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

Juan direction is what makes you dutiful

Looks like that UN rapporteur on torture, Juan Méndez, is a bit of a “drama boy”, to purloin a description from Doc Ian Paterson, former headmaster of the once great school for boys Knox Grammar. 

Juan reported that Australia’s holding of asylum seekers on Manus Island and the detention of children systematically violates the Convention Against Torture.

He cited chapter and verse the escalation of tension and violence at the Manus camp and ugly incidents involving threats of rape directed at two detainees if they did not retract statements made to police about the death of Reza Barati

PM Abbott thinks that Juan should have given more credit to the government for stopping the boats. “I really think Australians are sick of being lectured to by the United Nations, particularly, particularly given that we have stopped the boats, and by stopping the boats we have ended the deaths at sea.”

So, even if stopping the boats means having to torture people, then let’s get on with the torturing. Anyway, what would Juan know, he’s only been tortured by amateurs from the Argentine military in the 1970s. 

The prime minister has calculated that he has saved 1200 people from drowning as a result of stopping the boats.

So while Gillian Triggs is composing her letter of apology to Scott Morrison, and Australian citizens everywhere are disgorging the contents of their stomachs at the findings by the UN’s torture man, statisticians are trying to calculate how many lives have been lost because of Australia’s refoulement of people and how many have been killed in their homeland because they were unable to escape in the first place. 

Maybe these asylum seekers are indulging in a “lifestyle choice”. 

Dick (Vice) Cheney in the United States put it succinctly on hearing about the US senate committee report on the CIA’s torture program, which included waterboarding, sleep deprivation and rectal rehydration. 

“It’s crap,” said Dick.

1 . Oration ovation

Speechwriter Graham Freudenberg listened as praise rung out for him as “the unsung hero of Australian politics”. Then he spoke, sometimes in an echo of Gough Whitlam, paying a precise tribute to the former PM while not glossing over his faults.

This was a remarkable Sydney-comes-to-Melbourne event, with the University of Western Sydney helping stage the Whitlam Oration in the St Kilda Town Hall, where the great man spoke three days before sweeping into office. Some among the 500 capacity audience had been there that night.

This time around, Freudy, 80, in his trademark baggy suit, was exalted by retiring senator John Faulkner in a hyperbolic introduction in which he claimed that political speeches have more power than other forms of communication, such as plays or novels. Everyone should have a speechwriter.

Battle-scarred ALP warriors were there: former premiers John Cain and John Brumby, ex-treasurer Simon Crean, Bill Kelty and Barry Jones; Lord Moloch’s former satrap Kim Williams; another Williams, Evan, himself a former speechwriter but perhaps best known as a crusading journalist; and campaigner Tim Costello.

Up the road three crucified metal figures outside a church represent Manus Island, Nauru and Christmas Island. Freudenberg reminded his rapt audience that Gough would not have tolerated his party’s refugee policy, so that “we would not have had 14 years of this malignancy”. The “arrogance and political opportunism” surrounding the creeping commitment in Iraq and its sense of deja vu were dealt with by the author of 1000 speeches, ushering forth a standing ovation from the elderly white-haired and the profusely bearded young.

2 . The drone wars

Drones. They seem to be everywhere. The White House went into lockdown after a rogue DJI Phantom drone crashed on the lawn. Turns out the “pilot” was a National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency employee drink-droning from a nearby apartment.

In Paris an unidentified drone buzzed over the navy’s global submarine communications centre after weeks of intermittent night flights, including at least 10 reports of mysterious hoverings late on March 3. And over the US embassy and nuclear power plants. 

First to be arrested over the flights were three Al Jazeera hacks flying one of the pests for a story they were preparing.

Then four more reptiles were held for planning a flight in the line of duty. Nearer home, a Melbourne real estate outfit was in strife for a billboard with a drone-shot of a Mount Martha property that included a topless next-door neighbour, who happens to be a grandmother. To echo a New York Post headline classic: Pilotless plane in topless drama. 

Before the federal election, hot shot legal eagles from organisations such as Liberty Victoria got together with representatives of the drone sector, that is, the remotely piloted aircraft industry, and drew up a scheme to sensibly control flights. The industry is keen to outlaw cowboys.

Attorney-General Bookshelves Brandis declined to launch this report. A house of representatives committee under Labor recommended new laws to protect privacy along the lines of phone-tapping legislation.

The committee says all the worker bees at civil aviation and the privacy commission should consider every angle and report back in 2016. Drone on.

3 . Individual artwork

It’s nice of the federal government’s cultural gifts program to arrange for a sculptural installation right outside the law school at the University of Sydney. 

They are the work of sculptor and land artist Andrew Rogers and consist of a series of striking bronze figures. The work is called Individuals and the gift was recently announced by Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence, who said, “It takes a visionary artist to understand and appreciate the intersection between art and academic endeavour.”

And you get the message even more clearly when you scrape the pigeon guano from the explanatory plaque: “We are all individuals possessing the sanctity of a singular life and the ability to express ourselves. At the same time we are part of a society within which we live. 

Individuals is a metaphor for that relationship with the organic rippling emotion and pulsating, ribbed and undulating outer surfaces acting as a counterpoint to the delicate, highly polished interior world of our thoughts …” etc, etc. 

Something for the inmates of the law faculty to get their heads around. 

4 . Recipes raise funds

The current issue of the Law Society of NSW Journal takes us deeper into lawyer land. The president of the society and famed sheepdog show trial judge John Eades is urging his members to scrounge around and find old family recipes. 

The Law Society is producing a cookbook of dishes beloved by the solicitors’ branch of the profession. I hear entries are flooding in for Escoffier-type creations: 50 thing you can do with a chicken; meals that are prepared in six-minute units; a gluten-free version of proctor’s pudding; the re-creation of a dinner served at the Assizes Ball in 1904; and instructions from large law firm associates on what sort of lunch to eat at your desk, assuming no one has stolen it first from the communal fridge. 

This is a noble endeavour because the profits won’t go back to the profession, but will be sent to Eades’ favourite charity, Motor Neurone Disease NSW.

5 . The working weak

The new head of the Commonwealth Treasury, John Fraser, a former economic minister at the Australian embassy in Washington and Swiss banking gnome, turned up the other day at a forum organised by the Committee for the Economic Development of Australia. 

In answer to a question, he called for a better work–life balance at the Commonwealth Treasury. He believes in the economic law of diminishing returns and that treasury people who work on weekends probably showed negative returns by late Sunday. 

This goes to explaining the disaster that was the 2014 budget. Too much work and no fun on weekends. 

With any luck, this year’s budget will be framed between Mondays and Fridays. 

6 . Pollies’ markdown

Staying with economic news, Gadfly was fortunate to receive an intriguing marketing pitch by email from the Runaway Bay Antique & Arts Centre. 

“Hi, Abbott and Hockey have destroyed consumer confidence. So to combat this we are offering 25 per cent discount of the marked price of all our furniture and mirrors until 16 March … hundreds of items are available. Regards, Rodney.”  

Tips and tattle: [email protected]

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 14, 2015 as "Gadfly: Juan direction is what makes you dutiful".

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

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