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

Artful dodginess

Gadfly finds a letter shoved under his door. It’s written in 1991 by the then NSW premier, Nick Greiner, to the then chancellor of the University of Sydney, Dame Killer Kramer

It’s an interesting document in view of the fuss that the university is making about the expense of keeping the Sydney College of the Arts alive at the Rozelle campus, known as Kirkbride.

The university is shifting the SCA back to the main campus, cutting back some of the courses and cancelling the degree in visual arts – ostensibly as a money-saving measure.

However, Greiner’s letter to Killer makes clear that, in providing a 99-year lease of the property to the university for the SCA, the state “will be responsible for the maintenance of the buildings” during the lease. All the university has to do is provide an indexed $180,000 a year towards upkeep. Macquarie Street would kick in another $6 million for refurbishment, according to the letter, along with $13 million from the Commonwealth. 

Also there was the extra-gorgeous sweetener whereby the state government agreed that the university could have “complete title over the law school building in Phillip Street”. 

Subsequently, the university sold the Phillip Street property and trousered $45 million, more than half the cost of the new law school building on campus. 

So the uni cries poor on account of the SCA, while pocketing $45 million as a result of the state’s grant of title, and taking possession of Kirkbride at no cost with the maintenance bill underwritten. 

Hardly seems like a justification to slice and dice the Sydney College of the Yarts.

1 . Selective leak plugging

So good to see Constable Plod from the AFP this week barge-arsing his way into Parliament House trying to crack the mysterious case of the dreaded NBN leaks. 

The latest police sleuthing follows election-time raids on Labor frontbencher Stephen Conroy and members of his staff to do with the disclosure of internal NBN information that explained the underlying delays and cost blowouts that characterised M. Turnbull’s oversight of the broadband “rollout”. 

The dedication of the wallopers to hunting down the source of the leak is impressive and it’s a pity they haven’t brought the same commitment in following up the deliberate leak in 2003 of a top-secret Office of National Assessments report by a member of Fishnet Downer’s staff. 

With a heavy heart, Gadfly has previously reported that this document was leaked to the faithful transcriber of Liberal government business, Dr Andreas Bolt (BA-in-waiting, Adel.) 

The aim was to embarrass Andrew Wilkie, who had prepared the report and resigned from the ONA in protest over Australia’s involvement in the Iraq War. 

On five occasions, either in parliament or the media, Joshua Frydenberg, then on Fishnet’s staff, has been named as the suspected source of the leak to Blot. 

It’s a shame that the AFP hasn’t been able to categorically clear the minister of this slur, which if proved would attract criminal penalties. 

In its official “post-operational assessment” of its investigation of the leak to the Dutch philosopher the AFP summarised the outcome as follows: 

“Charges laid: none. Seizures: none. Convictions: none. Further action: This investigation is finalised.” 

One observation the coppers did make was that, “Consistent with other unauthorised disclosure investigations the prospect of obtaining direct evidence of the physical transfer of the material was low”. 

That has not stopped them pressing on boldly with the NBN inquiry and tracking down the phantom broadband leaker by scouring “computers, storage devices, emails, diaries, notes, internet logs and correspondence”.

2 . Questionable Price

It was upsetting to see young Mitchell Price getting into a spot of bother over mismanagement of money belonging to Sydney’s Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. 

He paid back $13,816 that he’d knocked up for personal items on a Mardi Gras credit card.

It was a mortifying mix-up apparently, where Mitch confused what should be charged to his own card with that payable by the Mardi people.

These days he’s the manager of the campaign by Liberal Party candidate Christine Forster to be mayor of Sydney at next month’s city council elections.  

Christine, aka Tony Abbott’s sister, has the advantage of a unique scheme devised by the shooters party and the Pepsodent Kid in which city businesses and property developers get two votes for every lousy one given to residents. 

Last week there was a fabulous fundraiser for Forster at Pyrmont, with a big turnout of Abbotts. The raffle prize was a “surf and coffee” with the member for Warringah and former PM, surely a booby prize for buying a ticket in the first place.

3 . Sinking into a deep regression

Of course, the same-sex marriage plebiscite was like an elephant in the room – one that had been shot and eaten by the leader of Christine’s second-favourite political party.

Christine seemed to be making recent noises in opposition to the plebiscite. After brother Tone said that traditional marriage should be passed on “undamaged” to the next generation, Forster argued that the plebiscite should be scrapped and that parliament should just get on with it.

A year earlier she said that if there were to be a plebiscite, it should be held concurrently with the federal election.

Whatever. Current indications are that the plebiscite bill may be blocked in the senate, which was probably brother Tone’s cunning plan from the beginning. In an environment where boldness has deserted the current prime minister what happens next, if anything, is anyone’s guess.

We may end up as the only significant Western country without marriage equality. Coupled with a strident campaign for a version of free speech based on racial abuse and hurling bananas at Indigenous footballers, a toxic regime of offshore imprisonment for refugees, and the jockeying of crossbench crackpots for influence, Australia looks like taking the mantle of Polecat of the World, a title held 26 years ago by South Africa.

4 . Timely reminder of Holocaust legacy 

Despite the sheeting rain the great and the good gathered at Sydney Law School on Wednesday night for a lecture by Philippe Sands, QC, the London-based international lawyer who, among other things, acted for Australia in the Japanese whaling case and for the Philippines in the South China Sea case.

Wednesday’s crowd would probably be described by News Corp hacks as latte sippers.

As if to reinforce the message on another floor, there is the gallery of portraits of magnificent alumni, David Boyd’s Geoffrey Robertson, Judy Cassab’s Michael Kirby, Sir Anthony Mason, Roddy Meagher, and the splendid Malcolm Turnbull Reading Room.

Sands held us captivated for more than an hour as he talked about his book East West Street, which traces the origins of human rights law and its development by a couple of Central European lawyers who never knew each other but came from the same town and were taught by the same professor.

At Cambridge Hersch Lauterpacht developed an International Bill of the Rights of Man and was later hired by the British to assist in the Nuremberg trials after World War II.

Raphael Lemkin came up with the idea of “genocide”, a new word at the time meaning the destruction of a group.

Curiously, the Americans were opposed to the idea of genocide as a crime because they thought oppressed blacks might start making claims. The British didn’t like it either, thinking populations in the colonies might take a fancy to bringing charges.

Lauterpacht was involved in the trial of Hans Frank, Hitler’s lawyer and the Nazi governor-general of Poland. At the time of the prosecution Lauterpacht did not know that Frank was responsible for the destruction of his family.

It took six decades after Nuremberg for the International Criminal Court to come into existence and for charges of crimes against humanity and genocide to have their day.

It’s easy for Australians to forget the origins and importance of these developments, particularly at a time when we are conducting in offshore camps our own version of crimes against humanity.

5 . Foxing required

Drinks at sunset overlooking a sparkling Sydney Harbour. The host, who has a successful enterprise in Vietnam, tells me that top-ranking officials in that country love nothing more than to tuck in to a dish of roasted wild fox with whisky.

If only our embassy in Hanoi had turned on such a treat during the Long Tan negotiations, I’m assured all would have turned out splendidly for the wreath-laying, flag-raising diggers.

Tips and tattle: [email protected]

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 27, 2016 as "Gadfly: Artful dodginess".

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

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