Happy little Vegemites, cavoodles and free speech? Why it’s time for Sideshow Alley, our weekly look at the political stunts and coverage that hamper national debate and distract us from the big issues.

This was a week when a newspaper and its star columnist became the news, thanks to the Federal Court finding Herald Sun writer Andrew Bolt guilty of breaching the Racial Discrimination Act.

Media outlets  — yep, including Crikey, we’ll admit it — were dominated by stories about the case. But a special Sideshow Alley shout-out must go out to Bolt’s own home paper, the Herald Sun, whose front page yesterday decried the end of free speech …

As reader Ross Sharp wrote on Crikey‘s Facebook page: ‘”A sad day for free speech”. What a load of crap.”

Reader Alexander McLaren referenced a tweet from Tony Martin, noting it “sums it up really”: “‘I’ve been silenced!’ says Andrew Bolt on front page of country’s highest-selling paper. Silence to continue on blog, TV and radio shows.”

But it was the opposition’s reaction that peeved other readers.

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott refused to comment on the specifics of the Bolt case, but spoke more broadly about free speech. “We should never do anything in this country which restricts the sacred principle of free speech, said Abbott. “Free speech means the right of people to say what you don’t like, not just the right of people to say what you do like.”

Katie Miller: I await Tony’s announcement that he will be supporting amendments to the terrorism legislation that makes it an offence for people detained without charge under the Act to tell anyone about it.

Opposition legal affairs spokesperson George Brandis said the Coalition would change the Racial Discrimination Act if elected: “We would not like to see the law remain in its current form as currently interpreted.” How ironic, says one Crikey reader:

@Fluffula: George Brandis calling for changes to racial discrimination laws, when they same ones Lib Gov never changed

A special mention to our happy little foreign minister Kevin Rudd, who, when battling jetlag, told ABC regional radio that he was “a very happy little Vegemite being prime minister … being foreign minister of Australia”, after they quizzed him on a possible leadership challenge.

It was an amusing slip. Sadly it was also a major news story, appearing in all major news bulletins and papers.

But considering it’s such an important week for the Prime Minister, it’s only fitting that stories about her take out the Sideshow Alley awards this week. And when we say “important”, we’re of course referring to Julia Gillard’s 50th birthday and her new cavoodle puppy, a gift from her partner Tim.

We had Gillard posing in front of a novelty oversized cupcake:

Gillard spent the big day visiting a school, where she got given a sparkly hat, cupcakes and plenty of kids saying “happy birthday!”. But Abbott wasn’t quite as warm on the birthday wishes. “I wish her a happy birthday,” she said. “I’m not sure how many more she is going to have in The Lodge.”

Leigh Bentley: I reckon Abbott speculating on the number of birthdays Gillard will have in The Lodge was pretty ungracious; maybe even crass.

But the cavoodle deserves a special mention. ”Tim’s caught on quickly — he’s recognised that in Labor Party politics, if you want loyalty, get a dog,” quipped opposition frontbencher Bruce Billson. And that’s not accounting for the all chatter about the type of dog cavoodles are and how suitable they are for The Lodge.

@DblRistretto: The lazy electorate hoovering up tosh in lieu of substance — AGAIN!

Final word goes to Crikey reader Mel Kendall: “Wouldn’t it be highly refreshing if no one could find a ‘most irritating Oz politics media coverage or shameless political stunt’ to comment on … but then that’s not likely is it?”

Peter Fray

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