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

Gadfly: Freedom is free

“In just two years, Tim Wilson has single-handedly reshaped the human rights debate in Australia,” Bookshelves Brandis announced to a gobsmacked nation on Monday.

Freedom Boy is tossing in his $400,000-plus-a-year job at the Human Rights Commission to concentrate on reshaping the seat of Goldstein in his own image.

“The Australian people owe Tim Wilson a huge debt of gratitude...” Bookshelves continued as he shot out of the country for a chinwag with the Five Eyes spooks in Washington. He took Peter Dutton along as his handbag.

The Human Rights Commission put on a farewell morning tea for Timbo on Tuesday, with the staff director running around making sure that more than a desultory 10 people turned up.

The Boy’s speech was moving, as he confessed his darkest fears in coming to work at the commission. Oddly, he was worried that someone would bait him to such an extent that he would lose his temper and that this might be the basis of an allegation of bullying against him.

Old human rights hands report that it was possibly the strangest farewell speech they had heard.

It’s also curious that Freedom Boy stayed on as a commissioner until Friday – a week or so after he announced he was a Liberal contender for the seat of Goldstein, with another $6500 or so of public money in his pocket.

Essentially, Timbo has used much of his time as an HR commissioner to scratch off his fleas in public, giving him a sufficiently bloated publicly funded profile to launch himself as a Tory Party contender for Andrew Robb’s soon-to-be-vacant seat.

Thanks, Bookshelves.

1 . Politics on Downers

Timbo is up against some heavy Liberal brass also contesting the nomination. Georgina Downer – offspring of Fishnets Downer – and John Osborn, from the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, have flagged their intentions and we’re still waiting on local number-cruncher Marcus Bastiaan to come out of the blocks.

If there’s one thing the parliament desperately needs, it’s another Downer. A family that has lived off the public teat for generations should not easily be cast aside.

Young Georgina has the endorsement of Jeff Kennett, who has a history of backing the wrong horse, notably Steven Marshall, who failed to unseat the four-term Labor government in the 2014 South Australian elections.

In Victorian politician circles it’s known as “the Kiss of Jeff”. Doubtless, early feminist politician and women’s suffrage campaigner Vida Goldstein, after whom the seat is named, will be rolling her heavenly eyes in despair.

2 . Pezz dispenser

The grim jailer of our refugees and asylum seekers, Michael Pezzullo, head of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, set off quite a storm when he corrected a misleading ABC report that a five-year-old boy had been allegedly raped on Nauru.

It’s a “figment”, an angry Mike told a senate committee, a case of journalistic “pamphleteering”. The ABC grovelled – apparently it was a mix-up involving two separate cases, one a 12-year-old whom a doctor still believes was raped, and a five-year-old who was allegedly a victim of sexual assault.

The usual performing seals at Lord Moloch’s fish-wrappers were on their hindquarters, having conniptions about Aunty.

However, Pezzullo may be suffering from figmentitis himself. Asked about asylum-seeker wellbeing while attending another senate committee on July 20, 2015, he told Senator Kim Carr that the “government of Nauru is ultimately responsible” for the duty of care towards the detainees. “It’s a matter for the government of Nauru, yes.”

Fortunately, former WorkSafe Victoria prosecuting solicitor Max Costello heard that exchange and has dug out other material to unmask the figment.

Pezz’s answer was not on all fours with his own department, which three weeks earlier had advised that under the Work Health and Safety Act the Commonwealth is legally responsible for the care of asylum seekers.

In answer to previous questions on notice, the department told Carr that the WHS Act applied to the Commonwealth and under the legislation it is not permissible to either transfer or “contract out” statutory duties of care.

Further, the department helpfully conceded that the act has “extraterritorial application overseas”.

In other words, contrary to the answer Pezz dispensed to the senate, the statutory duty to ensure the health and safety of asylum seekers cannot be transferred to another government, to Broadspectrum, International Health and Medical Services, or anyone else.

Maybe Pezz was pamphleteering.

3 . Truth or bust

Just where are we with the Cunneen v ICAC stoush in New South Wales? It’s gripping theatre and at the moment various characters are staggering around the amphitheatre with stab wounds all over their togas.

Not least of whom is Inspector David Levine, the man charged with reporting on ICAC’s activities, handling complaints from wounded citizens, and generally making recommendations.

Maybe sight has been lost of the fact that the submission and material given to a parliamentary oversight committee last week by ICAC commissioner Megan Latham were squarely aimed at rebutting the earlier highly critical findings of Levine, released last December.

Inspector Dave said the attempt to investigate state prosecutor Margaret Cunneen over an alleged attempt to pervert the course of justice was “unreasonable, unjust and oppressive in a serious way”. This related to the “fake chest pains” saga involving a car crash in which Sophia Tilley was involved – Sophia being the girlfriend of Cunneen’s son and the car being leased to the prosecutor from the NSW state car fleet.

What the response from ICAC shows is that the inspector denied the commission procedural fairness and got many of his facts wrong, which could have been corrected had he allowed ICAC an opportunity to respond to adverse comments or findings.

Telephone intercepts show there was a strong ground to take the investigation into Cunneen further. Certainly, the intercepts cast doubt on her explanation that she was joking when talking to a car repairer about Sophia’s fake breasts and that the Australian Crime Commission and ICAC don’t know a good joke when it pokes them in the eye.

At one stage Cunneen, in a Rhett Butler moment, said she “didn’t give a damn” if the intercepts were released. This soon transmogrified into demands by her lawyers that members of the parliamentary committee give written undertakings that they did not leak the highly revealing material. To do so, the legal eagles thundered, would be a criminal offence.

Where does that leave committee member Rev Fred Nile, who told The Australian’s Lois Lane that he’d listened to the tapes and that in his opinion Cunneen was clearly joking?

Fred, of course, knows sex and he knows jokes. In 2013 when Lois, who writes under the pen name Sharri Markson, took over at Cleo he felt compelled to put out a press release commending her for editing “the first Cleo issue since 1972 [where] sex has not been used as a selling point”.

Obviously a keen reader of women’s magazines, he instead turned his attention to The Australian Women’s Weekly. “My concern,” wrote the duly elected reverend, “is that The Women’s Weekly is now getting more like the original Cleo and upsetting its faithful readers with supportive feature articles on lesbianism and prostitution, etc.”

Lois was gracious at the time, and encouraged the then recently widowed Nile to “enjoy the article on 7am booty calls on page 99, or how to cum quietly on page 101”.

It has now emerged that Cunneen was a “special guest” at a Fred Nile fundraiser.

4 . Hooked up classics

Occasionally Gadfly’s unremitting life is interrupted by a cultural event of great uplift –this one at the Yellow House in Potts Point for a performance by the Australian Art Quartet – Dan Russell, Rebecca Gill, Leo Kram and James Beck. They gave us a burst of Haydn and Rossini and then, after interval, fugues from J. S. Bach accompanied by Gary Heery’s luminous photographs of birds, horses and plants.

Everyone was totally rapt and already the foreshadowed performance in May looks like being pretty shocking. The quartet will be wired up with electrodes and blasted with electricity as they play Pachelbel’s “Canon in D”.

The volts send the music into strange schisms. Beck says it’s like “aversion therapy”.


Tips and tattle: [email protected]

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 20, 2016 as "Gadfly: Freedom is free".

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