Diary

Gadfly
Message palaver

Where’s Siiiiimon Reynolds when you need him? You’ll remember Siiiiimon as the adman who created the Grim Reaper advertisement in 1987, during the AIDS epidemic. It was a controversial yet highly effective message that drove home HIV awareness (some would say terror), with a bowling ball harvesting the dying – knocking down men, women and children and hammering home the idea of wearing a condom, which is the equivalent of today’s washing of hands.

That was television. Today the message about coronavirus could be coming into people’s mobile phones, daily, three times a day, whatever it takes. If Gadfly were the communications director, there would be videos on your mobile with images from Italy of lines of people waiting for admission to hospitals that couldn’t admit them, of coffins piling up, of doctors weeping. Nothing overly dramatic, just the facts.

In 1987, mobile phones were not the first port of call for government thought agents. Now, they are the ubiquitous device by which the state monitors your movements, activities and thoughts. So, why the hell aren’t they being fully put to use in the campaign against the spread of Covid-19?

Judging by the rule-flouting of Portsea plutocrats or flâneurs walking shoulder to shoulder in the streets without a care in the world, the muddled advice from government isn’t getting through.

Singapore’s social messaging has been second to none, while schools, universities and restaurants remain open. In the great brown land, on the other hand, citizens have to be proactive and look for Minister Hunt’s website, where they can read scads of dense text, rather than having more urgent material shoved digitally into their hands or up their nostrils.

War of the posers

It’s wartime, and according to Grouper Greg Sheridan of The Catholic Boys Daily, “Scott Morrison could become Australia’s most important wartime leader.”

Under the headline “Morrison is first among leaders as the world order changes”, the ancient Grouper insisted: “Morrison spoke unambiguously as a wartime leader: ‘I thank you for the great job you’ve done this week, Australia.’ ”

What about his wartime fight-them-on-the-beaches rallying call: “I’m going to the footy this weekend and I’m looking forward to it … and I encourage you to, unless you’re ill.”

He also inspired every household to be suitably armed with essentials – such as jigsaw puzzles – as they hunker down for the long battle. John Curtin should move over and let Aloha Schmo assume the title of Australian wartime leader sans pareil.

Of course, our PM is up against President Trump, who has already proclaimed himself a wartime leader at this crucial point in history.

Almost as bizarre as Grouper’s nonsense claim about Schmo’s war credentials is the idea that Trump could adopt the mantle, after having a patsy podiatrist who rented from Trump snr in Queens declare the future president had bone spurs to get him out of the Vietnam draft.

Grouper Greg signed off with an uplifting message: “Each leader must give of their best. And say their prayers.” Amen.

Bar from the madding crowd

Spare a thought for starving barristers lining up at soup kitchens for bowls of gruel. New South Wales Bar Association president Guv’nor Game was on the front foot with pleading letters to the Commonwealth and NSW attorneys-general for special assistance while the virus ravages his members’ billings.

He’s looking for a “cashflow boost” for the self-employed and an extension of the Covid-19 supplement; deferral of GST and income tax instalments; more time to lodge business activity statements; rent relief; banks to waive or defer loan payments; interest-free loans to briefs; and the District and Local courts to be cleaned every two hours.

The Bar Association of Queensland, meanwhile, has come up with a novel idea – that barristers should do more pro bono work while they’re not plying the trade for money.

No doubt many of Guv’nor Game’s rank ’n’ file have witnessed their incomes slide catastrophically, but what may have passed unnoticed is that barristers already have access to an eye-watering number of discounts and “rewards”, just for being a member of the bar association.

The NSW bar website explains that this perks program enables members and their families to “make significant savings” on groceries, fuel, electrical goods, insurance, travel and “lifestyle products”.

The perks also extend to cheap mortgages and finance. And it doesn’t end there: the Australian Bar Association, a federation of state and territory barristers’ clubs, is offering discounted deals for a dizzying array of services and products – including Sennheiser headphones; Bang & Olufsen TVs and music systems; Snooze mattresses; car rentals; Alfa Romeo, Jaguar, BMW, Lexus, Tesla and Merc motors; eyeglasses; health insurance; hotels; Qantas club membership; concerts; booze; and restaurants.

Every nook and cranny of civilised life is available for briefs at lower prices. Game also told the AGs that barristers are “business operators”, which must have come as a shock to those who thought they were “learned professionals”.

Helium buffoons

Canberra lawyer Bernard Collaery and his former client and Australian Secret Intelligence Service operative Witness K are scheduled for more preliminary hearings in Canberra this month. It’s been a long haul since they were charged in June 2018 with conspiracy to breach the Criminal Code and the Intelligence Services Act in allegedly communicating “national security” information about the Howard-era bugging of the Timor-Leste cabinet room.

Still, there’s no trial date, and even if there were, it would be a state secret.

Collaery has also been busy on the book-promotion circuit with his new work, Oil Under Troubled Water, published by Melbourne University Press. It’s a thorough account of the seabed boundary negotiations between Australia and Timor-Leste, as the then government and foreign minister Bunter (Fishnets) Downer did over our impoverished neighbour for the enrichment of Australian interests, primarily gas producer Woodside Energy.

One of the book’s claims is that the Howard Coalition failed to include in the negotiated contracts any mention of helium – a gas byproduct used in processes such as magnetic resonance imaging and liquid crystal displays. Usefully, it can also increase the pitch of your voice.

The price of helium has been steadily climbing in recent years, yet American oil and gas giant ConocoPhillips managed to get its paws on the Timor Sea helium – free. From there it was piped to a liquefied natural gas plant in Darwin and onsold to BOC Australia, owned by global gas group Linde.

Collaery says that by 2015, the yearly output of the plant was about 200 million standard cubic feet, which at current prices amounts to $2 billion in revenue each year. Both Timor-Leste and Australia have not seen a cracker from this.

Collaery’s figures are disputed by gurus in the helium business. Marc Moszkowski, an authority on undersea gas wells, thinks that an output of 200 million cubic feet of helium at a price of $US300 per 1000 cubic feet puts the revenue at $US60 million – about $A100 million.

Whatever the amount, you’d have hoped Little Winston and Bunter might have put their foot on even a fraction of this resource.

Press fracture

At this rotten time, every penny counts, and businesses are trying to shore up what’s left of their bottom lines.

You’d think newspapers, among other enterprises, would be as keen as mustard to lure as many subscribers as possible, particularly when Facebook and Google have munched through everyone’s lunch. That’s why it’s a puzzle that the Fairfax/Nine newspapers have made subscribing to the print editions as tortuous a process as possible.

The phone number provided on the subscriber page doesn’t work or you are told not to ring back because they are too busy. After hours of rising blood pressure, Gadfly discovered it is possible to send a message to somewhere asking for the print edition of The Sydney Morning Herald to be home delivered.

Back comes an email, with an incorrect name, saying that this request will be responded to “shortly”. Nothing happens, except four hours later another email arrives, asking, “How did we do?” and to rate your “service experience”.

Later still, there’s a request for Gadfly’s personal bedside phone number – maybe a voice will ring back at 3am and sort out the entire calamity. After several days of waiting, the excitement passes. Nothing happens – even if you want to give the publisher money.

It’s unusual to say the least. Maybe there’s a hidden agenda to discourage newspaper deliveries and phase out the print editions. If that’s so, now is as good a time as any to put the process in play and cut out printing and distribution costs. The only advertising revenue at the moment comes from corporates and governments telling us how much they care.

People who know about these things say The Saturday Paper is committed to print, yet we see others aren’t. News Corpse has suspended the printing of 60 of its local community newspapers in NSW, Victoria, Queensland and South Australia. Only last month a string of independent newspapers in Victoria were shuttered.

Wait, there’s one more important message from the auto-response team at Nine: “Based purely on your interaction with us, how likely would you be to recommend The Sydney Morning Herald or Sun-Herald to a friend or colleague?”

Kafkaesque doesn’t come close.

Tips and tattle: [email protected]

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 4, 2020 as "Gadfly: Message palaver".

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

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