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

Shelving the sorrow

We’ve had a sighting of Bookshelves Brandis closely inspecting the bookshelves at the Hill of Content in Melbourne’s Bourke Street.

There was the first law officer (or FLO, as he’s referred to in the public service), in the presence of two young staffers, examining the strength of the timbers holding up the Hill’s history section while extolling to them the virtues of a tome on the French Revolution.

The following week was to unfold disastrously for Bookshelves as the awkward news broke of the questionable eligibility of Senator Rod Culleton under section 44 of the constitution and the possible unconstitutionality of the existence of former senator Bob Day.

Yet at the bookshop it was serenity itself as Bookshelves hummed and sang along to the tune coming from the sound system – none other than Al Bowlly’s “Goodnight Sweetheart”.

“…Goodnight sweetheart, 

sleep will banish sorrow.”

If only.

1 . Tackling politics

Various old lags from Sydney Grammar have formed a loose Malcolm Turnbull Appreciation Society. One has reached out to Gadfly with reminiscences of the prime minister’s schooldays.

On the oratory front, the PM-in-waiting was a complete and utter champ. Members of the debating team remember the lad as a young Cicero, without the toga, and in 1967, when Malcolm was 13, the then master of the lower school, Alastair Mackerras, later to be headmaster, predicted Turnbull would one day be our prime minister.

There was quite a lot of grimacing from the Lower Remove at this news.

It was clear that the young star was a bit of a Mackerras favourite because he wound up as senior school prefect and, as Rob Hirst from Midnight Oil reported, made a name for himself confiscating boys’ sweets, particularly Spearmint Life Savers, which he thought were “despicable”.

There was also a major investigation into who yelled “Sieg Heil” at a school assembly.

But according to one player in the under-16Fs, it was on the football field that Mal learnt his policy skills. Apparently he disliked getting possession of the ball and if, by mistake, he did get it, he would throw it away.

Sometimes another player would catch it, sometimes an opponent would grab it, and sometimes an unsuspecting patch of turf would get it.

Nor did the future PM like to be tackled, although he was fearless at tackling lads as long as they were smaller.

As we can now see, this approach has fine-tuned him to be a masterful political leader.

2 . Uh-oh, Otto

Talking of Sieg Heil, a field agent kindly sent Gadfly a link to a 1949 German newsreel titled Welt Im Film. It’s fascinating, with news about cycle races, the latest fashions in Düsseldorf, and a meeting of Commonwealth finance ministers in London.

However, the standout item was the trial at a military court in Paris of Hitler’s former ambassador to Vichy France, Otto Abetz. He was charged with responsibility for transporting 120,000 Jews to German concentration camps in Poland.

He was also accused of taking out of France 20,000 works of art. Where are they now, I wonder? Anyway, there was actual footage of Grand Uncle Otto, looking uncannily like his transplanted Tasmanian kith and kin, Senator Erich Abetz, confusingly also referred to from time to time as Otto in this space.

Fortunately for the Coalition, despite his ancestry, the Tasmanian Otto is one of the few senators who is not in the frame with section 44 of the constitution.

3 . Tony’s citizen strain

This is not necessarily the case elsewhere in the Coalition. Petition EN0038 is still open for signatures on the Parliament House website. As many citizens as possible should get out their electronic pens and sign away because this may force a resolution to a mystery that has long dogged our national polity.

The petitioners request that the house of representatives demand Tony Abbott show he is eligible to sit as an MP under section 44 of the constitution in that he is solely an Australian citizen and not also a citizen of another country.

We know other MPs are taking a closer look at s.44, but the bit that relates to Abbo says an MP is ineligible for election if “under any acknowledgement of allegiance, obedience, or adherence to a foreign power or is a subject or a citizen … of a foreign power”.

Yes, the Abbott birther problem is still alive and kicking. The statement of facts say that having been born a British citizen he only became an Australian in 1981. He was thereby a dual citizen and technically complied with the rules of the Rhodes scholarship trust. Nonetheless, it is claimed he entered Oxford as a British citizen in contravention of the requirements of the trust.

The petitions’ page on the parliamentary website tells us, “There is no record of Mr Abbott ever having renounced his British citizenship ... Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet FOI disclosure log 2015/048 shows an FOI request indicating Mr Abbott’s renunciation papers do not exist.”

It’s a puzzle that must be resolved. Maybe Mr Trump could help.

Terrible as it would be to lose from public life the Spectator-sponsored global speech-giver, rules are rules and if poor Senator Culleton has to step aside because he allegedly nicked something then the permanently brunette former PM should spare us further uncertainty and with his bottle of L’Oréal Casting Crème Gloss trundle off into the sunset.  

4 . Mira reflections

Gina Rino-Heart and her minder Sophie Mirabella cut a swath through the Birdcage on Melbourne Cup day. Soph, decked out in a Hamburglar costume, looked none the worse for wear after again being rejected by the voters of Indi.

Fortunately, she was on hand to rescue Gina after a tumble down the stairs at the Emirates marquee for freeloaders.

I didn’t see Hamburglar’s husband, Lt Col Greg Mirabella, anywhere, but that’s not to say he wasn’t in the crush or being crushed.

Indeed, he should have been having a few recuperative tinctures after the voters of Wangaratta last Saturday failed to put him on the local council. With 835 first preference votes it wasn’t enough support for Greg to fill one of the four vacant spots on the Wang’s City Ward.

I hope he joins the queue for the Court of Disputed Returns.

5 . Is Baird shaping as menace to society?

It was champers and nibbles for the “relaunch” of Look, the official magazine of the Art Gallery Society of NSW. The big news was that Look will go from 12 issues a year to six. One grumpy patron was heard to remark, “If they hold another relaunch next year does it mean Look will go quarterly?”

This sort of negativity should be ignored. The editor, John Saxby, says he is happy with the new arrangement, and why wouldn’t he be? He’s got a new editorial committee including Jacquie Riddell, the gallery’s director of public engagement, who describes herself as a “creategist”.

At the same time, plans to absorb the AG Society into the gallery’s administration are steaming ahead. There’s to be an audit of the society’s performance by Deloittes, which does a lot of work for the Pepsodent Kid in scoping state silverware to be flogged to private asset flippers. 

6 . Breaking news

It’s so hard keeping up with the latest trend. Just as newspapers have spent much treasure and energy refashioning themselves as “digital first” operations, along comes a study from the University of Texas saying the strategy is all wrong. (NB: Maserati Hywood.)

The study finds that the future of newspapers may lie in … producing newspapers.

While print circulation is in decline the study shows that the hard copy versions of the top 51 newspapers in the United States (excluding national papers such as The Wall Street Journal) still reach many more readers in home markets than the digital versions.

Nor have the online editions added much to revenues. The conventional wisdom is that print will morph into digital, but the evidence produced in the Texas study shows that while readers may be departing hard copy, they are not migrating sufficiently to the virtual product.

The paper says: “The identified performance gap between newspapers’ print and online products challenges the ‘digital first’ view about the future of newspapers.” What newspapers should have done is improve newspapers.

Fairfax Media has come up with its answer – start an online shop called The Store and sell to readers cushions, salad servers, mugs and butter knives.

Tips and tattle: [email protected]

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 5, 2016 as "Gadfly: Shelving the sorrow".

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

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