Diary

Gadfly
Voters look back in anger

Here we are six months after the federal election and upon swaths of citizens it has dawned that they have bought tickets to a flop. If it’s cringeworthy now, imagine another two-and-a-half years of this clapped-out music-hall routine.

Archie Rice has arrived at The Lodge, manipulative and tragic with his schtick of disturbing stunts, clinging to a world that has long gone. The supporting cast is equally farcical – prime among them a foam-flecked law’n’order character driven to locking up as many restive citizens as he can get his hands on, and other menacing creatures from deep stage right, whose role it is to frighten small children out of their wits.

Archie distracts us with bricolage. “Look over there,” he commands, while over here the void gets bigger. Forget the crowd’s swirling sentiments about Indigenous recognition, or measures to address integrity in our polity, or the survival of the planet. The important thing is to have some God-bothering freedoms and to stamp out revolutionaries “trying to impose their political will on companies”.

We’re trapped in a John Osborne kitchen sink drama, the entropy unfolding.

Win for Integrity

Over lunch the silken barrister Geoffrey Watson tells Gadfly the Centre for Public Integrity has had a notable success. Its agenda for eliminating the influence of money in the political process has largely been reflected in far-reaching reforms introduced by the Queensland government.

The centre comprises significant former judicial figures and academics, including the former ICAC counsel assisting, and has set out an integrity reform agenda requiring a national anti-corruption commission, protecting institutions that seek to make governments accountable, and disclosing and minimising the influence of log-rollers and donors in the political process.

While the Queensland regime is hell-bent on digging up coal and chopping down trees, it has at least come good on capping political donations, election spending and cash for access.

The mega donation banquets on the Gold Coast look to be under serious threat. Premier Palaszczuk says the influence of large donors will be reduced as funding for candidates and parties shifts more to the taxpayer.

This is in line with reforms the Centre for Public Integrity says are needed to stop democracy being hijacked by the highest bidders. They include serious ceilings on private donations, spending and government advertising; a greater shift towards public funding; closer regulation of lobbying; an end to the revolving door; stronger codes of conduct, and so on.

The limit for Banana Benders will now be a total expenditure of less than $100,000 a seat and a limit of $8.5 million for a campaign all up. Each candidate from the major parties would be restricted to expenditure of $57,000, while third-party organisations would be capped to $87,000 for each electorate.

How will they cope? The next port of call – a full-blooded anti-corruption commission, not a poodle that can’t bark.

Box office appeal

Frankly, two days in the Federal Court for the Telegraph’s appeal against the Geoffrey Rush defamation verdict was not long enough. If it ran for three months, the stalls and gods would still be packed.

It emerged that what the newspaper would like is a new trial, based on submissions that the original judge, Michael Wigney, made a raft of errors.

On Monday and Tuesday, the crowd was riveted by the rhetorical flourishes, quite apart from the serious contentions. After going to a lot of trouble to collect a database of Justice Wigney’s purportedly derogatory terms and audio recordings of his tone, the newspaper abandoned apprehended bias as a ground on day one.

The case now concentrated on the judge’s surprising findings that the Tele’s main witness, the actress Eryn Jean Norvill, who said she had been sexually harassed by Rush during a production of King Lear, was unreliable and prone to exaggeration. At the same time the judge thought that Rush’s main witnesses, Neil Armfield and Robyn Nevin, were flawless.

Rush was awarded an eye-watering $2.9 million in aggravated damages and compensation for loss of earnings, with Tom Blackburn, SC, for the Tele saying the award was “extraordinary and absurd almost” when evidence had not been provided as to Rush’s ability to work following the publication of the articles. The aggravated damages of $850,000 also was over the top and should be toned down.

The Tele also raised Wigney’s decision not to admit Yael (Cast the Final) Stone as a truth witness as another ground for a new trial.

Then it was Bret Walker’s turn for Rush. There was ample evidence, he claimed, of Rush’s “emotional prostration” in the months following publication of the harassment stories. He said the appellant had a “distinctly over-egged pudding” in asserting that the lack of evidence from Rush about his employment prospects was a “startling omission”. And, he submitted, Wigney’s acceptance of the Armfield–Nevin evidence was “unassailable”. Phew.

As for the money, the statutory cap on defamation damages, Walker said, only applies if “the way you publish is decent”, otherwise “the gateway is opened”. Further, the publisher had not taken into account the “sterilisation” of Rush’s economic position.

Justice Jacqueline Gleeson was the one judge who inquired about the power imbalance between Rush and Norvill, to which Blackburn responded: “What a power imbalance there was.” On the one hand Rush, “the winner of the triple crown” (Oscar, Tony and Emmy acting awards) and Norvill, “trying to establish herself”.

The decision is reserved.

Best man’s justice

For more news from the neolithic period we turn to the Apple Isle and a report late last month that Justice Gregory Geason sent a young lad to a short stint in the slammer after a jury found him guilty of rape.

Greg looked kindly on the guilty fellow, giving him good marks for not ejaculating and being otherwise of sound character. “There is no suggestion you have any disease, and I have commented that you did not ejaculate,” the judge said. Points were not deducted for his failure to wear a condom. There was evidence the accused told another person he wanted to have sex with the victim. This was only a “crudely expressed statement of desire”, said the judge, “not a statement of intention to act upon that desire unlawfully”.

“As such, I do not treat it as evidence of predatory behaviour.” The young fellow came from a “good upbringing”, with a fine school record and sporting achievements. The trouble was he had an “honest but unreasonable belief as to consent”.

Even though he raped the victim twice, at one stage putting his hand over her mouth, he will not be going on the sex offenders register. In fact, he was so good, his sentence of two years and three months’ jail time was suspended for all but nine months.

By the bye, Geason was appointed to the court in 2017 after a panel had selected a shortlist of two to fill a vacancy. The other contender was prominent barrister Philip Jackson. It must have been a tough decision for the government – Geason had worked at two Hobart law shops with a young Willy Hodgman, later Premier Hodgman, and was best man at the Hodgman wedding. By all accounts, the premier stood aside from cabinet’s decision on this appointment.

Nick of (wrong) time

Has Nick (Goosebumps) Cater forgotten to take his stimulants? Gadfly has been looking forward to “a very special evening” promoted by Goosebumps at the Menzies “Research” Centre.

It’s a walk down memory lane with Little Winston Howard and his deputy from Cockies Corner John Anderson – or, as Goosebumps put it, a “conversation about the enduring strength and capability of the Coalition partnership”.

It’s on at the Wesley Conference Centre in Sydney with dinner afterwards at City Tatts. It should be a crazy night.

Even though the invitation went out on October 30, Goosey said that very special event was set for September 21. How to get to an event that had apparently happened 39 days earlier was a puzzle that members of the research centre were researching.

But, wait! Nineteen minutes after the original email went out a correction was issued. The event was actually being held on November 21. It all seemed to be making sense again until two days later, on November 1, Goosebumps sent out a follow-up reminder with the subject line, “Don’t miss John Howard and John Anderson in conversation, September 21”. However, the date in the email for the conversation between these two codgers was now November 21. Confused? That’s understandable, but it’s easy for two months to entirely vanish, so “don’t miss this rare opportunity to hear two of the giants of Australian conservative politics discuss how the Coalition remains strong and able to meet the ever-changing challenges of the 21st century”.

Stand by for another damages verdict against Goosey after a Queensland jury in September found that along with Channel Nine he had defamed quarry-owning Wagners in yet another of the Grantham flood defamation cases. A triumph for 60 Junkets

Tips and tattle: [email protected]

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 9, 2019 as "Voters look back in anger". Subscribe here.

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