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

Abbott and knight checkmate

My snout at Buck House tells me the Australia Day gong for Prince Philip was all a horrible blunder.

The PM wanted to give the Queen a captain’s pick Australian knighthood. After all, she has snipped an enormous number of ribbons, declared open countless buildings and laid uncountable plaques in Australia, without dropping a single scissor or trowel.

However, Tony Abbott was told by a palace courtier that HM doesn’t accept knighthoods from Australian commoners. On the other hand, the old duke might be delighted to stitch another bauble onto his panto admiral’s costume.

The prime minister was in a pickle. He was stuck with his grovelly idea and couldn’t back out, even though his razor sharp political antenna would have told him this would not be an entirely popular gesture.

1 . Better the devil you know …

Have you noticed how ALP dream machine Bill Shorten has not gone hard on Abbott’s cack-handed steering of the ship of state?

Barnacle Bill is most concerned when he hears rumblings within Liberal ranks that Abbott should be replaced with someone with a touch more competence. He much prefers to hear Kevin Andrews and Matty Cormann gush that Abbott is their leader for as long as time itself.

After all, in opposition Abbott went in so hard on Julia Gillard that Labor dumped her with the result that Kevin Rudd, on one estimate, saved Labor from losing about five seats.

Shorten knows it. Everyone knows it. Labor’s best shot at winning the next election is to keep Abbott firmly in place.

2 . Party times

At Australia House, on Strand, Lord Downer bore up bravely on hearing the news that he had been passed over in the captain’s pick department. It was expected he would be gonged so as to help him open bigger and grander doors in the Dart.

Nonetheless, there are curious goings on at Stoke Lodge, his lordship’s official residence. News has filtered out that it was the venue for some sort of Liberal Party fundraising event involving an international equity fund.

Party bigwig and former high commissioner Richard Alston was in attendance, but Lord Downer was absent, because of a “scheduling conflict”.

Foreign minister Julie Bishop rushed in to declare that everything was above board. Using these facilities for private purposes was quite usual, she said. Nonetheless, the government won’t release the guest list, the costs involved or the purpose of the function. Privacy and “diplomatic” reasons were cited.

In May last year, Bronwyn Bishop was caught hosting Liberal fundies in the speaker’s office. At least one of these glittering affairs involved a $2500-a-head budget night bash – a night, as it has turned out, well worth celebrating.

Bronnie said that the costs were charged to her private account, but details of who was invited and what was involved were not forthcoming.

Presumably this was to protect the independence of the office of speaker.

3 . Mystery data

In its fight against terror (or checking whether you’ve paid a fine) the government wants all telecommunications data retained for two years so as to be available to select, but not altogether known, agencies.

In Britain, 1000 editors signed a petition against similar laws, called the Snoopers’ Charter.

There needs to be more fuss made about this wretched proposal here, although the solicitors’ union in Melbourne is stirring itself and holding a workshop on the topic next month, with speakers including none other than free-speech hero Chris Berg, policy director at the Institute of Paid Advocacy.

The Law Council of Australia has also come out, on behalf of all the nation’s notaries, scriveners, conveyancers, sergeants-at-arms and briefs, to say the data retention bill stinks.

You would need to be wildly optimistic to hold out hope for help from the government-dominated parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security, which has been examining the legislation and is due to report on February 27.

Sadly, this report comes just three days after the Law Institute of Australia’s workshop and is unlikely to be carefully weighed by the committee.

One thing that the workshop will seek to do, and may be of benefit to people with responsibility for the bill, is to explain the meaning of metadata.

Attorney-General Brandis tried to clear up any confusion with this watertight definition: “What you’re viewing on the internet is not what we’re interested in. What the security agencies want to know, to be retained, is the electronic address of the website … When you visit a website people browse from one thing to the next and that browsing history won’t be retained … Well, every website has an electronic address, right? When a connection is made between one computer terminal and a web address, that fact, the time of the connection, and the duration of the connection is what we mean by metadata in that context.”

4 . Singing for supper

Luvvies were chuffed to see the AG and Yarts Minister Bookshelves Brandis and his appointed Freedom Boy Tim Wilson arrive together last Saturday, with a small party, at the hospitality tent for pre-performance supper laid on by Sydney’s Opera in the Domain.

Despite the humidity, Freedom Boy, sporting some sharp sunburn to the face, was dressed in a blue suit and tie, while Bookshelves let himself go and sauntered about in a check shirt.

Waiters served prawns, rice balls, Wagyu beef on skewers and sautéed mushroom tarts, and kept refilling the glasses.

Other guests included Labor-appointed Australia Council CEO, the tallest man at any arts gathering, Tony Grybowski, who appeared to be outside the minister’s orbit.

Freedom Boy was guided solo to his reserved front-row position, busily checking his phone messages. Bookshelves materialised on stage, telling the audience how Australia excelled in the arts, and, this being the Australia Day long weekend, was “the greatest Australian weekend of all”. After that he filled the empty seat next to Timbo in time for the exciting Overture from Rossini’s La gazza ladra.

What a packed program was laid on. “Votre toast” from Bizet’s Carmen, “Bacchanale” from Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila, and “Glitter and be Gay” from Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, sung by Lorina Gore, who wore enough silver bling to sink a leaky vessel:

“I’m oh so glad my sapphire is a star, ha ha / I rather like a 20-carat earring, ha ha! / If I’m not pure, at least my jewels are / Enough, enough, I’ll take their diamond necklace / And show my noble stuff / By being gay and reckless! / Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!”

Alas the finale, Diego Torre and ensemble singing “Nessun dorma” from Puccini’s Turandot, presaged lightning and rain upon the thousands in the Domain, and front-row seats were no shield for the dignitaries of A-row reserve.

Let’s hope the soggy finale has no bearing on the outcome of the federal government’s National Opera Review, currently in swing and examining Opera Australia’s $25 million state and federal taxpayer largesse.


Tips and tattle: [email protected]

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 31, 2015 as "Gadfly: Abbott and knight checkmate".

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

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