Diary

Gadfly
Donation building

Schmo Morrison was in full marketing-man mode as he batted away accusations against forgetful Comrade Gladys Liu.

Membership of a strange Chinese state propaganda machine; squillions of dollars raised at great fundraising feasts; agitation to amend the foreign investment regime so Chinese business can snap up swaths of agricultural land – nothing to see here, move on, says Schmo.

Willy Loman and P. T. Barnum would be proud of the fellow.

Comrade Liu, it turns out, is a fearsome table wrangler for party fundraisers. Recently, there was also news of the Nine Entertainment-hosted shindig at which about $700,000 was raised for the Nasties.

The donors paid $10,000 a head, but it’s difficult to tell who they were because they were buying tables. Rather embarrassingly, some even hid their faces from the snappers as they drove through the front gates.

Buying tables is the equivalent of the Labor Party’s Aldi bag stuffed with cash from Chinese donors. It’s impossible to determine the identity of those purchasing democracy on the cheap.

New South Wales premier Aunty Gladys Berejiklian has just announced cash donations above $100 will be banned. A fat lot of good that will do when identities can still be hidden.

People who know about these things tell Gadfly the identities of donors is disclosed in connection to about only 25 per cent of the funding for both major parties. The rest “legally” bypasses disclosure laws.

Which gets us to the Liberals opening a fresh front in their war on GetUp!, which runs grassroots campaigns and doesn’t field candidates. Last month Schmo, at a South Australian Liberal Party powwow, suggested another investigation into the organisation because it’s a “wolf in wolf’s clothing”.

Otto Abetz has repeatedly agitated for investigations into GetUp!, and the Australian Electoral Commission already has looked at it three times and found it doesn’t operate as a political party. Yet, while the main parties are squirrelling eye-watering amounts of money from unidentified donors, democracy itself is at stake unless GetUp! is battered to death.

ABC’s 2020+ vision

At least we have national broadcasters – the ABC and SBS. They are not perfect, of course, but how much more shrivelled would we be without them.

We learned the other day that ABC management is overhauling the news with the idea of attracting more outer suburban and regional customers.

Next week, there’s to be a big meeting of 100 journalists, staff and senior wallahs, including Ita Buttrose. It’s the 2020+ ABC News Staff Summit at Bankstown – about as far away from the inner city as it’s possible to go without radar.

This is where the shape, feel and tone of Aunty’s news for the next three years will be moulded. The previous news-shaping exercise in 2016 was titled Equal Digital Life, which was all about platforms, podcasts, mobility and “digital storytelling innovation”.

2020+ is about moving beyond old codgers watching the news at 7pm and getting youngsters from the boondocks on board.

In a recent memo to his troops, news boss Gaven Morris delivered some of his trademark corporate speak: “How can we better surface the issues that matter to local communities. How can we reach the groups we know we are currently under-serving. How do we change our workflows … How do we need to change our tone to look and sound more like Australia.”

This sounds horribly like shorthand for “dumbing down”. To top it off there will be a vote at the summit on six finalists, “results of our callout for great ideas to contribute to our planning”. In all, there were 60 pitches from staff, 10 were chosen by a panel of experts and six will present their ideas at Bankstown, from which two will be chosen by vote.

You can see the direction things are going when you look at the six final submissions: sharable news for 13-17 year olds; heavy metal politics (podcasts for 18-30 year olds who don’t watch news or current affairs); ABC news for youngsters (ABC cadets trialling storytelling techniques); hearing from and helping working parents; a solutions journalism unit (“constructive angles” offering positive solutions to audiences at the grassroots); and online visual news explainers (“simplicity of comprehension front of mind”).

James Dibble, where the bloody hell are you?

Sex sells

After Blanche’s big auction of Bob Hawke’s memorabilia, ephemera and tat, it’s only fitting that Victorian MP Fiona Patten’s erotica collection should go under the online hammer at Lawsons, the auctioneers and valuers.

The sale of raunchy artworks, posters and cartoons follows a change of name for her political organisation from the Sex Party to the Reason Party.

The online bidding closed yesterday afternoon and at last look there were a few unsold items, including a digitally altered Mike Bowers photo titled Amanda Vanstone’s Lips – with expectations between $100 and $200.

There are countless nudes with artfully displayed female and male body parts, depictions of horizontal folk-dancing, a woman’s breasts covered in custard, and everything else you’d expect from a rebranded Victorian politician.

Beyond belief

Isn’t it a touch ironic to see religious freedom advocate and attorney-general Christian Porter expanding the authority and resources of the much-maligned Australian Human Rights Commission?

For so long the AHRC was the government’s bête noire. Not only that, but religious types were opposed to its anti-discrimination agenda – even opposing the idea of an Australian Charter of Rights, while the Association of Christian Schools insists staff should be hired and fired on a discriminatory basis.

Some church schools even want the right to select students based on their spiritual purity. None of this fits with the agenda of the AHRC so it is touching, to say the least, that the Reverend Porter wants to appoint a freedom of religion commissioner to be part of an expanded Human Rights Commission.

The wingnuts at the Institute for Paid Advocacy, from which the government draws so much of its inspiration, want the AHRC abolished. There was an even more exquisite irony when Bookshelves Brandis appointed the IPA’s Freedom Boy Wilson as a commissioner before he got his plump backside on the parliamentary leather.

Whatever. Porter’s religious freedom legislation will create a lawyers’ picnic as offenders and offendees try to weave their way through the legal thickets.

In The Sydney Morning Herald this week, barrister Simeon Beckett pointed to another problem with the proposed law. It is procedurally flawed, expensive to prosecute, messy and bound to fail.

Most discrimination claims are made in state tribunals because legal costs are far lower – the losing side doesn’t have to pay the other side’s costs.

Yet Porter is creating a federal defence ostensibly designed to protect statements of religious belief, even those statements that cut across race, sex or sexuality. Beckett points out the proposed discrimination defence is a federal law that cannot be heard in a state tribunal, only in the supreme or federal courts.

In fact, cases could be going on in two separate places at once and in the court system the costs will be blinding.

The creation of more costs and delays is God’s work.

Legal hang-ups

Professor Greg Craven, vice-chancellor at the Australian Catholic University, has revealed the Reverend Porter and his wife like nothing better than reading sections of constitutional law books to each other in bed. All the better that the books are written by Professor Craven himself.

The Porters have obviously discovered the bit in the constitution that says the parliament in Canberra can make laws with respect to “postal, telegraphic, telephonic, and other like services”.

In modern language, this is the power in relation to “carriage services” – not the gilded contraptions on wheels drawn by liveried horses, but internet providers and telephonic communications.

The attorney-general has seized on this to expand his relentless law’n’order agenda. It’s at the heart of the recently passed amendment to the Criminal Code to punish people with up to five years’ porridge for inciting trespass, theft or damage on agricultural land.

It’s aimed at animal and environmental activists. The offences are already covered by state laws and really have nothing to do with the Commonwealth other than wanting to pander to cockies’ corner. In the process it affects the media, because its sources for stories on animal cruelty and environmental degradation usually come from activists in the field.

Agricultural land is defined broadly, and includes abattoirs, wineries, orchards, apiaries, plantations and woodchip facilities.

Porter is engaging the “carriage service” as the basis of his clampdown. Anyone who uses a phone or a computer to communicate with another about planning to film abuses in abattoirs, feedlots or rural properties can be nabbed. As one lawyer told Gadfly: “The framers of the constitution never contemplated that parliament would protect beekeepers from militant vegans who sent telegrams.”

Porter’s now doing the same with his latest effort to get mandatory sentences for paedophile offences. These crimes are amply covered by state criminal laws but the AG wants to get in on the act by the backdoor. The telephone and the internet are the AG’s passport for his ever-expanding fiat.

In the hands of swivel-eyed zealots the possibilities are endless and scary. Everyone is bound to be using a phone or the internet to do things Porter doesn’t approve of.

Tips and tattle: [email protected]

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 21, 2019 as "Gadfly: Donation building". Subscribe here.

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