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

Bjørn again

What a shame Maurice Newman, king of the greased sweep-over, isn’t still the chancellor of Macquarie University at a time when Poodles Pyne is dashing about trying to find a new home for the Bjørn Lomborg Consensus Centre.

There was such a lack of consensus about the centre that the University of Western Australia gave it the flick, along with a lazy $4 million from the Abbott people.

However, Morry surely would have snapped it up for Macquarie had he still been in charge. Along with Bjørn he has no scientific qualifications about climate and warming but, no matter, scepticism about pointy-head scientists is the new enlightenment.

It’s exciting to think that Newman, whose actual skills are in stockbroking, which is close to being a glorified commission agent, was once draped in academic robes, handing out degrees to people, all the time holding wacko beliefs about a “new world order under the control of the UN”.

As he wrote last week, in a measured column about the way climate change is a conspiracy to replace governments: “It is opposed to capitalism and freedom and has made environmental catastrophism a household topic to achieve its objective.”

Wouldn’t you love to see the quality of the “business advice” he is offering to the PM?

In an earlier era, Alan Bond might have housed the Lomborg “think tank” at his eponymous Gold Coast hall of learning.

After all, Bondy had a good grasp of myths and legends. When Australia II won the America’s Cup in 1983, he said that at one stage the crew had been losing the battle but “it was just like Gallipoli, and we won that one”.

1 . Some things that don’t add up

Gadfly sat late into Tuesday night going through the budget papers line by line and checking that Joe Hockey had got his sums right.

I’m surprised newshounds and chattering classes missed page 473 of the papers, dealing with the office of the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions. While funds are being splurged on busting crime and terror, the DPP found his money slashed from about $93 million to $88.6 million for next year.

Part of the explanation is that in 2014-15 “funding for Project Wickenby tax compliance prosecutions” was terminated.

Wickenby was the joint taskforce aimed at chasing well-heeled chisellers who had taxable income stashed in “secrecy jurisdictions”.

In January this year the Tax Office said Wickenby had discovered tax liabilities of $2.16 billion and, of that, $920 million had been harvested for the exchequer. There were a total of eight current investigations and 10 at the prosecution stage.

All this while Joe’s making noises about catching the multinational profit shifters. Anyway, I’m sure there’ll be citizens relieved that even if Inspector Plod does catch them, the DPP will be scratching around for the money to do anything about it.

There wasn’t much budgetary joy from Bookshelves Brandis, certainly no extra funding for legal aid and community legal centres. However, he is to filch more than $100 million from the Australia Council so he can make more politically directed grants to arts organisations, under something he will run called the National Programme for Excellence in the Arts.

He did manage to put out a press release on Tuesday night announcing $5.3 million in funding for projects in the electorates of Griffith and Moreton. Bookshelves said he is the “Patron Senator” for those electorates.

In other budget news, it’s distressing to report that large numbers of people watched the cooking contest on Channel Ten’s MasterChef, nearly double the eyeballs that were on the ABC and Jolly Hockey Sticks.

2 . Talking with dinosaurs

A large portion of the population tore themselves away from budget frenzy and turned up at Sydney’s City Recital Hall to experience an IQ2 debate: “Good riddance to the media dinosaurs.”

On the new media team were the free-range Margo Kingston, who publishes; Tim Duggan, who is responsible for; and Sophie Black, editor-in-chief of the Private Media stable – Crikey, etc.

Old media hacks were presented by grizzled sage Jonathan Holmes, ex-ABC; Sarrah Le Marquand from The Smellograph; and The Sydney Morning Herald’s fearless Kate McClymont.

Sometimes it was difficult to tell which side the debaters were on. Sarrah said “good riddance to dinosaurs – yes” (cheers from the affirmative), Holmes painted a rather attractive picture of what the world would be like without Channel Nine, etc, while Margo accused Kate of being a “dinosaur within a dinosaur” (but this was a good thing).

Duggan told us that the “best content is winning”. On you’ll find some of this great content: two stories following up dinosaur media’s coverage of the budget, an original piece of research, “Jimmy Fallon Just Tried Vegemite and It Went About as Terribly as You’d Expect”, and a penetrating piece about people who want to have sex with their beer.

Tim did add that the old media brings us “trashy magazines” while Margo insisted that the old media paid no attention to the “enforcement of ethics”.

The audience was also in dizzying form with one member saying he found the debate “a bit tedious”. A knowledgeable gentleman added that dinosaurs didn’t just die out, they were wiped out by a meteorite, while someone else told us they preferred to read the newspaper in bed at night, next to the cat – “somehow the computer doesn’t do it”.

Of course, the good thing about newspapers is that there are no online readers’ comments.

Maybe this is why the dinosaurs won the debate with a whopping 77 per cent of the vote.

3 . The case continues

I know readers are anxious to keep abreast of developments surrounding the briefcase of the attorney-general department’s top bureaucrat, Chris Moraitis.

Chris’s briefcase containing the precious notes of conversations about Bookshelves Brandis’s job offer to Professor Gillian Triggs had been lost, according to evidence given to the senate. Then, in a departmental response to an earlier freedom-of-information application, doubt was raised on whether it had been lost at all. Maybe, the notes were somewhere else.

You’ll remember the opposition called in Sgt Plod to investigate whether an improper inducement had been offered to a government official.

Anyway, the original FOI request was denied because it would chew up too much of the department’s resources.

Queensland barrister Alex McKean pressed on with a modified request for documents: any reports from the department’s secretary notifying the loss; steps taken to comply with the security governance guidelines dealing with missing secrets or confidential information; efforts to locate the lost briefcase; efforts made to inform Prof Triggs of the lost notes covering the confidential discussions; and any investigation that is being contemplated, or has begun, into the loss.

None of these documents could be found in the department, but questions linger: why wasn’t the loss of confidential documents reported; why didn’t the security governance guidelines snap to attention; why wasn’t the senate committee informed that the briefcase had not been reported lost in the relevant period?

No further enlightenment. The whole thing is a muddle. Maybe it is explained by the fact that the once-missing briefcase, having now not gone missing, didn’t require notification about mislaid secret papers or efforts to locate the valise.

But if the briefcase is not missing, where are the notes?

4 . Seeing red tape

The fight against red tape goes on and the Tasmanian Department of Education is the latest to join the battle.

In a beautifully produced “service improvement” newsletter came the message that the department’s Learners First Strategy is all about spending “as much time focused on learners as possible”.

To this end a Reducing Red Tape steering committee has been formed and stakeholders will be surveyed. The committee will work on information obtained from a “snapshot” that identified “opportunities for improvement”.

Reducing red tape was one of the key messages from the snapshot. The upshot is the launch of a Reducing Red Tape email address to which all employees can send their ideas.

So the procedural sequence goes like this: conduct a scoped snapshot, form a steering committee (with working subgroups), survey stakeholders, establish a feedback process, develop a “quality framework”, and put it all into a newsletter with pictures of “red tape” obscuring the text.

This will keep a lot of bureaucrats fully engaged.  


Tips and tattle: [email protected]

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 16, 2015 as "Gadfly: Bjørn again".

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

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