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

Gadfly: Is Brandis suffering drain damage?

I keep hearing this story about Bookshelves Brandis, and as I’m sure it can’t be entirely accurate I’m loath to repeat it. Maybe a Queensland reader can clear up the confusion. 

It seems that when young George was a law student at the University of Queensland he was prone to irritate people, something that seems entirely out of character today. 

A group of his irritated colleagues seized the soon-to-be-brilliant lawyer and put him down a stormwater drain, with a heavy metal cover. 

He was left there protesting, until rescued by the authorities. This sort of thing can cause post-traumatic stress disorder and lead to skewed decision-making. For instance, under George’s reign as attorney-general, have any of his UQ confrères been elevated to juicy federal judicial jobs? 

The connection between the drain lark and the state of the Commonwealth judiciary needs further exploration. 

1 . AWB reports MIA

Dr Richard Evans, a criminologist from Deakin University, tells me he’s been doing a bit of research on the Australian Wheat Board scandal of the mid-2000s. 

That was the sorry business of the wheaties paying Saddam Hussein’s regime kickbacks in exchange for wheat export contracts – in contravention of UN sanctions and Australian law. 

Former chairman of the US Federal Reserve Paul Volcker in a UN report found the AWB was the largest source of kickbacks to Saddam & Co.  

The then prime minister John Howard appointed former judge Terence Cole to plough his way through some exquisitely tight terms of reference that avoided getting close to the then foreign minister Alexander (Fishnets) Downer

Cole also found the AWB had been illegally funding the Iraqi government, but the federal coppers dropped the bundle with the idea that conviction “was not in the public interest”. 

Anyway, imagine Doc Evans’ surprise when he tried to check the Cole and Volcker reports online. Wikipedia has links to these documents, but they don’t work. The message is “404 not found” or “This web page is not available – connection refused.” 

It gets better. The reports are not available through the websites of the parliamentary library, the National Library of Australia, the Cole inquiry or the Volcker inquiry. Not one of them delivers the goods. 

One wonders why.

2 . Downer saves coin, pays recompense

Pardon Gadfly’s obsessive mentions of old Fishnets, but last week’s column brought forth some further background on the Downer-Crosby relationship, which resulted most recently in Sir Lynton getting a gleaming new gong as Australian of the Year in the UK from High Commissioner Lord Downer.  

One of Adelaide’s former political insiders, Michael Zerman, reminds me that 12 months before the South Australian elections in March 2014, Liberal Party machine men received pitches from strategy firms on how to spin the forthcoming campaign. 

Fishnets was president of the South Australian Libs and the party chieftains decided against hiring Crosby Textor, as they were thought to be too expensive. 

Anyway, the Liberals were regarded as a shoo-in, so why spend money when the result was foregone? 

The Labor Party went with Neil Lawrence’s creative team, which famously helped get Kevin Rudd over the line in 2007. 

Surprise and upset. Labor was returned to office for a fourth consecutive term, with the Libs grinding their teeth and blaming anyone and everything. Fishnets said the cards were stacked against opposition leader Steven Marshall and the way the electorates were distributed was so unfair. 

For this major clusterfuck Fishnets was promptly promoted to London, as high commissioner. The award of UK Australian of the Year for Sir Lynton looks like Alex’s way of saying he’s sorry for picking the money instead of the box. 

PS. Grant Nowell, a photographer and former pic editor in Lord Moloch’s stable of fish wrappers, reminded me that he was the one who 20 years ago snapped Fishnets in stockings and high heels – giving birth to a magnificent political legacy.  

3 . Stirring the pot

When asked what she had on her bedside table, Sydney lawyer Jane Sanders, who is the principal solicitor at The Shopfront youth legal centre, told me that coincidentally there were two books by different Paul Kellys

“One is a recent account of the Dismissal,” she said. “The other is the classic, How to Make Gravy, which in my view speaks more profound truths about Australia than most political journalism.” 

4 . The puzzling price of festival frolics

Just when you think Sydney is all festivalled-out, along comes the program for The Sydney Morning Herald’s Spectrum Now Festival – a massive fortnight’s frolic of events starting on March 1. 

Art, music, stage and talks are all the go. Richard Glover interviews Kate Mulvany. Annabel Crabb interviews Frank Moorhouse. Benjamin Law interviews Leigh Sales. There’s a session on pillow talk where we’ll discover what makes “sparks fly” between leading creative couples: David and Kristin Williamson, Dan Wyllie and Shannon Murphy, David and Lisa Campbell etc. 

What I’d like to know is who is in charge of the pricing policy for these happenings. For instance, for $50 a ticket you can listen to Mr Wolf, aka Charles (Sugar Daddy) Waterstreet, converse for two hours at the Tattersalls Club. It seems a lot for a man who, from what we’re told, is the one who usually does the paying.

An evening with artist Ken Done is priced more reasonably at $25-$35, and there are tons of other interesting exhibitions, including the opening of an architecture show by Edmund Capon, former Art Gallery of New South Wales director, for absolutely nothing.

5 . Devine intervention

I’d completely forgotten that Miranda Devine existed. But someone pointed out that she’s still in The Daily Smellograph, somewhere near the comics, attacking Gadfly, on behalf of Sharri (Lois Lane) Markson

BTW, what’s happened to Piers Akerman? Is he still alive? 

There’s a risk of boring everyone rigid with the tiny wrinkles that are paraded in Lord Moloch’s press as ICAC’s injustices against politicians who are used to ruling the roost in an unquestioned fashion.

The Lois/Devine v Gadfly bout seems to be about whether ICAC hid exculpatory evidence from people who demanded to be exculpated, i.e. Arfur (Daley) Sinodinos and NSW Liberal politician Mike Gallacher

Lois claimed: “The NSW anti-corruption body deliberately kept evidence supporting the defence cases of former NSW police minister Mike Gallacher and cabinet secretary Arthur Sinodinos secret, while releasing information to damage them.” 

In Arfur’s case it was an opinion from the crown solicitor’s office that apparently said washing money from property developers to the Liberal Party was legal. In Gallacher’s case, ICAC didn’t call John Hart, a witness who these journalists claim would have been of assistance. 

It’s an exciting new concept that a legal opinion based on incomplete facts is now regarded as “evidence”. 

As for not calling Hart, one of the great mysteries is how can Lois and Devine know that his evidence was going to “exculpate” Gallacher from allegations about washing illegal election money. They claim it’s exculpatory without telling us what it is or knowing where any cross-examination may have taken the issue. 

The whole thing is terribly tribal with Moloch’s tribe throwing tuppeny bungers on behalf of plutocrats and politicians who regard an anti-corruption body as a hindrance to traditional ways of doing business. 

Next week, at a parliamentary committee, some of the Liberal Party’s hard-right faction will continue the job as scripted.

Tips and tattle: [email protected]

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 6, 2016 as "Gadfly: Is Brandis suffering drain damage?".

For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.

All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.

There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

Use your Google account to create your subscription