Diary

Gadfly
Houston calling

What a miracle it was that Brian Houston, leader of the Hillbilly Church and spiritual adviser to Schmo Morrison, managed to get his White House ban lifted.

There he was inside the cabinet room, no less, announcing he had prayed for the Pussy Grabber, presumably asking God to remedy his bone spurs.

Firmly ensconced in his parallel universe, Houston said he was uplifted by the “great spirit in the White House as people are optimistic about the future”.

The potato-faced pastor in his cabinet room video also marvelled at Trump’s “initiatives that are happening to help freedom of religion”.

On cue, the Reverend Christian Porter released his revised Old Testament religious discrimination bill – allowing the entire medical fraternity to refuse service for procedures they deem ungodly.

This comes under the category of “conscientious objection”, an exemption not available to climate protesters and other placard-wavers.

Meanwhile, the Catholic Church continues to drag the chain on signing up to the national redress scheme for survivors of child sexual abuse.

The attorney-general must have had a night on the syrups, as he signed off with the message: “This is a Bill for all Australians. Australia is a country of respect and tolerance.”

Praise be.

Bog standard

Schmo has been busily overseeing the removal of inclusion and diversity signs on public service bathrooms.

“Please use the bathroom that best fits your gender identity” was torn down from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet toilets on instructions from the Shire clapper.

As yet he hasn’t caught up with toilets marked “Unisex” at Sydney International Airport. Another airport door is marked “Multi-Gender Toilet” and there are also doors for “Male” and “Female”.

No doubt the issue will be fully investigated by deputy toilet monitor and minister for Transport Michael McCormack.

Speak and he shall fine

Freedom has its limits, as Reverend Porter has made clear with his not entirely clear thoughts about defamation law reform.

He has floated the idea that digital platforms such as Facebook and Twitter should be treated the same way as mainstream newspapers and broadcasters. They should be sued when it comes to beastly comments posted by their users.

It doesn’t seem to have been thought through with the AG’s customary thoroughness, especially as the tech companies are based in the United States where the First Amendment, the Communications Decency Act and the SPEECH Act make it exceedingly difficult, if well-nigh impossible, to bring actions or secure take-down orders for defamatory third-party comments.

Another powerful argument against Porter’s idea comes from the brains trust associated with the IPA “think” tank, where a couple of leading thought bubblers, Chris Berg and Aaron Lane, argue that Facebook and Twitter have allowed conservative ideas to blossom online.

“The conservative government needs to understand how destructive it would be to the conservative movement online.”

Berg and Lane posit it would be a “catastrophic mistake” if Porter’s notion saw the light of day – it would force tech companies to be risk averse and remove all sorts of commentary from nutters.

Hatemongers, racists and other supporters of the Nasty Party might have their carefully mulled thoughts consigned to the dustbin. How would society cope?

Dead argument

There was a gasping inhalation of air halfway through a murder trial last week, before Justice Stephen Rothman of the NSW Supremes and a jury.

The Crown case alleges the accused murdered a fellow inmate at the John Morony Correctional Centre, Windsor.

A number of prosecution witnesses in the trial are current inmates doing porridge. On Thursday last week the prosecution called one of the inmates – a powerfully built man who appeared upset that he was required to give evidence.

Crown: I call [witness name withheld] who is in custody.

Witness: What the fuck you dragged me here for? I told you a hundred times I seen nothing, you still dragged me here for. I hear nothing, youse dragged me here again.

His Honour: Mr [Witness], you can say that in the witness box, thank you.

Witness: I’ll fuck your mother, that’s what you understand.

His Honour: That will be hard: she’s been dead for years.

Hymn again

How many Jerusalems are there? Gadfly laboured under the impression there is one – the great hymn with words by William Blake and music by Hubert Parry.

But, alas, Gadfly should have known the pollies were designed to sing the wrong one in last week’s politicians versus press gallery Christmas sing-off at Parliament House.

The singing MPs came up with something titled “The Holy City”, where we find:

Methought the voice of angels
From Heaven in answer rang,
Jerusalem, Jerusalem,
Lift up your gates and sing
Hosanna in the highest,
Hosanna to your King!

Kev Andrews was in dazzling form with this one, as was the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in Salt Lake City with tenor Stanford Olsen when they put the hymn on the map with a huge orchestra and massed voices.

Gadfly isn’t the only place people are anxious to spot mistakes. The Australian Institute of Architects issued what it called a “Correcrtion” (sic) to an earlier message to members about the “$500 billion” redevelopment plan for the Australian War Memorial. Billions, millions – what’s the difference these days?

After the member for Manila’s efforts at tearing down Queensland artworks deemed disrespectful of our diggers, Gadfly is hopeful he might be put in charge of the design commission for this temple of military memories, perhaps inspired by the “adult entertainment” district of Manila.

Tea-leaves to appeal

People are riffling through old High Court judgements in an effort to see what the tea-leaves ordain for Georgie Pell’s special leave application next year.

A massively full bench is being called into service and so far legal eagles have directed Gadfly’s attention to two previous High Court decisions of relevance.

In the Baden-Clay case, decided in 2016, the court showed it was reluctant to meddle with the findings of juries. It restored the murder conviction of Gerard Baden-Clay after the Queensland Court of Appeal had earlier supplanted the jury’s finding of murder with one of manslaughter.

The Court of Appeal had found the murder verdict was unreasonable on the basis that the prosecution had failed to exclude the hypothesis that the respondent unintentionally killed his wife.

The High Court would have none of it, saying the jurors were entitled to regard the whole of the evidence as satisfying them beyond reasonable doubt that Gerard Baden-Clay acted with intent to kill or cause grievous bodily harm when he killed his wife, Allison.

In M v The Queen in 1994, the court brought fresh thinking to the idea of “unsafe verdicts”. It was no longer sufficient for verdicts to be replaced on appeal on the basis of “lurking doubts” about the jury’s findings.

M was charged with indecently and sexually assaulting his 13-year-old daughter. The complainant’s testimony was the only evidence against the accused, who maintained his innocence throughout.

On appeal the daughter’s evidence was found to be inconsistent and based on some implausible assertions.

The High Court said it would be unsafe and unsatisfactory for the jury’s verdict to stand, and this required a much higher threshold than a “lurking doubt”.

So, on the one hand the High Court isn’t fond of rewriting jury verdicts, but on the other it will do so when it feels things are seriously unsafe.

At the same time a finding that a verdict is unsafe is not the same as a certificate of innocence. It means the prosecution has not met the required standard of proof.

Oh, brothers

No doubt Christmas stockings will be stuffed with the memoir of former Nasty Party senator and high commissioner to Britain Richard Alston.

Talk about a dog with a bone – Alston is still gnawing away about the awfulness of the ABC, his pet obsession when minister for Communications in the Little Winston Howard years.

In those days he fired off a volley of complaints about the national broadcaster, which had the wrong idea about the splendours of the Iraq war.

And here he is at it again in his clunky and otherwise style-free memoir, More to Life than Politics?, published by the right-wing printing house du jour, Connor Court.

How’s this for an opener? “A major concern, for many observers during my time as communications minister, was, and still is, the ABC’s unrelenting left-wing disposition, more concerned with social issues of poverty, discrimination and social disadvantage but never the economics of how to afford its ‘obvious’ remedies.”

There’s simply too much one-sided stuff about climate change, immigration, asylum seekers, gay marriage and Trump, while Q&A is unspeakable, “a hot bed of the narrow leftist thinking of inner-city elites”.

Cliché after well-worn cliché pours from his quill, committing to paper the very same crimes of which the ABC is accused – assertions with no facts.

Richard’s brother is Philip Alston, a professor at New York University School of Law and co-chair of the university’s Centre for Human Rights and Global Justice.

Among various United Nations roles, Philip was a special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights.

Dickie and Phil. What on earth do they talk about at Christmas?

Tips and tattle: [email protected]

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 14, 2019 as "Gadfly: Houston calling". Subscribe here.

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