MUNGO MacCALLUM. Reboots,fig leafs and climate wars

Mar 5, 2019

Scott Morrison may be shedding minister like the early leaves of autumn, but, as usual, there are distractions – and for once he can be profoundly grateful.  

The big one was that it was finally revealed what anyone remotely interested had know for weeks – that George Pell had been convicted of child abuse and the media, frustrated for weeks by a suppression order, piled in.

So the assertion that Pell is a paedophile is no longer an allegation – it is a legal fact, which can only be overturned by a legal appeal. However this did not faze the zealous Christian soldiers defending the man.

They said they accepted the verdict – they could hardly do anything else. But without drawing breath they added that they didn’t really believe it, and zealously rehashed the case for the defence, which had been unanimously rejected by a jury.

And if that was not enough, they looked for a conspiracy: the Victorian police, and in particular the media some of which had reported on the investigation and charges, had made a fair trial impossible.

Their own media campaign, insisting that their man was totally innocent of everything, was apparently entirely appropriate, although in the end ineffective. But their outrage was unbounded – a couple also invoked Jesus as an analogy of judicial persecution, which must surely border on blasphemy for a true believer.

An appeal is pending,, so unlike the Cardinal’s crusaders we will not comment too much – except to point out that the complainant of the abuse was grilled for more than two days in the witness box by one of the toughest silks in the business, while Pell chose, as his right, to offer no testimony and thus no cross examination. He can hardly complain that the process was unfair.

And given his record in office, in which he consistently favoured profits over parishioners – look no further than the Ellis defence, designed to prevent victims to sue for compensation – he can hardly claim to play the holy martyr. What goes around comes around, even in the cloisters of the Vatican

And the suppression order on the verdict may well have been made for the best of reasons, but even the most sheltered judge must have realised that it was utterly futile in these days of the internet. Once its mere existence was mentioned, it took me just five minutes to discover the details.

And in the process I felt a nagging sense of deja vu, which I traced back some fifty years ago, long before the days of the internet, when another suppression order spectacularly failed.

It was the time of the 1969 election, when Gough Whitlam was pursuing John Gorton in what turned out to be a surprisingly close result. A key marginal was the seat of Adelaide held for the Liberals by Andrew Jones, the youngest member of the House who had been swept in by Harold Holt’s landslide in 1966.

Jones was brash and bumptious – at one stage he had been forced to apologise to his fellow MPs for calling them “half drunk half the time.” The irony was that Jones himself quickly became a lush, and one night during the height of the campaign did a thorough job on himself, and was subsequently arrested and charged with driving under the influence.

He was duly convicted, but the sympathetic magistrate suppressed his name from the media. However, beak’s writ ran only to the South Australian Border, enabling the Melbourne Age to trumpet the poster: ANDREW JONES NAME SUPPRESSED. What had been a local issue became a national embarrassment. Unsurprisingly, Labor won the seat.

It will be interesting to see if Pell is more successful in his appeal; but you would have to say that the suppression order has not helped him. Censorship seldom does – it is more likely to encourage publicity than quell it. A lesson both lawyers and judges would do well to ponder.

But the Pell verdict has consequences not just for the church and the law, but also for politics, as the cardinal is not only a prince of the church, but an inflexible cultural warrior. And this means not only is he a hard-liner on matters of what are generally called morals, by which the right regards as overwhelmingly about sex, but also on more general issues, one of which is climate change, on which Pell is vehement denier.

On one level that is not surprising: the Catholic church has never been a great supporter of science – think Galileo and Darwin just for starters. And like most of his more reactionary predecessors, Pell has always assumed an air of infallibility which has encouraged many other recalcitrants, particularly in the Liberal Party room.

His fall is unlikely to change their minds, but it has removed one of their sources of authority. And this may have implications for Scott Morrison’s most recent attempts to hose down the perennial quest to pacify this most fraught of issues.

His announcements last week were almost universally derided; another reboot of Tony Abbott’s so-called direct action plan, which Malcolm Turnbull rightly called a fig leaf to cover the fact that the coalition didn’t really have a policy at all. So Morrison threw in a bit of extra foliage.

There was the funding of Turnbull’s Snowy 2.0 which might actually help, but not until Morrison and his crew are long gone, far too late to  deliver lower power price. And there was the promise of an undersea cable from Tasmania to the mainland to harness the hydro already provided to the island state, which was immediately dismissed as unviable short of a major change away from coal-fired generators, a revolution which is never going to happen under the regime of our coal-cuddling prime minister.

So, as last year was confirmed as the hottest ever recorded and the highest emissions, with more to come the climate wars go on, but without one of their most unyielding warriors.

Morrison did have one win – the appointment of the immaculate Ita Buttrose to the ABC, a captain’s pick which was almost uniquely applauded. But he also had another loss – his beloved football team, the serially offending Cronulla Sharks, were fined a motza for cheating on their salary cap. Well, you can’t win them all.





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