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

Exit stage bereft

Justin Fleming’s take on Molière’s Les Femmes savantes is called The Literati. It is Molière’s rhyming couplets in Australian English, performed to triumphant hoots courtesy of Griffin Theatre Company in conjunction with Bell Shakespeare. 

Nine characters are played by five actors: Kate Mulvany, Miranda Tapsell, Jamie Oxenbould, Caroline Brazier and Gareth Davies

It is one of the wickedest pieces of theatre in Sydney at the moment, and when Gadfly saw the show the audience of teetering boomers was wheezing with affection. 

One of Fleming’s great lines took the micky out of himself and the entire genre of reconfiguring and rebranding the classics: 

With so many people writing, it’s a wonder there’s anyone to read them;

And there are so many people who cannot write, re-writing writers who could,

And giving us appalling versions of works that used to be good. 

And there are some ingenious non-writers, of whom I’m sure you’ve heard, 

Who can adapt a foreign writer, in whose language they don’t know a word. 

A disturbing thing happened after the curtain calls, which true to form took place without a curtain. Miranda Tapsell brought the applause to a stop and said we should all fill out cards on the seats to send to the local MP, in this case M. Turnbull. The cards were a plea to restore arts funding and so avoid a loss of the country’s creative and technical talent. Artistic director Lee Lewis says Griffin Theatre alone suffered a 30 per cent “Black Friday” cut in its funding from the Australia Council. 

To have sat through a wonderful piece of theatre to be told at the end that everything is teetering off a cliff shows just how far we have sunk, particularly as Turnbull has no idea just what is at stake. He told the Q&A audience on Monday night in a gobsmacking departure from reality: “The Australia Council is getting more funding now than it did under the Labor government.” 

He must have forgotten about the net loss of $73 million from Australia Council funding as a result of Bookshelves Brandis’s jiggery-pokery. 

In Labor’s last budget, there was an allocation to the Australia Council of $912 million over four years. In the Coalition’s most recent budget, the allocation was $793 million over the same period. Malcolm’s legendary skills with large amounts of other people’s money must have temporarily deserted him. 

1 . Everyone’s a critic

So to the Art Gallery of New South Wales where the massive expansion plans inch their way towards a development application. In his latest bout, gallery director Michael Brand was in fine voice: “The Sydney Modern project will not only expand the Art Gallery of NSW but transform the way we work as a vibrant creative hub where future generations will come together to enjoy the visual arts and Sydney’s broader cultural environment.”

A campaign to raise “significant funding” for the $450 million project from the private sector is under way and the gallery has its hand out to the federal government’s arts tsar, Mitch Fifield. Good luck there.  

Unfortunately, no major new funding could be located in the 2016 NSW budget. There is only a piddling $3.4 million over three years for art gallery building upgrades.  

Just so that everyone is on the same page, the gallery has issued a new “code of ethics and conduct” with clear injunctions against free speech that would make Bookshelves Brandis and Freedom Boy blush. 

Staff are not to express views that “disparage the gallery”. This includes speaking engagements, comments on radio, TV, social media, blogs, letters to editors, articles in books, journals or notices, or anywhere it might be expected that such views “will spread to the community at large”. 

Anticipating what juicy bits of gallery disparagement might emerge in public from, say, dinner party chit-chat, will require special skills. And what about artworks that disparage the gallery? Perish the thought. 

Of course, if workers feel aggrieved about executive decisions they should follow the gallery’s “grievance procedures”. 

2 . Boutique Bookshelves

This week there was a debate between Attorney-General George Brandis and shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus. It was held in one of Barangaroo’s magnificent international towers, where law firm Gilbert + Tobin has its new open-plan office. Even the partners and corner men are without walls and in plain view of the worker bees. 

Gadfly suspects that a lot of people turned up primarily to check G+T’s fit-out. Yet, despite the decor distractions, Bookshelves, as expected, stole the show. He said that his time as attorney-general had been “largely uncontroversial”. 

“Of course, there have been a couple of boutique controversies but they have been of the kind that gets more law school common rooms excited rather than things that make a difference to the lives of ordinary Australians,” ’Shelves added. 

Among the “boutique controversies” that we can recall are: removing all Commonwealth funding from Environmental Defenders Offices; attacking Gillian Triggs for investigating the mistreatment of children held in immigration prisons, and trying to bully her from her job; seeking to remove the protections of racial vilification laws, while insisting to the first Indigenous woman elected to the federal parliament that “people do have a right to be bigots”; undermining the office of the second law officer of the Commonwealth; gagging community legal centres from engaging in public debate; running a two-year campaign to abolish the independent FOI watchdog; forgetting quite spectacularly what the word metadata means, while all the time wanting to retain and monitor it. 

There’s more, but surely that’s enough “largely uncontroversial” stuff with which to go on. 

3 . Unaoil bomber

The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald have published a strong defence of their investigations into the Monaco-based Unaoil Group, which describes itself as providing “industrial solutions to the energy sector in the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa”, and which in a big investigation by Fairfax Media and The Huffington Post is described as a middle man that facilitates energy contracts by means of bribes and corruption. 

Journalists Nick McKenzie, Richard Baker and Michael Bachelard’s report suggests that things have moved on, as enforcement agencies have collected a large amount of evidence about Unaoil’s activities that is expected to lead to criminal charges. 

There have been some distractions as the group’s PR people have plied Hedley Thomas, from rival newspaper The Catholic Boys Daily, with what they think is disruptive information. 

Hedless ran stories that claimed an unnamed person had been attempting to extort Unaoil for $US5 million worth of bitcoin by threatening to publicly release data showing the extent of the firm’s corruption. 

Fairfax was unaware of the extortion attempt at the time it received the material it used. However, Hedless claimed this situation presented a “potential moral hazard for journalists and media outlets in an age when cyber criminals are increasingly acquiring vast sets of unlawfully obtained emails from companies and putting them in the public arena”.  

Few are better qualified to warn us of “moral hazards” than the team at Lord Moloch’s Daily

Oddly, Unaoil did not tell the police about this extortion attempt, instead partially paying the blackmailer on the advice of “experts”.  

McKenzie, Baker and Bachelard are not put off by this sort of response in the opposition tissue, or threats of legal action, saying: “We can assure our readers that defamation actions and media campaigns by wealthy corporate crooks will not stop our reporting.” 

There’s been dead silence, so far, from Hedless and the company’s PR muffins, and no rebuttal of the company’s suggestion that the Fairfax investigation was somehow tainted by a separate extortion attempt. Let’s hope he gives some decent coverage to Unaoil’s magnificent charity work in Iraq. 

4 . Cory’s animal farm

Senator Cory “Bestiality” Bernardi (Lib SA), in his latest “Common Sense Lives Here” bulletin,  explains the word Orwellian for his readers. It “has come to mean a cynical manipulation of language for the purpose of oppression”. 

Maybe he’s not far off; but he says the claim that he is a homophobe is Orwellian. He doesn’t actually say anywhere that some of his best friends are gay, only that this same-sex marriage business is a slippery slope to “further calls for changes down the track”, such as the right to have sex with wombats. 

It’s all a bit tricky. For all we know, Beasty Boy secretly loves gay people; he just doesn’t want them to have the same human rights as himself, Otto Abetz or Scott Morrison

As he says, Orwell himself would not have foreseen “just how far this insidious process has progressed in such a short space of time”.


Tips and tattle: [email protected]

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 25, 2016 as "Gadfly: Exit stage bereft".

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

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