Very pressing matters

Gadfly found himself on a V/Line train speeding from Melbourne to Bendigo for an appointment organised by the regional community legal centres to appear at a huge press freedom jamboree at the town hall.

And what a turnout – with 300 of the region’s finest packing the gilded room to get insights from your correspondent, Australian Federal Police raid victim Annika Smethurst and journalism academic Matthew Ricketson – all under the baton of the excellent Jon Faine, hitherto a leading voice on ABC wireless.

What a joy it was to escape the daily toil and be embraced in the regional bosom of Victoria. Yet the day was clouded as news arrived that the Federal Court had just upheld the validity of the AFP’s warrant executed at the ABC’s premises in Sydney last year.

This is the warrant authorised by Martin Kane, a registrar at the Queanbeyan Local Court, and ostensibly related to stories based on Defence documents, which alleged that Australian special forces in Afghanistan had killed unarmed men and children.

The broadcaster argued the warrant to seize documents and other material was not compliant with the Crimes Act, that it burdened the implied freedom of political communication and violated the protection of sources under the Evidence Act.

None of this washed with the Federal Court’s Justice Wendy Abraham, until recently a Commonwealth prosecutor.

On protecting journalists’ sources, Abraham was particularly dismissive, saying the ABC’s submission elevated source protection “to a position which, on the current state of the law, it does not have”. The journalists’ code of ethics, she said, is “inconsistent with authority”.

No one has suggested, however, that the Afghan Files reports by ABC reporters Dan Oakes and Sam Clark were inaccurate.

At the Bendigo Town Hall meeting, Smethurst talked of the gruesome experience of having her home violated by Constable Plod. The AFP went through everything, including her cookbooks, which do not immediately come to mind as dangers to state security.

One of the raiding officers pushed for information about the News Corp journalist’s favourite recipe. Smethurst added she feels sure her phone is being bugged to this day. The wallopers are not giving up on tracking down that recipe.

Interest-free zone

The AFP is not turned on by journalism’s rare function in serving the public interest. Early in the piece, the rozzers pitched the idea to the broadcaster that, rather than being raided, it should just hand over any documents or material relevant to their investigation into who was behind the stories about the conduct of Australian troops in Afghanistan.

ABC lawyer Michael Rippon responded by telling AFP agent Ian Brumby that he was not inclined to assist in the investigation of the broadcaster’s own journalists.

Further, Rippon thought the warrant was far too broad. One search used the word “secret” across the entirety of the ABC’s information holdings while other searches used only Oakes’ and Clark’s names with no limit on time frame.

In October last year, Rippon gave evidence in the Federal Court that an AFP agent told him he had found, in the course of his search, stories other than the Afghan Files in which the AFP might have an interest.

The agent said the public interest defence was “only a defence” and would not prevent the AFP from investigating other matters and seeking additional warrants.

Rippon said: “In essence, he was conveying to me that I might want to think about those other stories.”

The state can cast its net as wide and as deep as it likes and the public’s right to know can disappear up its own fundament.

Presumably now the police can examine the 120 documents taken into possession during the raid last year. What happens to Oakes and Clark is still unknown. At least the AFP told Grassgate Gussy Taylor in rapid time that he was home free.

Uncivil law

The usually calm air of the central Victorian spa resort of Daylesford gave way this week to loud singing – in public. The chorus of disapproval outside the town hall preceded a bizarre vote on a local law that would prohibit, among other things, unsanctioned singing in the street.

The odd yodeller who stretches across a footpath will need a licence, so too anyone running a lemonade stall in public. “Scavenging” from the council tip, growing plants on nature strips or collecting firewood from public land are all subject to council regulation.

Local foragers, including a family who lived off what they could find by the roadside all the way to Queensland and back, were outraged. Homes that are considered unsightly could feel the force of the council’s Good Taste Police.

It was standing room only at the town hall as objections were heard and batted aside by Mayor Licia Kokocinski, an ALP refugee from the state’s upper house.

Speakers invoked an “emerging Fourth Reich” and summoned the spirit of the Eureka Stockade at nearby Ballarat.

Thunderous roars and foot-stamping erupted when the foreword to the new laws was read, pronouncing the town as “part of Melbourne’s peri-urban”.

“You gotta be jokin’,” a hoarse voice called. “Listen to the People” implored a sign, bobbing among the checked shirts, headbands and ponytails. But there was no chance of that, and the councillors waved through Local Law No. 2.

Royal galah

If the Victorian spas and goldfields aren’t delightful enough, there’s the Hayes Theatre in Sydney and a singular performance by Her Majesty the Queen – in the guise of actor and satirist Gerry Connolly.

He’s been “doing” the Queen, on and off, for 40 years and as he says: “I love her... I hate her.” The show featured a poignant dress rehearsal for HM’s own death and funeral and the arrival of Charles to the throne at age 93.

This is a performance with plenty of wit and pathos, as Gerry comes to terms with his own life as well as the life of the monarch who has been haunting him for so long.

Actor Laura Murphy appears as Queen Elizabeth I accompanied by some inspired singing and dancing. As Connolly’s QEII says: “I haven’t danced so much since Diana died.”

Gerry takes Her Maj on her last tour of Australia, to mark Lieutenant James Cook’s journey 250 years ago. In a moment that will traumatise Gadfly forever, we see Connolly impersonating the Queen impersonating Little Winston Howard with his simian lower lip.

Legal sage

We’re also on standby for another quasi-royal tour in May – from our splendid export Geoffrey Robertson, QC. Indeed, he’s our expert on the Dart who is being re-exported from Britain with improved vowels on a speaking engagement stretching from the State Theatre in Sydney to the Perth Concert Hall.

Quite possibly he’s the first barrister in the world to fill cavernous theatres nationwide as he brings us up to date on Brexit, Trump, the royal family, stolen history, the post-truth world and much else besides.

Billed as the “It’s No Longer Hypothetical” tour, it is presented by a company called Lateral Events, which of course also runs cycling and corporate golf tournaments.

On the blurb Robbo is modestly described as “one of the world’s great minds” and the founder of Doughty Street Chambers, where he was “mentor to Amal Clooney, Jen Robinson, Keir Starmer and others”.

Brandis new day

Not to be outdone, we find the Australian high commissioner to Britain, Bookshelves Brandis, lecturing the Poms on their “new dawn”. Yes, a new dawn for Britain under de Pfeffel.

Bookshelves was on London Talk Radio gingering up the Limeys with a message that would get them out of bed before 11am.

As bleary people groped for a sixpence to put in the gas meter, Bookshelves reminded them that they are about to rediscover their great “optimism [and] spirit of adventure”.

This is a time “not to be fearful, not to cower, not to be in a mindset that thinks that the world stops at the borders of Europe – there is a whole big, wide world out there”, the bigot advocate told his gobsmacked listeners.

God, how we miss him.

Taking the Q to exit

Never did we imagine that Schmo Morrison and his Christian Porter would have dreamed that Muslims might get some leverage out of the religious discrimination bill.

Surely the whole enterprise was supposed to give the Folaus and the Clappers a free kick to say hurtful and ridiculous things about anyone subject to their prejudice?

Now, there is a new development – the anti-Muslim Q Society of Australia is shutting up shop for fear the proposed legislation will open a flood of litigation from Muslims exercising the freedom to be offended by Islamophobes.

The Q campaign against halal certification came a cropper when the head of the certifying authority, Mohamed El-Mouelhy, sued the society for defamation – resulting in a grovel and an out-of-court settlement.

Apart from a few tired old videos on the Q website, with luminaries such as Cory Bernardi and Manila MP George Christensen banging on about freedom of speech, nothing fresh seems to be posted. The last “news” item was dated June 2016. Of course, there’s the obligatory snap of that other strange Dutchman, Geert Wilders.

Now, they’ve pulled the plug and disappeared with the dirty bathwater.

Tips and tattle: [email protected]

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 22, 2020 as "Gadfly: Very pressing matters".

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Richard Ackland is The Saturday Paper’s legal affairs editor. He publishes 500Words.com.au.