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

Packing in the freedom

Freedom Boy was a busy little muffin on Monday. The morning was given over to the launch of his weighty consultation report on Rights and Responsibilities. This is the product of his around Australia chinwags with more than 1100 “everyday” Australians. The overall cost was a snip at $32,169.21. 

From this has been distilled six issues that Timbo Wilson, as Human Rights Commissioner, will “prioritise” over the ensuing four years: freedom of expression, religious freedom, property rights, more property rights, freedom from arbitrary detention (except if you’re an asylum seeker) and human rights education (Magna Carta classes). This program will necessitate more fora, roundtables, colloquiums and strategic meetings. 

The property rights ideas are a bit light on specifics, but one aspect concerns “reforms that remove legal and regulatory barriers faced by native title holders seeking economic development”. This is shorthand for allowing inalienable Aboriginal native title to be converted into freehold or some other form of tradeable title. In certain circumstances this will make it easier for Aboriginal land to fall into the hands of whities and their corporate extensions. 

Instead of cherrypicking his way through rights that have the seal of good housekeeping from the Institute of Paid Advocacy and Bookshelves Brandis, wouldn’t it be easier if Freedom Boy put his heft behind a bill of rights for all Australians? 

It all seems quite amazing, when you remember that, in 2013, Wilson had his name on a press release with the heading: “Australian Human Rights Commission should be abolished.”

After Monday’s launch he slung his freedom cape over his shoulders and punching the air flew around the corner to the Macquarie Bank auditorium where, in the company of Janet Albrechtsen and some zany professors, he attended the Centre for Independent Studies’ seminar on, would you believe, Freedom of Speech. 

The session kicked off with a paper on the importance of freedom, not only to society, but to the sharemarket. 

1 . By invitation only

Your Gadfly was a privileged guest of The Women’s Club in Sydney. I had no idea such a splendid place exists and has done since Federation in 1901 – but there it is in Elizabeth Street, with facilities for dining, accommodation, reading and lounging. 

I was cross-examined by club director and leading light Virginia Gordon in front of a room full of members disported on lounge chairs and sofas. 

Hockey v Fairfax, ICAC and the High Court, data retention and law’n’order issues in the NSW election were all “unpacked”, as they say on Radio National. Attendees very kindly kept awake for most of Gadfly’s presentation, which I fear unnecessarily delayed the drinks session. 

It was so hospitable that for the duration of the proceedings I felt like an honorary woman.

It’s all part of various discussion “circles” hosted by the club on politics, arts, the media and science. 

The Women’s Club is not to be confused with The Queen’s Club, just down the road. One QC member is said to have told a member of The Women’s Club: “We’re social, you’re intellectual.” 

I’m not sure if that’s entirely true. Peter Zinader, an old friend from university days, former RAN midshipman and one of the smartest brains on campus, ended up as a doorman at The Queen’s Club.

2 . Holed up in the Highlands

As if Gadfly’s dance card was not already full enough, I was invited by that great adornment to rugby football, anti-apartheid activism, law and letters, Anthony Abrahams, to a weekend soiree at his country seat in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales.

Abrahams played Brutus to Gadfly’s Cassius in a sellout 1962 season of Julius Caesar directed by Gilbert Jones.

Thinking it was going to be a Gosford Park sort of weekend, I packed my jodhpurs, hunting gun and wellies, hoping for a spot of grouse shooting, with Ivor Novello tinkling the ivories after dinner. 

Instead, to my amazement, there were 140 other guests packed into Abrahams’ magnificently appointed barn for a night of feasting, speeches, music and poetry. Most of the eastern suburbs of Sydney had been shipped to Bundanoon for the occasion. 

It was all in honour of Big Ant’s 71st birthday, an event well worth celebrating. If I were giving out prizes, surely there would have to be one for the steadiest, and most enduring, performance on the dance floor – step forward ABC chairman and former NSW CJ J. J. Spigelman

The Southern Highlands hasn’t seen anything like it since Don Bradman was using stumps to whack cricket balls for six in his Bowral driveway. 

I was holed up at a B&B establishment not far from the Abrahams’ spread and on arriving at breakfast at 9.10am the next day was greeted by the kitchen hand with famed Highlands charm: “You’re late.” 

3 . Chapter closes on Roberts’ reign

Barely a flicker was raised by the recent announcement of the retirement of Sue Roberts as CEO of the State Library of Victoria and state librarian. Just a year ago English-trained Roberts was talking confidently about the library’s role in five years’ time “as a cultural powerhouse, connecting with significantly more people across the state, nationally and internationally, through technology but also in other ways”. 

A greater focus on specific audiences was foretold, with a dash of management speak, by way of “increased partnership and collaboration in order to deliver to all those needs”. 

Among the unmet need was the decision to slug families $42 and individuals $15 for the library’s first paid show, Les Misérables: From Page to Stage.

Only 25,000 ponied up to see, among other items, Victor Hugo’s signature, compared with the 83,000 for the free Rome: Piranesi’s Vision.

Board member and prominent littérateur Eddie McGuire would note that the Les Mis crowd was fewer than would show up at training for his beloved Magpies if Collingwood ever makes the finals again. 

The global hunt for a new state librarian will focus the mind of library president, merchant banker and former Rhodes Scholar John Wylie, whose speeches at library functions have a hypnotic rhythm. He and his wife, Monaco-born Myriam Boisbouvier-Wylie, recently tossed a lazy $5 million to the University of Melbourne for a new professorship of Australian literature, the Boisbouvier Founding Chair.

The holder of a master of business administration degree from Tulane University in New Orleans, Ms B-W is also the French honorary consul-general for Victoria. 

Intriguingly the university’s vice-chancellor, Glyn Davis, compares the new post to Oxford University’s chair of poetry, held by major figures including W. H. Auden.

Maybe for the Boisbouvier chair the well-padded figure of bush bard Les Murray should step forward.

Tips and tattle: [email protected]

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 4, 2015 as "Gadfly: Packing in the freedom".

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

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