Knock on Woodside

The deep state’s spidery fingers are here, there and everywhere.

Bernard Collaery would be all too familiar with their reach. As part of his defence in the secret prosecution that the Commonwealth has brought against him for allegedly revealing the bugging of Timor-Leste’s ministerial offices, his lawyers subpoenaed documents from Woodside, the oil and gas producer with a hefty stake in the Timor Sea’s Greater Sunrise gas field.

It is commonly understood that the point of the bugging would ultimately be of assistance to Woodside in the maritime border negotiations.

Now Attorney-General The Reverend Christian Porter wants to get his hands on the subpoenaed documents to see if national security is at stake.

It’s intriguing to think that Woodside might have state secrets that can’t be revealed in a court case. This is yet another troubling element in a case littered with rocks, crevices and falling masonry.

It may be worth mentioning in passing that Bunter Fishnets Downer, who withdrew Australia from the maritime boundary jurisdiction of the law of the sea, was Foreign minister at the time that a spy agency under his control bugged the Timor-Leste cabinet offices. After leaving parliament in 2008, Downer took a paid consultancy with Woodside.

Not that we could assume that this would be a motive for Porter to issue a secrecy certificate on pieces of paper from Downer’s old fossil fuel benefactor.

You’d think the AG has enough distractions on his plate at the moment, but the prosecution he approved has now clocked up more than $2 million of costs for the Commonwealth – most of it spent on ensuring that the proceedings would be held behind closed shutters.

That’s just a down payment. Collaery is appealing the secrecy ruling by Justice David Mossop of the ACT Supremes and to that end he is launching a crowdfunding campaign to defray the bills and keep body and soul together.

Trying doctors

For six weeks the defamation case brought by two doctors associated with the notorious Chelmsford Private Hospital in Sydney has chugged along remotely in the Federal Court.

All the evidence from witnesses is finished and final submissions are expected next month.

Doctors John Herron and John Gill are suing over a chapter in a 2016 book about Scientology written by ABC journalist Steve Cannane and published by HarperCollins.

The chapter titled “Deep Sleep” reported efforts by the Scientologists in the 1970s and 1980s to expose the practices at Chelmsford, which involved deeply sedating patients and often applying electric shock therapy.

Cannane drew on the work of a two-year royal commission into Chelmsford, conducted by former Supreme Court justice John Slattery, who in December 1990 made damning findings that linked the hospital’s psychiatric therapies to the deaths of 24 patients and the subsequent suicides of others.

There were medical disciplinary proceedings against Herron and Gill and criminal proceedings were also commenced against Gill. All were stayed, owing to the effluxion of time.

However, the effluxion of time has not dimmed the determination of the doctors to have a defamation court unstitch some key findings of a royal commission 30 years ago.

Tom Blackburn, SC, for the publisher and the journalist, was indignant that his clients were in court at all. He told Justice Jayne Jagot that it was almost incredible that the respondents had to prove the “irresponsible, grossly negligent and entirely inappropriate treatment” at Chelmsford.

Needless to say, eye-watering amounts of money are involved in the litigation.

In October 2018, Justice Jagot refused to dismiss the case after HarperCollins and Cannane claimed too much time had gone down the drain since the events at Chelmsford, making the proceedings unfair and prejudicial.

The judge did not accept it was an abuse of process if the witnesses the publishers needed were dead or unwell and so were unable to prove the truth of what had been written.

In October 1999, Justice David Levine threw out a defamation case brought by Gill against the ABC and Nationwide News, finding the proceedings would be prejudicial to the media defendants because the case had lain dormant for far too long.

Yet 21 years after that decision, we now know that time is not necessarily the enemy of a fresh spin of the wheel.

Following suits

There are a few other wrinkles in the defamation landscape that should not pass unmentioned.

The Daily Smellograph will not be appealing the outcome of its appeal in the Geoffrey Rush case. Time’s up on that, so the damages of $2.87 million stand. Poor old Moloch.

When it comes to courtroom theatrics though, the Rush case pales in comparison with the libel action of Johnny Depp, a companion Pirate of the Caribbean. He is suing another of the withering mogul’s rags, The Sun – over allegations the actor abused his former wife Amber Heard, with accompanying news about the consumption of drugs, alcohol and $US30,000 worth of wine a month, plus who pushed who down the stairs and faeces in the marital bed.

Of course, Yael Stone’s allegations against Rush remain an unresolved blot on the money-fuelled vindication of the famous thespian.

The Federal Court in Sydney refused to hear Ms Stone’s evidence – she claims the old actor danced naked in front of her, peered at her in the shower with a mirror and sent erotic text messages during a production of The Diary of a Madman when Stone was 25 and Rush 59.

Stone’s claims were documented in The New York Times by journalist Bari Weiss and are still available on the newspaper’s website. So, too, the text of an interview on the ABC’s 7.30. No action has been taken against them, even though they were published more than 18 months ago. Rush simply said the allegations against him were incorrect, yet he regretted causing any distress, if there was any.

In developments last week, in an endeavour to square the circle, Bari Weiss resigned from The New York Times, citing bullying and an “illiberal environment”. By this she probably meant that for a person like her, who questioned whether ultra-conservative Brett Kavanaugh should be disqualified from the United States Supreme Court following sexual assault allegations, the paper was too liberal.

Gatto blaster

Mick Gatto, the Melbourne underworld figure, has the ABC in court over an online article that claimed he threatened to kill police informer Lawyer X, aka Nicola Gobbo.

Mick said he was keen to have a jury decide his case because jurors were arbiters of community standards and a jury verdict would be the best vindication he could have, even though he had not stumped up the jury fees, as required by the court rules.

However, his lawyers made an accidental election for a judge-alone trial, so that’s where we are right now.

Intriguingly, it was earlier flagged that among the character witnesses for Mick was Salvation Army commanding officer Major Brendan Nottle.

Mysteriously, he’s now not among the people to give evidence for Domenic, with the court hearing from Victorian secretary of the United Firefighters Union Peter Marshall and ghostwriter Tom Noble as the principal reputation witnesses.

According to one bio, Brendan supports people living on society’s fringe. He was a finalist for Victoria’s entrant to Australian of the Year in 2020, and in 2013 he was a Monarch of Moomba.

Ivanka’s working plea

This week, the Financial Times had a delectable story about President Bone Spurs’ eldest daughter, Ivanka Trump.

It reminded readers of the staggering fact that, along with her older brother, the hapless Donald jnr, Ivanka went to the University of Pennsylvania after Donald snr pledged a $US1.4 million gift to the institution.

This sort of stuff is prevalent in the United States, where a study last year showed that 43 per cent of white students admitted to Harvard were either people on athletic scholarships or the children of donors or staff.

Earlier this year, the American National Association of Manufacturers gave Ivanka its Alexander Hamilton Award, saying: “Like no one in government has ever done, she has provided singular leadership and
shown an unwavering commitment
to manufacturing in America.”

The flailing president’s daughter is full of good ideas, such as suggesting her father stand in front of a church waving a Bible while the Black Lives Matter protests were in full swing.

As Edward Luce wrote in the FT: “Amid fierce competition, that image may go down as the most dystopian in Mr Trump’s presidency.”

However, it was her Marie Antoinette moment in a new ad campaign that has gained the most recent attention. With 30 million unemployed in the US, Ivanka encouraged those people “to find something new”. Learn another skill. Look for something different.

It’s a bit like Nancy Reagan’s advice to drug addicts: “Just say no.”

Find something new is about right, if voters have their say in November. In all likelihood both Ivanka and her unglued father will have to do just that. 

Tips and tattle: [email protected]

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 25, 2020 as "Gadfly: Knock on Woodside".

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Richard Ackland is The Saturday Paper’s legal affairs editor.