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

Wry freedom

Governments love freedom from information, that’s why freedom-loving Bookshelves Brandis has starved the office of the Australian Information Commissioner of funds and why the Daniel Andrews government in Victoria has dispensed with that state’s first FOI commissioner, Lynne Bertolini

Bookshelves failed to get legislation through the senate to abolish the OAIC, so while the position still exists with statutory responsibilities and all, the government won’t fund it. 

In Yarraside, Bertolini, who came from the Liquor and Gambling Commission before heading up FOI, was hamstrung with a lousy budget, a tiny staff and hundreds of applications. Meanwhile, government departments were throwing their money at lawyers to go to VCAT and oppose the release of documents and challenge the commissioner’s jurisdiction. 

Special Minister of State Gav Jennings, being a man of the people, queried Bertolini’s use of a barrister to help plough through the work. She was condemned for under-performing and any other excuse he could lay his hands on to get rid of her. 

Now the minister wants the job to be reconfigured as a “Public Access Counsellor”, to review ministerial decisions about cabinet-in-confidence. As a sty of pigs flew past his window, he promised to cut FOI request times from 45 to 30 days and reviews from 60 to 15 days. 

1 . Safe as houses

Jolly Joe Hockey Sticks is not appealing Justice Richard White’s judgement in the “Treasurer for Sale” defamation case against Fairfax. And the defendant isn’t appealing either. Jolly Joe must be happy with his $200,000 damages “win” and his even mightier $300,000 fees “loss”.  

Sounds like a reputation-restoring outcome. Gadfly, for one, now thinks much more highly of the treasurer, but wonders whether any of his decisions are having adverse consequences for the Hockeys’ real estate business on Sydney’s bustling north shore. 

Three of the same “featured properties” that the property purveyors had advertised for sale last week are still available this week: a courtyard apartment in a “quiet lifestyle” building at Willoughby, a dream home at St Leonards, and a spacious top-floor flat at Neutral Bay. 

Why haven’t these beauties been snapped up? Have the Chinese suddenly gone quiet after it emerged that Joe’s amnesty for illegal purchases of Australian property by foreign investors wasn’t an amnesty at all? It’s an amnesty when you’re not having an amnesty because overseas purchasers could still be done for other offences, such as money laundering, and in the process have their dream homes seized. 

This sort of topsy-turvy policy initiative could well be having consequences for the family’s Sydney real estate caper. To make matters worse, the firm’s webpage of customer testimonials, which only weeks ago was groaning with compliments, is now bone dry and empty. 

2 . Constitution of a fox

Maybe Jolly Joe’s hex on gay marriage is scaring away foreign buyers, contrary to the expectations of Barnaby Joyce and Young Otto Abetz.  

Cabinet has agreed that there should be a “popular vote” on gay marriage, after the election. However, the contest over whether it will be a plebiscite or a referendum is not entirely settled. 

Plebiscites allow the plebs to express a non-binding view on things, while a referendum is to change the constitution, which doesn’t need changing because the High Court has already said in the Marriage Act case that it’s just a matter for parliament to flip the switch. 

PM Abbott said he was opposed to a referendum on marriage equality after the Irish used a referendum to add to their constitution the following provision: “Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex.” 

That was carried by over 62 per cent of the voters in May. At the time Abbott favoured any change here being left to the parliament. Now that a same-sex marriage bill has been introduced into parliament the PM thinks it’s not up to parliament, it’s up to the people. 

However, the PM may have forgotten his constitutional classes and the requirement that to have a referendum there first must be a law passed by an absolute majority of each house of parliament. That law then needs the support of a majority of voters in a majority of states. 

So if the Abbott plan ever eventuates, Liberals will need to vote on it in the reps and the senate. If it’s a “conscience” vote, Abbott would then be voting in the parliament against the bill he needs for his referendum.

No wonder Dyson Heydon gave the lad a Rhodes scholarship.

3 . Heydon’s admission to the bra

While Dyse is hot on our lips, I’m grateful to a former scholar at Sydney University who passed on a delightful photo of the hon royal commissioner, snapped in the early 1960s during a commemoration day parade.

The future jurist is dressed as a Russian babushka wearing an enormous brassiere. The Liberal lawyers should have used that crowd-pulling photograph to advertise the Barwick banquet.

I still have possession of this snap and I’m prepared to make it available to the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, Rotary Clubs, RSLs and other organisations that have invited Dyse to appear on the talk circuit. Cheques should be made payable to the Gadfly Retirement Trust.

4 . Fare dues

There was another Liberal Party fundraiser that I’m kicking myself for missing – “An Evening with Tim Wilson” hosted by the Moonee Ponds and Essendon West branches of the Liberal Party. 

The invitation, billed as an “intimate cocktail function”, was all over the Twittersphere so stacks of people must have turned up. The Liberals organising the Barwick lecture were charging $80 for a three-course feast and a celebrity commissioner as guest, while the Moonee Ponds Libs, in the heart of Dame Edna country, wanted $40 a head for “cocktail food” and Freedom Boy talking about the “future of rights in Australia”. 

We shot through the obvious questions to the media muffins at the Human Rights Commission. Did the HRC pay for any expenses associated with this trip (airfares, accommodation, other transport, meals etc)? 

What a relief to find out that he was already in Melbourne on other engagements, so accommodation was not required. Freedom Boy did stump up for a tram fare out of his own pocket, which is big of him considering he had a $77,000 expenses bill along with $15,000 in taxis in his first year with the commission.

5 . Mincing words

We know that Professor Simon Chapman from the Sydney University school of public health was threatened by Helen Demidenko with the terrible fate of being “minced” at the select committee on wind turbines. 

The way the senate has subsequently handled this threat is revealing. 

Chapman can’t see any health problems with wind farms as a source of clean energy, but some of the senators on the committee agree with Hockey Sticks that they are “utterly offensive”. 

Demidenko, now Helen Dale and previously Helen Darville, is the controversial 1993 winner of the Miles Frankin Award for The Hand that Signed the Paper

Demidenko/Darville/Dale wound up on the staff of libertarian senator and former vet David Leyonhjelm and it was in that capacity she fired off a charming Facebook blast about Chapman’s forthcoming appearance before the senate select committee. 

“Okay, this message for those skeptics friends of mine in Australia who are into public health. You need to pull the likes of Simon Chapman and Nathan Lee into line ... David and I can turn both of them into mince on Twitter – yes Twitter – without much effort ... I’m relying on you to fix this. And if it isn’t fixed, I will take great pleasure in ensuring the individuals in question aren’t just minced on Twitter. Getting minced by a senate committee is a lot less fun, I assure you.” 

Chapman complained about this intimidation to both senator John Madigan, the chairman of the committee, and to the president of the senate, Stephen Parry

Dale persuaded Madigan that her statement was not intended to intimidate and wasn’t referring to Chapman’s appearance at the wind committee, but it was left up in the air just what other committee she had in mind. 

Parry also replied saying that only a senator can lodge a complaint with the senate, but when senator Anne Urquhart attempted to do so, on Chapman’s behalf, she was told by the clerk of the senate that the “threshold” for the privileges committee to consider a complaint of contempt is that senators have to agree that as a result of the nasty behaviour they could not properly do their work. Since the majority of anti-wind senators thought they’d done a terrific job, no one could work out what Chapman was complaining about. 

Also, the wind committee has now been wound up, so that’s that. Demidenko is free to mince on.


Tips and tattle: [email protected]

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 22, 2015 as "Gadfly: Wry freedom".

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

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