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

Born to mewl

Let this be the end of the end of the unpleasant notion that in a fit of pique Malcolm Turnbull strangled his girlfriend’s cat. The rumour has dogged the PM for nearly 40 years.

Paddy Manning in his biography of Malcolm Turnbull, Born to Rule, reports that “a cat is not easy to strangle”.

This is backed up by former Packer man and pal of the PM, Trevor Kennedy. He’s a country boy from the west and, according to Paddy, has “been forced to kill a few cats in his time”.

Trev advises that it is not an easy task. “They are buggers – they scratch you all over the place.”

Miraculously, Kennedy inspected Turnbull’s body after the cat strangling allegations arose. He told Manning that he saw no scratches on Malcolm, so the PM could not have inflicted any damage on his former girlfriend’s cat, as the unfounded story went.

In a way, this was also the view of barrister, Neil McPhee, QC. He went through all the evidence prior to advising Fairfax about a defamation action launched by Turnbull after imputations were raised in The National Times. McPhee came out of a conference room at Stephen Jaques saying: “Settle it. I don’t think there was a fuckin’ cat.”

Thank God that’s resolved.

1 . Doffing a Hatt to former PM

The Humphrey Hatt letters were sent to local politicians, celebrities, and sports stars in the 1990s, usually with a cash donation attached to further a worthy cause.

They were modelled on the Henry Root hoax letters, in which English satirist Willie Donaldson wrote to public figures making outrageous requests to which he would attach a £5 note. He would then publish their indignant or smarmy replies. Famously, he sent a fiver to the Duke of Edinburgh asking if he could be put up as a member of Sir Phil’s golf club.

He wrote to Sir David McNee, the police commissioner at Scotland Yard, that it was “better that 10 innocent men be convicted than that one guilty man goes free”, only to receive a reply saying, “Your kind comments are appreciated.”

We’ve unearthed some Humphrey Hatt letters, one of which went to Tony Abbott in 1997, as the member for Warringah. The suggestion was that the MP could increase his profile in the electorate if he organised an annual Mosman Gay and Lesbian Festival, which could be linked to the MiniMosMarathon at Mosman Primary School. Sponsorship from Qantas and Taronga Zoo was proposed.

Humphrey enclosed a $10 note “towards Liberal Party funds”. As ever, it was the reply that was important.

Abbott thanked him for the suggestion, adding: “In my uni days, I was something of a homophobe. While time (and my friendship with the likes of Christopher Pearson) has mellowed and matured my outlook, I’m not sure I am quite your man.”

At least Abbott was smart enough to realise the risks in accepting a “strings attached” donation, so he returned the tenner, deftly adding: “The party is, of course, grateful for unconditional donations that backers care to make.”

2 . Mandla out of race to supplant Clover

Grief swept the City of Sydney with news that Edward Mandla, leader of the Liberal pack at the town hall, will not be running for the lord mayoralty.

This is likely to leave Christine Forster at the top of the Liberal ticket, Christine being known in some circles as Tony Abbott’s sister and in others as a same-sex marriage advocate. She has been ably assisted in the job of taking on Clover Moore by legislation from the Shooters and Libs that gives city businesses two votes and residents one vote each at the next elections.

What could be fairer than that?

Mandla, a weightlifting champion, describes his career as spanning “three decades in business intertwined with making voluntary contributions to the broader community”.

He set a relaxed tone at council meetings by intertwining himself with a McDonald’s hamburger while council was in session.

3 . Who’s judging?

At least there’s no shortage of career opportunities for lawyers. Royal commissions, special inquiries, political boltholes, lobbying and judging are each callings where you’ll find heaps of lawyers.

A small and insignificant minority end up in the boiler room doing franchise agreements for Kentucky Fried Chicken or going to court on behalf of the marginalised, the broken down and the deranged.

Executive openings have become available in professional standards – child protection – with the Australian Province of the Society of Jesus, plus a “senior officer” who will report to the director.

Amid the usual notifications of dinner events such as “European Wine Law: Australian Implications”, the Victorian bar president thoughtfully emailed members about these “outcomes management” openings with the Jesuits.

The Jesus people are looking for professionals to provide specialist advice “on how best to manage the outcomes” of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

“These roles may be of interest to retired judges or other members of the bar seeking to ‘give back’ and make a difference.”

After all, Victorian barristers have been at the forefront of the Catholic Church’s “Melbourne Response”, a system of managing complaints by people who had been sexually abused by priests, with ex gratia compensation capped at $75,000.

One of the church’s commissioners, Peter O’Callaghan, QC, gave evidence to the royal commission and a separate Victorian inquiry and batted back allegations by the police that he was insufficiently independent from the church.

Since 1996, the church has paid O’Callaghan more than $7 million for handling abuse complaints. The other independent commissioner, Jeff Gleeson, QC, described his colleague as “wise, compassionate and just”.

So much so that the Yarraside bar named its large portrait collection of legal luminaries the Peter O’Callaghan QC Gallery.

4 . Freeing the voices

This Sunday is given over to the Day of the Imprisoned Writer, to be marked by a PEN Free Voices lecture from author David Malouf.

The flyer says Malouf “will speak about how the digitally connected world ... has created a need for writers to reform the way they express themselves in public and private discourse, and the pressures and constraints this has on freedom of expression”.

If this was carefully unpacked, it could mean he’s talking about self-censorship – something that has special resonance here because we’re forbidden from unbottling our darkest racially bigoted thoughts.

Bookshelves Brandis has also done his bit to keep the lid on too much free expression with his data retention regime – keeping accessible to agencies, without the fuss of warrants, details of our emails, phone calls, text messages, and other forms of electronic communication.

The Brits have gone one better and are introducing legislation to allow the coppers and spooks access to everyone’s web browsing. This entails tracking every website visited but, in a freedom-loving gesture, not every page of every website. Why didn’t Bookshelves think of this?

Poetically, Malouf’s lecture in honour of imprisoned writers will be held in a former prison, the Cell Block Theatre of the old Darlinghurst jail, now resplendent as the National Art School. At one point Henry Lawson was banged-up there and described the place as Starvinghurst.

5 . Defamation case not child’s play

Quietly unfolding in the NSW Supreme Court, as we speak, is an intriguing defamation case brought by Fairfax journalist Natalie O’Brien against the ABC.

She has pleaded that a Media Watch story presented by host Paul Barry gave rise to meanings that she engaged in “trickery” in reporting a story about tests for toxic substances in a children’s playground.

The curious thing is that there is no jury trying this case. Defamation trials without Supreme Court juries are rare in NSW, but here maybe it was felt that since journalists are on a social rung close to used-car salesmen, how could jurors make an unprejudiced finding as between two lots of media people.

Best to leave it all to a judge.

6 . Bringing bordellos back into line

A NSW parliamentary inquiry has just finished an examination of the sex-for-sale industry and recommends the creation of a Brothel Squad in the police force, to go around and help councils close down unruly knock shops or massage establishments.

Following the Wood royal commission into police corruption, the cops lost a lot of their powers to regulate brothels and sex workers. The business was riddled with corruption and blackmail. Now, the committee wants police to be able to go into the homes of single working women at the behest of local government wowsers.

Councils had to pay investigators to go undercover and have sex ostensibly to ping unlicensed establishments. Even journalists have been known to indulge in these hazardous exposés.

The proposal from the politicians is to recriminalise this vibrant decriminalised industry.  


Tips and tattle: [email protected]

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 14, 2015 as "Gadfly: Born to mewl".

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

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