Diary

Gadfly
Downer out

Fishnets Downer issued a last moving message from his well-padded HQ at Australia House.

The outgoing high commissioner to the United Kingdom was looking incredibly pleased with himself as he faced the camera.

“Being a diplomat means not just going to parties,” he said. “It means having purpose. So, um, your purpose is to promote the interests of your country.”

And the memories that will linger with him after four years on The Strand? Well, there was the excitement of Brexit, of course, but, “inevitably, I remember the times I’ve met the Queen, for example – dinners at Buckingham Palace.”

And the future: “I’ve got different things I’ll be doing.” That’s it. All done in one minute 21 seconds. We’re going to miss his giant intellect strutting the world stage.

Same shame but different

There are royal commissions and then there are royal commissions. Today we have the Kenneth Hayne abattoir, filleting some of the finest people money can buy.

Back then we had the Owen royal commission into the demise of HIH, the biggest corporate belly flop in Australian history. While Blair Paton-Trumble resisted the Hayne commission for longer than was necessary, he was a bit of star in the Owen commission, having been Goldman Sachs’s man at the wheel at the time he advised Rodney Adler’s insurance business FAI, prior to and during its takeover by HIH.

Amazingly, in his 2003 report the then Western Australian judge Neville Owen laid bare much the same stuff that former justice Hayne is devilling away at right now: poor management, inadequate board supervision, hopeless regulators, ugly cultures, conflicts of interest, big swinging dicks all over the place, money grubbing on an eye-watering scale, dodgy accounts – the whole nine yards.

Back then the Rowena Orr of the day was Stormin’ Norman O’Bryan, counsel assisting Owen. He squarely laid the blame for HIH’s demise at the door of Turnbull and his client, FAI.

There were the usual Trumble antics: threats of defamation, accusations that the royal commission was leaking, chewing the ears off wretched hacks caught in his pathway.

The thing was that, years earlier, young Blair and Goldman had done a thorough examination of Adler’s business, known in the trade as Fuck All Insurance, and decided not to invest in a proposed privatisation. Goldman, in a message to head office in New York, said that the true net asset valuation of FAI is about $20 million, “compared to a stated book value of $220 million”.

This information was not passed on to the FAI board. Later, when HIH came out of the woodwork with a bid of $295 million for Fuck All Insurance, Rodney Adler retained Goldman as the takeover adviser.

Commissioner Owen said it would have been nice if the directors of FAI had been told by Goldman Sachs Australia that they had already investigated FAI and decided not to invest in the proposed privatisation because the business was hardly worth a cracker.

“Such information should have been revealed to the FAI board by a financial or corporate adviser like Goldman Sachs Australia.”

Directors then would have been in a better position to decide whether to break up and sell the insurance business, or go with the less attractive alternative of the HIH takeover.

“The fact that these matters were not revealed to the board of FAI is regrettable,” said Owen.

Trumble escaped a bullet from the royal commissioner, but not from the HIH liquidator, who sued him and Goldman Sachs for damages.

A settlement took place after Trumble had declared that the liquidator’s claim was “baseless”.

Those were the days. The same sort of days we have now.

Free not easy

While a concerted social media campaign is gathering pace to have the ABC desist from featuring Institute of Public Affairs drones on its chat shows, a special committee appointed by IPA member and Minister for Communications Mitch Fifield has been set upon the public broadcasters to see if they are competing too avidly with the private broadcasters.

Lord Moloch’s free market dancing bears have been up on their hind legs about the dreadful competition from the ABC and SBS, particularly their free news websites and streaming services.

Competition is all very well, but apparently not when it comes from publicly funded broadcasters – targets of Pauline Hanson, who persuaded the government to set up this wretched inquiry in exchange for her vote on the media “reforms” bill, from which not one iota of reform has yet flowed.

Even so, there would be a revolt in the streets if Mitch and his merry men tried to stop the free news websites of the national broadcasters and, in particular, the streaming services such as SBS’s On Demand.

Political defenestration for this clot of a minister would be in store, should an angry mob get hold of him.

Fact and friction

Meanwhile, the media watchdog has been barking at the moon.

The Australian Communications and Media Authority has found ABC political editor Andrew Probyn (Chris Uhlmann’s replacement) breached the impartiality rules when he said on air that Ten Flags Tony was “the most destructive politician of his generation”.

This was in the context of reporting a climate denial speech Abbott made in London, the same speech where he suggested policies to reduce carbon emissions were akin to “primitive people once killing goats to appease the volcano gods”.

Unfortunately, ACMA solemnly thought Abbott was a credible politician who should be taken seriously, and so Probyn’s remark was a “pejorative descriptor”.

As Katharine Murphy in Guardian Australia pointed out: when you consider Abbott’s record on climate, Probyn was merely stating the “bleeding obvious”.

Somehow in the muddle-headed wombat thinking of the regulator the journalist was not being “impartial” when stating a fact. As Frontline frontman Mike Moore would say, “Ummm…”

Memories come flooding back of the regulator’s blundering decision on Channel Seven’s exposure of a former New South Wales transport minister, David Campbell, visiting the steam rooms at Ken’s at Kensington.

When Seven approached the minister with its brilliant scoop he promptly resigned. The broadcaster was terribly indignant that he used his ministerial car to get a good steaming.

ACMA came up with this pearl: “In this case, the resignation of the minister meant that the broadcast, which would otherwise have been an invasion of privacy, was justified, but solely because it provided a deeper explanation of the circumstances behind the resignation.”

In other words, the privacy rule was breached but this was okay because this breach of privacy forced the minister to resign and therefore the report was in the public interest.

Pasta joke?

Federal Circuit Court judges in Sydney had good cause for Christmas celebrations last year as they gathered at the well-known East Sydney restaurant Beppi’s.

After all, they had a gruelling year tossing out the cases of immigration and refugee applicants and now it was time to kick back and get festive.

The guest of honour was John Pascoe, the chief justice of the Family Court, previously a Howard-era appointment as chief judge of what were then called the federal magistrates. Before that he was chairman and chief executive of George Weston Foods, the maker of Tip Top, and chairman of the Aristocrat poker machine company.

By coincidence, he had worked at the same law firm as Howard’s brother – although the link to white bread was probably more apposite in Howard’s Australia.

For the Christmas do at Beppi’s, the chief judge of the circuit court, Three Wigs Willy Alstergren, had come up from Melbourne.

Just as the assembled beaks were tucking into their vast platters of zucchini flowers, prosciutto and figs and gnocchi with prawns, Pascoe prayed for everyone to be silent and proceeded to swear in Alstergren as deputy chief justice of the Family Court of Australia.

No one before had ever been to a judicial swearing-in at an Italian restaurant, but now the precedent has been established there is no need for the judicial oath to be taken solemnly in courtrooms in front of members of the profession and judges, delivering long-winded, fawning speeches.

Of course, it is slightly unusual for a judge to be sworn in to one court before judges of an entirely different court.

But, hey, we live in a time when ancient traditions are biting the dust all over the place.

Trumpette #67

It’s alarming that another disturbing dimension of Barking Dog Trump’s already complex character has emerged – his desire to be so empathetic with someone that he usurps their identity in order to fraudulently pass off his own correspondence as theirs.

Take the case of Harold Bornstein, the ageing hippie doctor who had the gruesome job of being Trump’s physician. He is now saying that the glowing pre-election health certificate he signed actually had been dictated by the Pussy Grabber.

We should have got the clue because of the over-larded superlatives: “If elected, Mr Trump, I can state unequivocally, will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.”

Two days before this medical analysis was released Trump had tweeted with amazing insight: “As a presidential candidate, I have instructed my long-time doctor to issue, within two weeks, a full medical report – it will show perfection.”

Bornstein also said that after he revealed that he prescribed some weird hair-growth remedy for the president, a couple of Trump’s goons raided his office and removed medical records.

In August last year it emerged that the president had dictated a statement that was released in the name of his hapless and oily son Donald Trump Jr.

The missive was designed to give a misleading gloss on the meeting at Trump Tower with several Russians who promised “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. According to Don Jr’s proxy statement, it was a “short introductory meeting” to discuss the adoption of Russian children.

In the 1980s, the dotard, pretending to be someone else, would ring newspaper reporters to plant favourable stories about himself.

There are simply no more surprises to be had.

Tips and tattle: [email protected]

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 5, 2018 as "Gadfly: Downer out". Subscribe here.

Richard Ackland
is the publisher of Justinian. He is The Saturday Paper’s diarist-at-large and legal affairs editor.

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