker of a two-hander about Patricia Highsmith and her life with cats, snails, drink, cigarettes and tinned food.

Actor Sarah Peirse is superb in this portrait of what happens to a talented writer who has lived alone for too long, and she’s supported wonderfully by Eamon Farren.

Theatregoers were confronted with a sign at the entrance: “This performance contains organic herbal cigarette smoking and strong language” – two things that frequently go together.

The interesting thing is that Joanna Murray-Smith must have anticipated the great release of freedom that was foreshadowed by the abolition of section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.

Highsmith gives voice to her dislike of vast chunks of humanity: blacks, Jews, Latinos and Catholics. Americans and the French are also lacerated.

But, as she says, there are others she does like. Bookshelves Brandis and the lads from the IPA should get along to soak up these liberating lines and enjoy the nice twist that follows.

The contrast is the lower Opera House concourse, where you are supposed to be able to get a civilised late night drink and a morsel of food.

The place has all the charm of a bar at the Royal Easter Show with the doof-doof music and thirsty queues waiting half-an-hour to get a drink.

I see that the “production patrons” for Switzerland are Kim Williams and Catherine Dovey. Was it under Kimbo’s chairmanship of the Opera House Trust that the lower concourse turned into such a mosh pit?  

5 . Legal lay-by

Just as well Geoffrey Watson, SC, secured a rewarding line of work at ICAC and wasn’t hanging out for payment from law shop Turner Freeman.

In August 1993 Watson billed the firm $983 for fees in a matter of Godoy v Komatsu.

He was relieved to receive payment last month – October 9, 2014 – a mere 21 years after the bill was rendered.

How time flies. Watson has a son younger than this account, and had to struggle to bring up the lad while Turner Freeman dug deep for the fee.

On one view, the account has come of age.

Tips and tattle: [email protected]

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 15, 2014 as "Gadfly: The vices of King Malcolm".

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

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