Diary

Gadfly
Not a monster but perhaps a movie villain

Defence Minister Peter Dutton occupies a hallowed place in the culture wars. This is the man who once valiantly decried “cancel culture” and criticised Netflix for removing shows that had racially offensive content by saying “removing that sort of content from online or from our television sets, I just don’t think makes any sense”. But it seems the Defence minister has changed his tune on free speech, allegedly issuing defamation threats to some Twitter users.

In recent days, at least one social media user has received a defamation notice from the law firm Baker McKenzie for calling the Defence minister a “rape apologist” on Twitter. The tweets stemmed from backlash over Dutton using the term “he said, she said” to refer to Brittany Higgins’ rape claim.

As law firms go, Dutton’s is an interesting choice, particularly if he’s keen on battling the perception that he’s some sort of movie villain. And this is a persona Dutton has been trying to shrug off for a long time.

“He’s no monster,” Dutton’s wife, Kirilly, assured us in a 2019 profile in The Courier-Mail. Which is, somewhat unfortunately, what a monster’s wife would say to throw off any monster-hunters.

Baker McKenzie gained notoriety as a law firm in 1986, when their Manhattan branch fired a top lawyer from their staff, purportedly because he had contracted HIV/AIDS.

The subsequent trial, and the firm’s massive financial payout for wrongful termination, was part of the inspiration for the 1993 film Philadelphia. Yes, they were the bad guys in the movie that won Tom Hanks an Oscar. Peter Dutton hired the law firm so evil in real life, it transcended to becoming a movie villain. You can’t choose your family, but you probably should choose your legal representation a little better.

Roberts-Smith burns off in the yard

Burner phones get a bad rap. Sure, the cheap, disposable mobiles are popular with drug dealers in HBO TV shows and businessmen having multiple affairs. But perhaps the humble burner phone’s reputation is about to get a boost, after it was alleged a Victoria Cross recipient used one.

This was among a range of new accusations levelled against former special forces soldier Ben Roberts-Smith in a bombshell investigation by Nine newspapers and 60 Minutes. The outlets alleged Roberts-Smith used a burner phone to intimidate people who may have been witnesses to war crimes he is alleged to have committed while serving in Afghanistan.

The report also contained photos of Roberts-Smith attending a costume party in Afghanistan where a fellow soldier wore a Ku Klux Klan outfit. The pretend Klansman was also pictured burning a cross, just in case the white hood wasn’t enough of a clue.

There were also photos of Roberts-Smith standing alongside a soldier drinking from a prosthetic leg, allegedly taken from an Afghan man who was killed by the Australians.

In just a few short years, Roberts-Smith’s life has changed dramatically.

In a 2013 interview with INTHEBLACK, a business industry magazine, he said, “I’d like people to say, ‘I met Ben Roberts-Smith and he’s a great businessman – oh, and did you know in 2010 he got a VC.’ ”  These days people are more likely to say, “I met Ben Roberts-Smith, the media executive accused of being a war criminal, and I’m a little scared because Nick McKenzie says the guy apparently buried plastic lunch boxes full of drone footage in his backyard.”

For his part, Roberts-Smith has called the new allegations “baseless” and said they were not put to him before they went to air.

The former soldier has suggested the allegations are an attempt to “intimidate” him out of a long-running defamation action against McKenzie and Nine.

The support the VC recipient receives from his boss, Kerry Stokes, at Channel Seven, remains unwavering. The Nine reports contained secret recordings of conversations during which Roberts-Smith talked about how much of his legal defence is being funded by Stokes.

These legal funds include up to $1.87 million from Seven West Media funds that minority shareholders weren’t informed about. It may sound problematic for the company, but just once it’s nice to hear about a corporation supporting an employee experiencing financial stress. Get yourself a boss who looks at you like Kerry Stokes looks at Ben Roberts-Smith.

In the covert recordings, Roberts-Smith’s focused less on Stokes’ courage and more on the fear he inspires in others. “Politicians,” he said, “are scared of guys that own media networks.” Unrelatedly, Scott Morrison’s government and the federal opposition leader have backed Stokes to continue overseeing the Australian War Memorial.

Hard right said Fred

Homophobes in New South Wales took a moment this week to mourn the end of Fred Nile’s political career. After 40 years in politics, the founder of the Christian Democratic Party has finally exhausted his seemingly endless supply of outdated bigotry and is stepping down to make way for someone younger, hipper and more current in their commitment to hate. To that end, Lyle Shelton, former managing director of the Australian Christian Lobby, has been announced as Nile’s replacement.

Time will tell whether Shelton is up to the task. Nile leaves behind a formidable body of work, such as that time he called homosexuality “unnatural, immoral, unhealthy and sinful” on Q&A, back when the show had viewers. Nile also said a bill proposing marriage equality had “originated in the depths of hell”, tried to prevent same-sex couples from adopting children, campaigned against the legalisation of gay sex, and said Penny Wong was setting a bad example by having a baby with her female partner.

That’s not to say Shelton doesn’t have a few runs on the board, from referring to the children of same-sex couples as a “stolen generation” to the time he posted a picture of himself at dinner with white supremacist group the Proud Boys.

But none of this is new or interesting, or attractive to Gen Z arch-conservatives. Frankly, if Shelton is the best replacement Nile could find, it’s a sad day for bigots, homophobes and loathsome warts.

Horologicgate

The prime minister took time out of his busy schedule of posting about vaccines on Facebook more often than Craig Kelly to comment on accusations that he bullied Christine Holgate.

The criticism was sparked after the former chief executive of Australia Post and horologic enthusiast appeared before a senate inquiry this week dressed entirely in white – the colour of the suffragette movement and also the colour that rich people love to wear when showing off how rich they are.

Holgate spoke about the emotional pain she experienced when being attacked by the prime minister. One imagines it must have been similar to the kind of surreal shock Department of Housing staff in Victoria experienced last July when Holgate threatened to call police unless the City of Melbourne delivered more than 100 Pauline Hanson-branded stubby holders to the residents of Melbourne’s locked down public housing towers.

The prime minister last year justified asking for Holgate to step aside because her decision to gift executives expensive watches did not pass “the pub test”. This is, of course, the same pub where it’s okay for backbenchers to take upskirt pictures of women working behind the bar. No further comment was available from the prime minister’s office, as he is currently filming an Instagram Live about how the vaccine rollout is less of a plan and more of a feeling or mood, which we really need to be more chill about.

Can’t take a joke if it’s not there

The hatred conservatives have for political correctness and not being able to say anything anymore is famously known, almost as much as their love of double standards. Which is why everyone from Andrew Bolt to Gerard Henderson has become extremely angry at comedian Tom Ballard for making a joke they didn’t like.

The joke, in which Ballard purportedly told Liberal Party voters to die, has greatly upset those right-wingers who much prefer their comedy to be making fun of blacks, browns, Jews, gays and women. The exact wording of the joke remains unknown, because it was never broadcast by the ABC in the national broadcaster’s transmission of the yearly Melbourne International Comedy Festival Gala. Only those in the audience of the gala recording may ever know the whole truth.

At this point, conservative media commentators are angry at Ballard for making a joke that basically no one actually saw him make. They are, therefore, angry at the possibility of a joke. Is this the cancel culture we keep hearing so much about?

To be fair to Bolt and Henderson, Ballard apparently joked about Covid-19 killing people in aged-care facilities, which can be seen as offensive. Not like the time when almost every conservative commentator in the country wanted Melbourne to reopen at the height of the coronavirus outbreak, which would definitely have killed a lot more people in aged-care facilities.

It’s political correctness gone mad. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 17, 2021 as "Gadfly: Not a monster but perhaps a movie villain ".

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Sami Shah is a multi-award-winning comedian, writer and journalist.