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

Changing the rules of engagement

The arguments in favour of the same-sex marriage plebiscite get dottier by the day. There was the attorney-general, Bookshelves Brandis, on Lateline, looking like a pinstriped toad, trying to persuade people that “the clearest path towards having marriage law reform and marriage equality in Australia is through a successful plebiscite”.

We often wonder about George’s powers of persuasion, which puts us in mind of Alan Bennett’s phrase in An Englishman Abroad – “pipe isn’t fooling pussy”. 

But why is a plebiscite the clearest path to marriage reform when the actual clearest path is a free vote in parliament? 

Bookshelves cleared up that mystery, saying: “This is an issue on which everybody in the community is entitled to have a view. What ought to be the nature of marriage? … This is a unique issue … Every citizen has an equal stake in what our society should understand marriage to be.”  

Nice one, Bookshelves. Which makes you think, why didn’t the “lying rodent”, aka Little Winston Howard, call on a plebiscite when he wanted to amend the Marriage Act in 2004? Until that point, the act didn’t narrowly define marriage as between a man and a woman. It might have been thought, for instance, to mean marriage between a man who knew Don Bradman’s batting average and his mother. 

If the act had not been amended, the common law definition of marriage would continue to have applied, leaving it open for the High Court to make the marriage equality decision for us, which it did in the Australian Capital Territory marriage case, where it said “marriage” in the constitution includes a marriage “between persons of the same sex”.  

At the time, Howard, with a heart the size of a caraway seed, made it clear that this was a job for parliament: “It is something that ought to be expressed through the elected representatives of the country… It’s also a necessary assertion by the parliament of the country above all others to define what is regarded in our community as a marriage”. 

Not only wasn’t there a plebiscite, but the PM rushed the changes into parliament less than an hour after making his announcement. 

Bravo, Winston. The then attorney-general, Philip Ruddock, chimed in to say that the government is “fundamentally opposed to same-sex couples adopting children”. Ruddock still has his snout in the trough while he paddles around the world as Australia’s “special envoy for human rights”.

1 . Brandis plugs Leak

Meanwhile, Bookshelves put in an appearance the other day at the Australian Human Rights Commission in Sydney to have a cosy chat with the commissioners, seeing if they were on message et cetera. 

Only days earlier he had made an announcement in response to Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane’s suggestion that the HRC is available to consider complaints from Aboriginal Australians on Bill Leak’s cartoon in The Australian, which apparently was a witty response to the revelations about cruelty at the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre. 

Shelves issued some riding instructions: “It is the role of the Australian Human Rights Commission to promote tolerance, not to encourage a culture of grievance.” 

Is it just me, or is it widely believed that since he went all right wing, Leak’s cartoons are ideologically laboured and sadly unfunny? 

2 . Tim turns

It was good to see Freedom Boy Wilson back in print, echoing the cry from his sponsor-in-chief, B. Brandis, that the plebiscite idea is terrific.

Once upon a time he curled up and cried when T. Abbott announced there would be a same-sex marriage plebiscite. Now he’s wiped away his tears and understands it’s best for everyone. He even knows this without knowing the actual wording of the plebiscite question. 

Bookshelves is struggling to find the right words to put to the people. I’m sure Senator Beasty Boy Bernardi has put in a helpful submission, along the lines: “Do you want queers and other undesirables to have the same marriage rights as normal people? If yes, remember there is a danger to small animals.” 

It’s hoped that somehow Brandis can squeeze onto the ballot paper his favourite phrase: “passing strange”. 

A quick squiz at Freedom Boy’s Twitter account shows that he is carrying out his duties as the member for Goldstein with dedication. He attended the opening of the Brighton croquet season and “even got a compliment on my tie knot”. Elsewhere, there were art openings and a night with the Sea Scouts and a plug for pizza at Mr Humble in Highett. It was “seriously #Ah-Maz-Ing”.

3 . Sydney Uni selloff goes to the dogs

The youthful investigative hounds that report for the student newspaper Honi Soit at the University of Sydney keep unearthing stories that show the steady pace of corporatisation at the great academy. 

We know about the defenestration of the Sydney College of the Arts, accompanied by some carefully confected spin, but now comes news of plans for the University Veterinary Teaching Hospital at Camperdown, attached to the faculty of veterinary science, to be run by VetPartners, a Pennsylvania-based corporation, trading in Australia as VetFriends.

The teaching hospital is described in the draft plan as the university’s “small animal experience”. VetPartners runs a massive chain of animal hospitals and are busily gobbling up more, in much the same way the Australian funeral parlour industry was taken over by the American Way of Death. 

VetPartners would pay the university a fee, and take over the management and income of the hospital. The blurb says: “This change proposes that all university academic and professional staff who work in the Camperdown hospital will be subject to direction by VetFriends in respect of their duties as they apply to clinical service within the Camperdown Hospital. 

“For the avoidance of doubt, the university will remain ultimately responsible for all research and teaching content.” 

Another bright idea is to place students in other VetFriends facilities throughout the suburbs, where they can learn accounting, billing and spreadsheet management. 

While the university complains it can’t make any money fixing up small animals, clearly the Septics don’t have any problems in that department.

Woof, woof.

4 . Sniffing out art

Gadfly took himself to the Archibald exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales and was delighted to discover that olfactory experiences have been introduced to accompany the visual. 

While waiting in the impressively long queue to buy a ticket, the smell of fried sausages wafted across the crowd. Maybe they were pork and veal or possibly veal and fennel – it was difficult to judge. 

Were they coming from Matt Moran’s kitchens on the same floor, or is it from a special scent that is sprayed around to drive customers into the gallery restaurants?

The slightly more sinister smell of petrol fumes on the down escalators set the tone for Tracey Moffatt’s photographic exhibition Laudanum and other works.

5 . Santa’s little helper rescues Dad’s Day

It’s Father’s Day tomorrow and panicked family members are out of ideas on what to get the old coot. My friend Father Gerard Henderson from The Sydney Institute has a spectacularly clever lifesaving idea: a signed copy of his book, Santamaria: A Most Unusual Man

We assume the signature is Gerard’s, not the saintly Santa’s. Anyway, even without the signature it’s a snip at $60. And what better present than a book about one unusual man written by a weird man.

6 . House party hush 

There were strange sights at Wednesday’s Midwinter Ball at Parliament House, not least of which was the entry of Jacqui (Lunch Box) Lambie on the arm of Senator Headline Hinch. That sounds like the beginning of a promising relationship.

Extraordinarily, for an event organised by the reptiles of the press gallery, all the speeches are off the record, never to be reported. Turnbull spoke well and even told a few jokes, reminding everyone that it was all confidential, “just like cabinet”.

All very quaint and so different from the wall-to-wall coverage of the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner.


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 3, 2016 as "Gadfly: Changing the rules of engagement".

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

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