Right after Sarah Ferguson on ABC TV added to suspicions that George Pell is a child molester, revealing there are several civil claims against the cardinal waiting in the wings, the High Court has gone and upset the apple cart with some complicated thinking about “reasonable doubt … unchallenged evidence … [and] innocence”. By Richard Ackland.

Justice deserts

Right after Sarah Ferguson on ABC TV added to suspicions that George Pell is a child molester, revealing there are several civil claims against the cardinal waiting in the wings, the High Court has gone and upset the apple cart with some complicated thinking about “reasonable doubt … unchallenged evidence … [and] innocence”.

There are so many puzzles about this case for citizens to play with over hot cross buns and Easter bunnies, after they’ve finished the jigsaws recommended by Schmo Morrison.

A jury, carefully instructed by the trial judge about the required standard, after hearing all the witnesses, thought Pell was guilty. Presumably, this meant they believed the accuser’s evidence was more sound than the evidence of Pell’s 20 or so “opportunity witnesses”.

The High Court does not say the complainant was unreliable, a liar or inadequate – only that the jury should have had more doubt about the person they accepted as truthful.

For many members of the community, the sight of the country’s highest appeal judges snitching away the verdict of a jury, in favour of a well-heeled and well-padded defendant, does not sit favourably. While the High Court ticks off the list of technicalities through which the criminal law jumps to protect the accused, victims become victims all over again.

Chrissie Foster, whose daughters were abused by Catholic priests, remarked that Pell “had the best defence that money can buy for all his hearings”. It’s a rotten shame that in this country not everyone can afford that sort of get-out-of-jail card.

First Portelli of call

Monsignor Charles Portelli was George Pell’s principal opportunity witness. He told the trial he was with Pell elsewhere at the relevant time when the then archbishop was supposedly in the sacristy molesting choirboys. As Mandy Rice-Davies might remark: “He would say that, wouldn’t he?”

It should not be forgotten that one of those choirboys subsequently took his own life.

The relationship between Pell and Portelli is a curious one. Reporter David Marr in his Quarterly Essay The Prince: Faith, Abuse and George Pell (published by a sister company of The Saturday Paper) says the two men “go way back”. He quotes Portelli making gushing remarks about Pell’s ability – even when the future cardinal was appointed as rector of the Clayton seminary in 1985.

Portelli has stuck by Pell’s side ever since. The newspapers mocked him as one of Pell’s “Spice Girls”, with the Herald Sun reporting he worked as Pell’s “driver, ghostwriter, ceremony-preparer and proofreader”.

Pell invited Portelli to decorate the chapel of Domus Australia in Rome and the result was greeted enthusiastically by admiring clergy, as quoted in Marr’s essay:

“His taste in everything, especially the golden, enamel and marble tabernacle with its green malachite dome and bejewelled door set with semi-precious Australian stones, which stands proudly and prominently at the centre of the sanctuary, was impeccable.”

The High Court thought the evidence of this Pell ally and tabernacle decorator was sufficiently dazzling to give jurors enough room to disbelieve the accuser. Not that the recently released Pell has been given a certificate of innocence – simply that the prosecution didn’t get over the high hurdle.

Bond ambitions

“Snap back” is Schmo’s catchphrase for the end of virus policy initiatives. When the wet-market disease has been washed away, the PM thinks the economy will snap back to “normal”. Parents will no longer want free childcare and people will be happy to go back to rations on Newstart (now renamed the JobSeeker Payment) and give up the discount on their mortgages.

It must also be the time, in Morrison’s mind, when the Reserve Bank stops the printing presses and its purchase of government bonds.

Gadfly has been canvassing a couple of fiscal economists who think there will be a long tail to what is essentially a recession. People’s savings will have run down, there will be little to no working capital left in corporate balance sheets, job insecurity will linger and the psychological shock will take yonks to wear off.

It is likely the Reserve Bank will have to keep printing money to prop up an exhausted economy. Interest rates on three-year bonds are now 0.25 per cent; and on 10-year bonds, 0.75 per cent. This would be costing the Commonwealth about $1.2 billion a year on about $220 billion worth of government paper.

If rates edge upwards, then the extent of the horror becomes smartly evident. The interest bill will start to squeeze out other expenditure such as health and education. Taxes will have to go up and by then Schmo’s government will be well and truly on the nose.

Percy Allan, a former head of the New South Wales Treasury and the NSW Treasury Corporation, has been arguing that instead of the Reserve Bank buying government bonds, which along with other central banks has largely financed a speculative boom in shares and property, it should be investing its printed money in infrastructure projects.

This could be done by issuing share certificates in capital projects, redeemable at the central bank. In this way there would be no addition to government debt.

Adolf Hitler adopted a similar scheme in early 1930s Germany, lifting that country out of depression. The money from this early version of quantitative easing went into autobahns, the Olympics and building an army.

In this country, the lessons of the Führer have been lost on successive Coalition regimes, which prefer to assist wealthy speculators rather than imagine bold social schemes, such as invading Poland.

At the ferry least

Newspaper reports of an eruption of swastikas and other anti-Semitic daubings in the Apple Isle have prompted one of Gadfly’s regulars, Senator Eric (Otto) Abetz, to ring the only rabbi in Tasmania and inquire what was going on. He was told that among the problems faced by the community was the difficulty of getting matzo and other food that was kosher for Passover.

The pandemic and lockdown were making it very difficult to ship these supplies from the mainland. According to the online Jewish news and information service, Otto leapt into action and used his contacts with the Spirit of Tasmania ferry people to transport boxes of Passover supplies, free of charge.

Otto is chair of the Australia–Israel Parliamentary Friendship Group and he told “I see the plight of the Jewish people over centuries as being a blot on humankind.” He did mention that his father fought in World War II “on the wrong side” and that Great-Uncle Otto deported Jews from France to the death camps.

“It is a blot on the family name,” the local Otto declared. “If I am able to do something to rectify that, I would be very thankful to do that.”

Intriguingly, Chabad mentioned Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the “Desert Fox”, was also a maternal cousin of Otto’s.

Abetz and his surprises – they just keep on coming.

On the Downer low

And where would we be without regular appearances from another favourite, Fishnets (Bunter) Downer? Last month on Twitter he was bloviating about the relative harmlessness of Covid-19. He thought the “panic” about the virus was “madness”. “Calm down,” Bunter urged. “This isn’t the Black Death. Vulnerable people should be very careful. The rest? Get on with normal life.”

Last week he switched from medical advice to constitutional opinions: “I don’t think an Australian State can legally close it [sic] borders to other Australians under Section 117 of the Constitution,” he tweeted.

Needless to say, this prompted a spate of responses, such as: “I dare you to cross the Nullabor [sic] right now. Fire up the Volvo, go on a road trip.”

Bunter was prompted to cite the great constitutional case of Street v Queensland Bar Association, which gave a broad interpretation to the issue of discrimination against a resident of one state by another state.

Constitutional law professor Anne Twomey, writing in The Conversation, had already pointed out last month that indeed states can hinder or prevent movement across borders during the coronavirus pandemic.

Professor Twomey points to that wonderful section of the constitution that says “trade, commerce and intercourse among the States … shall be absolutely free”.

Maybe Bunter was thinking of that line, but he hadn’t realised that after considerable massaging over the years by High Court therapists, “absolutely free” doesn’t mean “absolutely free”. It means now that if laws are being passed to protect things such as public health then they are likely to be valid.

Twomey added “no one could argue” that safeguarding the public was “protectionist”. But Bunter evidently disagrees.

As one of the Twitterati observed about the former minister for Foreign Affairs: “Thinking has never been your strong point.”

Tips and tattle: [email protected]

National Sexual Assault, Domestic and Family Violence Counselling Service 1800 737 732

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 10, 2020 as "Gadfly: Justice deserts".

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

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