Bob Ellis fills in as diarist-at-large. By Bob Ellis.

Blood, toil, sweat and legal fees

About a hundred people at Gleebooks applaud with warmth my Winston Churchill imitation in our new show Orators, whose mostly grey-haired audience, some of them of my old acquaintance, think I am dying. My small, brief, earthly infamy now rests, it would seem, on liver cancer, and on Marieke Hardy’s deceased mongrel bitch “Bob Ellis”, and on my having years back, in a wayward, unerased, slack sentence, libelled Tanya Costello in my book Goodbye Jerusalem. It added $130,000 though, sufficient then to buy their Forestville house, to Tony and Margie Abbott’s meagre wealth. The adjacent “Abbott and Costello” headlines passed for great wit in that faraway, simpler century.

1 . Waiting for knightfall

What will Abbott do now? He might, I guess, take the Murdoch shilling and, like Huckabee, Palin, Hewson, Keneally, Reith and Richo, proffer meek rehearsed opinions on Sky News’s Agenda. He might beseech and get an earldom from his affable fellow-countryman David Cameron and sit in the House of Lords beside Alexander Downer and Lord Torrens, and in the English summer drink Veuve Clicquot at Wimbledon with Alan Jones. He might have to retrieve his British passport to do this; some “birthers” still swear he never gave it up.

Or he might hang round the reps like Banquo, suppurating and grinning, the way he does.

I later learn from a totally impeccable source that not only Philip but also Murdoch was due to be knighted on Australia Day, and this was rapidly kiboshed by the Queen, who retains and brandishes a right of royal refusal in these matters, and for the fourth time did not yield up a title to her detested foe, the Dirty Digger.

Her venom goes back a long way: to the 1970s when Rupert’s papers first suggested Prince Charles was a loonie who talked to flowers and hung out with Buddhists and admired old architecture and should be therefore denied the throne; and then later, in the ’90s, when the Prince of Wales was bugged when envying the tampons of his coy mistress Camilla by the all-knowing Murdoch Secret Police.

It is said that Rupert was outraged by Abbott’s failure to ennoble his bloodline, and quickly switched his support to his fellow Oxford republican, Malcolm Turnbull. Known there in 1948 as “Red Rupert” in the few Oxford circles that could stand his bumptious company, he occasionally reverts to type.

2 . Marists in pyjamas

After their dinner in Melbourne last week it seems likely, though not certain, that Glyn Davis (Catholic) will succeed Mark Scott (Hillsong) as the head of the ABC. Overeducated, perhaps, by UNSW, ANU, Griffith, Berkeley, Brookings and Harvard, and author of a handy thesis on the ABC’s persecuted independence, Davis would seem pretty suitable to those not bored rigid by him at the 2020 Summit, which he opened with a happy-clappy sermon of hope still seared in my quivering memory. He both looks and sounds like Rudd – “I’m from Queensland, and I’m here to help” – and this is a crushing worry.

He hails, though, in actual geographical fact, from that beehive of genius, Kogarah, home region of Richo, Hewson, Macca, Tony Barry and Clive James, the Bloomsbury of its day. His alma mater is Kogarah Marist Brothers and this made me wonder if he would be the first papist in charge of the national broadcasting juggernaut. But Brian Johns, of course, co-seminarian with Schepisi, Keneally and Mick Young, was another. And so it goes.

3 . Spycatcher on ice

At Gleebooks is Stephen Ramsey, my long-time collaborator on, among many co-written but unseen things, The True Believers. We talk afterwards of a mini-series we wrote in, I think, 1988 about Malcolm Turnbull and the Spycatcher trials that for a while uplifted that hungry young man into global fame. It was… well… nearly produced, but Margaret Thatcher, a major character in it, abolished the television channel, London Weekend, that was to co-make it with the ABC.

Who would play the 32-year-old Malcolm now? Sam Worthington? Ewen Leslie? Matthew Newton is physically the closest but has lately a hectic reputation that might inhibit his casting.

Brendan Cowell? Ian Meadows? Craig Reucassel? Matt Day? Matt Damon? Eez a puzzlement.

4 . Mine eyes haven’t seen the story

Ramsey and I were never that lucky. In sure, sad proof of this, we once wrote a feature film on the Beaconsfield mine disaster from Paul Howes’ point of view. It was to be directed by Jeremy Sims and to co-star Simon Baker as Shorten and Geoffrey Rush as Richard Carleton. But a Channel Nine mini-series – which I have, snakily, never seen – gazumped it, and there you go. Neither Howes nor Shorten were characters in it, and there you go.

If made, this might bring to 10 the number of Australian prime ministers I have co-dramatised – Chifley, Menzies, Whitlam, Howard, Rudd, Gillard, Abbott, Turnbull, Billy Hughes – some of whom might, I guess, resurrect in my online archives when I shuffle off this mortal coil, this year or next, or after. And so it goes.

5 . Prince of Wales

At the Orators performance also is Angela Wales, for a decade of last century the esteemed and well-beloved Queen Bee of the Australian Writers’ Guild in its headiest days. She is just back from 20 years in Hollywood and she surprises me by revealing she was Malcolm Turnbull’s “girlfriend” from when he – and she – were 19, until they were 21.

6 . Unfair facts

I am told by The Sydney Morning Herald I have leukaemia. This, to the best of my knowledge, is not true.

7 . Country fair

Not I but a Scotsman, Angus Deaton, is awarded the Nobel prize in economics. He thinks it wrong, poor lamb, that the rich write the rules the rest of us live by, and go broke obeying. He wants a fair society, he meekly blusters. This is an astounding thought for an economist, and he’s being mightily applauded for it.

If true it bodes ill for Malcolm in his $50 million Point Piper mansion, so flash he prefers it to slumming at Kirribilli House, and his coincidental daft assertion that the rest of us should get no penalty rates for working in Bunnings on Sundays and not seeing our children much on weekends. Four million voters so fardeled may disagree with this and resent, perhaps, the hundred thousand a week he rakes in from his share portfolio and spends on the popping of champagne on his yacht with his artistic, bohemian, roistering friends.

Curious how constantly we are told it is wrong to envy the wealth of others – Gina Rinehart deserves every penny, surely – and that “class war” is a shameful catchcry and battleground. But politics has never been about anything else, not for 10,000 years anyway, and only last year it ruined Joe Hockey who blithely believed, out loud, that the poor don’t drive cars.

And saying the words “class war” with a sneer in one’s voice doesn’t alter this much; it is an eternal. The polls, deconstructed (awarding the preferences the way they are, not the way they were), show Labor already ahead and Shorten’s plain cry for “a fair Australia” cutting through.

8 . Great Danes

Bernie Sanders did well in the Democratic debate. He’s attracted national attention by describing himself, counterintuitively, as “a democratic socialist”. Citing Denmark, he explained what this means.

9 . Captain’s stick

Work is under way on a new flagpole and extensions to the jetty below Malcolm’s mansion in Point Piper. The flag is to be visible from Kirribilli where many glum butlers and maids await, without hope, his infrequent, bibulous visits with friends.

A signal, perhaps, to his Liberal Party enemies that he, too, at last, is a fervent, joined-up member of Team Australia.


Richard Ackland is on leave.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 17, 2015 as "Gadfly: Blood, toil, sweat and legal fees".

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