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

Hoist with his own pedantry

Age shall not weary him, nor the years condemn. I’m thinking, when I mumble this ode, of the micro-accuracy bore, email pest and Pell PR Gerard O’Henderson.  

In last week’s instalment of his Media Watch Dog, republished in The Catholic Boys Daily, there was the usual cavilling stream of emails, this time ticking off solicitor David Patch about his performance at a session of the Henderson Institute at which a book on the Hilton Hotel bombing was discussed.  

Patch was the solicitor representing Evan Pederick, who pleaded guilty to planting the bomb. Tim Anderson was also found guilty but acquitted on appeal as the verdict was unsafe.  

Fr Gerard told his readers that he had a previous “relationship” with David Patch, who he claimed was married to Barbara Ramjan, the object of Tony Abbott’s bout of wall punching after she defeated the future leader of Team Australia at a Sydney University student election in 1977.  

This must be news to former New South Wales Supreme Court judge Greg James, who for 38 years thought he was married to Ms Ramjan. It’s probably understandable if some men, particularly judges, have to rely on Fr Gerard to remind them to whom they are married.  

But in this instance, the James–Ramjan marriage is alive and kicking and the saintly Henderson has no idea what he is talking about. Normally, if someone else did this we would never hear the end of it. Explanations for the error would be demanded by Gerard. The explanations would be picked over and further particulars would be demanded. The process would go on until hell froze over or readers stuck forks in their eyes.  

Not here. When the penny dropped and Henderson later realised that Patch is not the husband of Ramjan, and never has been, the offending sentence was stealthily removed from the online world. No explanation, no interrogation as to the source of this misinformation, no ash or sackcloth.  

1 . Shampoo secrets

Reptiles and hacks at the Wentworth hotel where the Liberal election victory was being “celebrated” on July 2 had a pretty lame time. Idle moments were passed monitoring the fake voices of some of the guests, spotting the worst-taste outfits, and working out who on earth was who.  

Some reporters distracted themselves by taking lots of pictures, until a Liberal official banned photographs being taken of a fridge filled with champagne. This was far too sensitive and top secret, let alone tragic, to be snapped.

2 . Left on the shelf

After Monday’s joint party room briefing, the alert staff of Attorney-General Bookshelves Brandis fired off a message that a notebook and glasses case were left behind after the briefing and could be “collected from Peter in Senator Bushby’s office (SG 106)”. Good to know.

But while Bookshelves’ staff is right on the game when it comes to missing notebooks, Bookshelves himself is in slumberland. 

Gadfly sent him an email on June 28 requesting, under the FOI Act, copies of various documents in his command and control. Under the act he has 14 days in which to say he received the request and 30 days within which to notify his decision.  

So here we are with ’Shelves quite silent, and over a week outside the statutory deadline.  

Why should we not be surprised that the minister responsible for administering the act hasn’t complied with it?

3 . You say potato

I notice that Pauline Hanson has picked up a cue from Gorgeous George Brandis and is a big fan of free speech – free to get stuck into anyone who doesn’t look as though they’re fitting into the Ipswich way of life.  

It hasn’t always been so. After the 1997 release of the satirical song “Backdoor Man”, Hanson secured a Queensland Supreme Court injunction to ban the song that had been played so successfully on the ABC’s Triple J. This was a compilation of snatches of Hanson’s own voice put to a fetching beat and assembled by Simon Hunt, aka Pauline Pantsdown.   

According to the Queensland Court of Appeal, the words of the song included:  

I’m very proud that I’m not natural / I’m a backdoor man for the Ku Klux Klan with a very horrendous plan / I’m a very caring potato / We will never have the chance. 

I’m a backdoor man for the Ku Klux Klan with very horrendous plans / I’m a very caring potato / We will never have the chance / Please explain / Me. Et cetera.  

Hanson’s lawyers pleaded that the meanings to be drawn from the song include that she engages in unnatural sexual practices including anal sex, that she is of subhuman intelligence, that she is a paedophile, a homosexual, a gay activist and a prostitute. 

Hanson also contended that “caring potato” has a special meaning: “a homosexual male of European descent who has a sexual preference for homosexual males of Asian descent”. 

Justice Roslyn Atkinson didn’t know about this meaning, and she has an honours degree in English literature. She called for several dictionaries to be brought into court. During counsel’s submissions, the judge, poring over the Macquarie, said: “Just a minute. There you are. The colloquial meaning of ‘potato’ in The Macquarie Dictionary, which we can take to be the modern Australian meaning of words, is a woman. It’s the rhyming slang, ‘potato peeler – sheila’. So potato, colloquially, is a woman.” 

Her honour also referred to the more traditional meaning, also found in the Macquarie: “an edible tuber of a cultivated plant”. 

The Australian National Dictionary, which covers Australianisms, has “clean potato” meaning above reproach or a plan that is above board. By now the judge wasn’t convinced that “caring potato” had the special meaning contended by Ms Hanson.  

At one point in the case, the ABC pleaded in its defence that anal sex is not an unnatural sexual practice. It later dropped that line of argument.  

The case was never tested in a defamation trial and still, nearly 20 years later, the Queensland injunction persists. As a free speech warrior Hanson should now apply to the court to have the order withdrawn, so that the message of the caring potato can be brought into more ’Strayan homes.

4 . Take it with a Hinch of salt 

We’ll just have to get used to that bumptious blowhard, senator-elect Derryn Hinch.  

There he was recently on Q&A jamming his views down everyone’s throats.  

“I’m against – totally opposed to – compulsory voting, always have been ... We only have it in Australia and in Belgium. It’s not compulsory in New Zealand or Canada or the United States or even the UK, where we follow the Westminster system of government ... In New Zealand, 90 per cent of New Zealanders vote.”

It was compelling stuff, if not quite true.

Now that the ABC has scrapped its fact-checking department, we have to rely on others to straighten things out and so I’m indebted to Lisa Hill, professor of politics at the University of Adelaide, and Grant Duncan, associate professor with the School of People, Environment and Planning at NZ’s Massey University.   

Hill and Duncan say there is compulsory voting, with varying degrees of enforcement, in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Democratic Republic of Congo, Costa Rica, Cyprus, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Egypt, France (senate only), Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Mexico, Nauru, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Singapore, Switzerland (one canton), Thailand, Turkey and Uruguay. 

Asked by The Conversation to support his other assertion, Hinch said: “I accept it was (only) 80 per cent in NZ in 2014. I was discussing the issue on Monday morning with my NZ brother, a former school principal, who was here to help me with the campaign. He said, ‘Back home, where voting is not compulsory, the participation rate gets as high as 90 per cent.’ I recall seeing that figure when researching a court defence for not voting several years ago. Don’t know exactly where I read it.” 

In fact, Hill and Duncan say New Zealand has not had a turnout of registered voters in the 90 per cent range since the 1980s.  

It has been in gradual decline for some time. The percentage who vote in NZ without compulsion fell from about 88 per cent in 1996 to about 77 per cent in 2014. 

When you hear Senator Hinch on his hind legs, just remember, he’s a journalist.

Tips and tattle: [email protected]

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 23, 2016 as "Gadfly: Hoist with his own pedantry".

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

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