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

Putting satire back in its box

When you have a really bad idea, stick with it – no matter how much of a goose you make of yourself. That’s the mission of the local Tea Party free speech brigade.

It grieves your Gadfly to launch the new season of blistering snippets with a fresh lunge at Freedom Boy (where would we be without him?).

There Tim Wilson was adorning our telly screens in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo crisis, his mouth moving faster than his grasp of the topic.

I had the sound off, so I could understand him perfectly. He was saying that section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act would most likely see Charlie Hebdo shut down if it were published in ’Straya. This law too easily restricts satire, threatens our hard-won freedoms, blah, blah.

A few in the knuckle-dragging recesses of the Coalition party room and his former employer, the Institute for Paid Advocacy, cheered him on.

On the strength of this argument, presumably a cartoon taking a crude pot shot at Aboriginals might fall into the 18C freedom mincer. Actually, this was tested in 2004 with a cartoon in the rednecks’ bible, The West Australian.

It depicted a group of local Aboriginals, referencing their mixed ethnic backgrounds, discussing the disagreement as to who should use a government grant to go to London and bring back the head of Yagan, an early Swan River resistance fighter.

The last panel in this fetching satire had Yagan’s head in a box, saying that he would prefer to drink “warm beer in a quiet Pommy pub any day”.

Robert Bropho, an Aboriginal elder, pleaded 18C and took the case to the Federal Court and then the Full Court, where in a majority judgement led by Robert French, now chief justice of the High Court, it was decided there was a public interest that justified the publication of the ’toon.

More in sorrow than despair it’s my duty to point out that the case law Down Under provides wide support for full-blown satire, offence, insults and humiliations. Why is this never mentioned by the free speech missionaries?

1 . A knight’s wail

’Straya Day and the “Salute to the Nation” is just around the corner. Citizens have been gargling with Listerine to get their throats into shape for the midday singalong of “Advance Australia Fair”.

Stand by for lots of bunting, brass bands and military stuff to perk us up. The honours list should also emerge and here’s hoping that Maurice Newman will pick up a special Abbott knighthood for his groundbreaking study of “global cooling”, an achievement made all the more heroic because it was revealed during the hottest year on record, according to pointy heads at the World Meteorological Organisation, the National Climatic Data Centre and the Japan Meteorological Agency.

If Morry doesn’t get his knighthood we can assume he’s adopted the strategy of Thomas Piketty.

The French economist and author of the top-selling bodice-ripper, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, turned down a proffered Légion d’honneur, saying, “I do not think it is the government’s role to decide who is honourable.”

2 . Art of noise

To the Art Gallery of NSW for lunch at the recently rebranded dining room, Chiswick at the Gallery, to gorge on battered flathead fillets ($29 with chips).

It’s an enchanting sign of our cultural future that a publicly funded art museum should adopt the brand of a pricey eastern suburbs restaurant, part of the Matt Moran chain of nosheries.

“Brand” is the operative word around the gallery these days. When one of the diners asked a very important waitperson to turn down the restaurant’s wretched “doof-doof” music, the reply was, “No, we can’t – it’s part of our brand.” Would that be the Michael of the same name?

3 . Episode Fortunate: A New Hope

I’ve been called upon to declare my interest in New Hope’s coalmine dubbed New Acland Stage 3, approved by Major Newman moments before he called the Queensland state election.

It seems some distant relative who didn’t know about the letter “k” founded the sleepy Darling Down’s outpost, where Mrs Jones gave birth to little Alan, who is now helping the Newman government with his vibrant radio broadcasts.

New Hope is an entirely apt name for the company, because before the 2012 state election the major promised there would be no approval for the mine’s expansion.

It’s amazing what a donation of $650,000 to the LNP can achieve.

New Hope Coal is a subsidiary of the Washington H. Soul Pattinson group, which also has a gigantic thumb in the Brickworks pie, itself a big corporate backer of the Credlin Party.

You’ll remember Brickworks’ scary campaign that the carbon tax would blow the price of houses through the roof. The company lavished $250,000 on the Credlinites and magically the tax disappeared.

Corporate affairs watcher and Glenn Milne wrestling partner Stephen Mayne estimates that over the past decade this group of companies has donated more than $2 million to the party.

Not only that, but New Hope writes to shareholders with helpful election-time how-to-vote advice.

Remember – every time you buy a cough drop or an aspirin from Soul Patts, someone at Liberal HQ is feeling a whole lot better.

4 . A knight’s sale

In the face of this corporate largesse flowing to its opponents, the ALP has to put its shoulder to the wheel in an effort to stump up as much money as possible.

It’s the raffles of meat trays, hampers of victuals, a night at a Terrigal hotel and dinners with MPs that rake in much-needed coin from battlers and Struggle Street flâneurs.

The man behind much of this endeavour is the former president of the NSW legislative council and former board member of NSW Lotteries, Johno Johnson. The old papal knight (Order of St Gregory the Great) is still around, with a back pocket full of ALP raffle tickets. 

Keep your eye on the public notices in The Sydney Morning Herald to spot Johno’s prizewinner announcements.

5 . Out of commission

So, I hear you ask, what has happened to the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner, the organisation that handles FOI and privacy issues?

It was announced last year in Joe Hockey’s budget bloopers speech that this organisation was to be abolished, with its funding cut off on December 31.

The Freedom of Information Amendment (New Arrangements) Bill flew through the house in October, but with Butter-Fingers Brandis in charge upstairs the legislation never looked as though it would get the support of enough crossbenchers. Consequently, it never went to a senate vote.

The government’s plan was that FOI policy was to be transferred to the A-G’s department, with the Administrative Appeals Tribunal handling merit reviews. The privacy commissioner would be sent to the government’s much-loved Human Rights Commission, as an independent statutory officer. In all, it would save a massive $10 million over four years.

Without the bill passing, the money has stopped but the information commissioner still exists, along with the statutory functions conferred by various acts. It’s a frightful mess.

FOI blogger and lawyer Peter Timmins says that the Commonwealth’s freedom-of-information law is now in the hands of one public servant “working from home”.


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 24, 2015 as "Gadfly: Putting satire back in its box".

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

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