Geoffrey Robertson Q&A

SundayLife invited me to interview Geoffrey Robertson on the occasion of his latest Hypothetical for National Indigenous Television, with the brief of throwing the master some curly hypothetical questions of his own.

After your new Hypothetical screens, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd offers you a safe seat in Parliament and immediate appointment to the Aboriginal Affairs portfolio. Recognising the urgency of the task, you put aside any political objections and accept. What is your first major initiative?

It’s now or never-never, so my policy would be education, education, education – including educating everyone else about the respect due to the first Australians, who walked this land long before the birth of Christ or the fall of Troy. But respect means rights. Other advanced nations – and even New Zealand – allow their indigenous people to vote for their own parliamentary representatives. So let’s create two extra Senate seats for Aboriginal voters. They might elect Pat Dodson and Noel Pearson. Let’s face it – they’d be a lot more impressive holding the balance of power than Brian Harradine, Steve Fielding or the Democrats. Their presence in the Senate would give Aborigines, for so long shut out of our democratic processes, a real sense of inclusion in the nation.

You met your wife Kathy Lette when she was a last-minute replacement for Kylie Minogue in a Hypothetical. If Kylie had been available, could the two of you have been happy together?

I should be so lucky. But I wonder whether our musical tastes could coexist – to me, pop is something you drink from a can. I’m not sure she could sit through Wagner’s Ring Cycle or my summing-up speeches, which are usually longer. So, sadly, even though Kylie has become a family friend, I don’t think she would ever be “spinning around” for me. As the fax from the ABC stated when it told me of Kylie’s replacement, “You’ll just have to make do with Kathy Lette.”

You are an advocate of free speech, and defended the editors of Oz [a 1960s satirical magazine] against obscenity charges. I plan to falsely and obscenely alter your Wikipedia entry. May I?

So long as you describe me as a tall, dark and handsome billionaire, with special tantric skills and a Pulitzer Prize for poetry, who can wrestle crocodiles with one hand while whipping up a souffle with the other. If, however, you add any truth to my entry, I may sue – and under current Australian law, without a freedom of expression of guarantee, you will almost certainly lose.

An Aboriginal group is granted extensive rights to self-determination by the Northern Territory Government, and reintroduces ritual spearing. A young Aborigine who is sentenced to spearing argues that it constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. The Chief Minister asks your advice on whether to intervene.

I’m delighted to receive this brief. I would explain that under Australia’s new charter of rights, all laws must be interpreted “as far as possible” consistently with human rights. So “ritual spearing” would not refer to the passage through flesh of a sharply tipped length of wood, any more than “ritual boning” – a fate that threatened Ms Jessica Rowe – meant filleting her like a fish or carnally connecting her with the tribal elder of Channel 9. Where words in a statute are ambiguous, judges must now interpret them to accord with the charter. So ritual spearing would mean a cutting remark or a barbed comment or, in the case of a misbehaving young Aborigine, a searing and sarcastic judicial homily. A sharp tongue can do a lot of psychological scarring, but at least it doesn’t draw blood.

I’ve read interviews over the years where you claim to be planning a move back to Australia. An anonymous source claims this was merely a hypothetical designed to appease a parochial Australian audience. Do you agree?

I return to Australia regularly. The main reason I don’t move back for good is that I’m a workaholic, and no one has offered me a full-time job. My wife goes demented – or more demented than usual – in the English winter, when she threatens to strangle a royal corgi in the hope of being transported to Botany Bay. Can you suggest any useful judging work that’s on offer – umpiring test matches, inspecting the width of bikinis on Bondi Beach, or… is the governorship of Tasmania still available?

Australia heeds your call for a Bill of Rights. The free speech provisions lead to a sharp increase in racist hate speech, culminating in the re-election of Pauline Hanson after advocating a new White Australia policy. In a speech to Parliament, she pays tribute to you for making it possible. What’s your response?

Can I volunteer for a ritual spearing? Actually, one of the great things about free speech is
that when racists can say what they really think, the public realise how disgusting they are. It’s when the law makes them clean up their act that they appear more reasonable and electable. And free speech enables satirists to get their teeth into people like Pauline Hanson. When she ran for Parliament back in 1997, it was only the comedians who were censored – Pauline Pantsdown’s satirical song [Backdoor Man] is still subject to a court injunction. So free speech? Bring it on. See my book, Statute Of Liberty: How To Give Australians Back Their Rights, which should be in your local bookshop by now.

You forbid your teenage children from attending an all-night party, because you hypothesise they may come to harm. They prosecute you for infringing their rights to freedom of association and movement. How do you plead?

I’ll ask the court for a parental protection order. Perhaps I’ll put myself up for adoption. “Look, yer Honour, I admit to driving my children crazy, but I also drive them everywhere.” When you Chaser boys reach middle age, you’ll find teenagers are God’s punishment for having sex in the first place. By that time, of course, there will be Chaser girls – otherwise your show will be condemned for sex discrimination. If women are good enough for the High Court team, why aren’t they good enough for the Chaser team?

You’ve advocated the closure of Guantanamo Bay and President Barack Obama has obliged early in his first term. However, it seems nobody is willing take in the current inmates. Are there any spare rooms at your place?

No, but I hear there are some empty basements in the “Toaster” and at Blues Point Tower [controversial apartment buildings on Sydney’s harbour]. Do those guys still have their alleged bomb-making skills? Quite seriously, there is a moral point here. For five years, Australia stood four-square behind the Bush lawyers who created this legal black hole, where inhumane treatment and torture were free of the Geneva Conventions. So we do share some responsibility for it, unlike Britain, which condemned Guantanamo and insisted that British citizens should not be held there. So perhaps we do have a moral responsibility to take a few of these people against whom the United States can find no evidence – let’s see if Janet and John Howard have any space. And a source tells me there’s a spare room at chez Ruddock.

This interview originally appeared in SundayLife in February 2009

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