Forty-five years ago, there was Watergate and, more recently, closer to home, we had Choppergate — as the “gate” appendage was tagged on to any political scandal around the globe. I guess I’d be stretching it to coin Watermarkgate. But, jeez, I’m tempted.

Watermark is the name of the Townsville restaurant where Pauline Hanson’s resident Svengali, James Ashby (or Cashby, as the Courier-Mail so aptly dubbed him), was holding court with PHON staff last December 21 — getting into the Christmas spirit, with a state election looming in WA and the Hansonites predicting a swag of lower house seats over there and eight or nine upper house possies.

But that was before The Hanson went feral during the campaign, supporting the anti-vaxxers, praising Putin as a strong leader (when four members of a Perth family were killed in the Ukraine plane attack) and embracing a radio interviewer’s suggestion that some of Queensland’s GST should be given to the west.

Hanson publicly denied that giveaway of Queensland tax dollars until a tape emerged of her saying exactly that. (Bloody tapes can do that, Pauline.)

But I digress.

At the Water(mark)gate, Mr. Ashby, as is his wont, was showing off a tad. He’d just announced to the team that the phone call he’d just hung up on was from the Attorney-General, Senator George Brandis. And Georgie Porgie had said: “It’s official, Culleton is out.”

[Gin and Jesus: rogue One Nation senator’s day in court]

(This was WA One Nation senator Rod Culleton, whom the High Court, sitting as the Court of Disputed Returns, would hand down its adverse verdict on February 3.)

I’m told they all refilled their glasses and cheered.

At the marathon Senate estimates hearings recently, I asked Senator Brandis:

“Can you explain why James Ashby, at the Watermark restaurant in Townsville on December 21, according to people who were at the table, received a call from you. After he hung up he said: ‘That was Brandis, it’s official, Culleton is out.”

Brandis said he didn’t recall that conversation. “But I do not dispute it either.”

Brandis said he had a firm opinion of the likely outcome and would have told anyone who asked. If Ashby had asked, he would have told him too. So what?

I continued:

“People who were there make it sound like this wasn’t just Senator Brandis Attorney-General’s opinion; this was official that you knew Culleton was gone and you were passing it on to One Nation. Do you recall the phone call with Ashby at the Watermark in 21 December?”

Brandis said he didn’t dispute Ashby was at the Watermark, but he didn’t know that.

“Was Ashby just showing off when he said it was Brandis on the phone?”

George Brandis said he didn’t know where he was that day.

My reply: “I’m surprised you weren’t at the Watermark.”

Brandis/Ashby. Personal phone calls. A fascinating liaison.

***

This is not, currently, a popular opinion: I actually like Malcolm Turnbull. I think he is an honest and decent man. I don’t think he relishes the gladiatorial skills of Tony Abbott or Bill Shorten and their blood sports.

I fervently believe he should “do a Gough” and crash or crash through on same-sex marriage.

Malcolm, you promised a plebiscite (which you really never personally agreed with) and took it to a federal election. The Senate knocked you back. And I am proud that mine was a deciding vote that put the kybosh on a $250 million, $400 million, bitter, non-binding PR exercise.

When John Howard ambushed Australia in 2004 — and tightened our marriage laws to make sure it only applied to men and women (and foreign-certified same-sex unions were null and void here) — he made a big deal out of the fact it was Parliament’s job to rule on this. Not the courts, not the electorate. The Parliament should do its elected job. And we should again.

Let’s hope it happens at this sitting of Parliament.

***

Having praised the PM, let me now kick him. Before prime ministers and presidents (especially Turnbull and Trump) start mouthing off, they should get their facts right. After Brighton this week, Turnbull attacked weaknesses in the Victorian parole system.

Let me get phlegmatic here. The killers of Masa Vukotic and Mersina Halvagis should not have been free. And Adrian Bayley should have had his parole revoked long before Jill Meagher died. But the parole system in Victoria has tightened dramatically.

I believe the Brighton killer, having been acquitted in the Holsworthy Army base terror plot, but still on a watch list, should have been deported after training and fighting in Somalia.

Why have at least 40 men been allowed to return to Australia after fighting in the Middle East and not faced treason charges? Only two have been charged — as we found out reluctantly from the government last week.

David Hicks fought with the Taliban, boasted about his links with Osama bin Laden and ended up in Guantanamo. Why should returning ISIS fighters not face the same treatment here?

And something else that really disturbed me this week: Why was the innocent woman taken hostage in Brighton been treated with such disdain? Ignored by our leaders. She had a night of terror. Was she not mentioned because she was a prostitute?

***

After a shit week. Manchester, London, Brighton. Such horror. Such sadness. May I end on a positive note: dig out Ariana Grande’s rendition of Somewhere over the Rainbow at the tribute to terror victims on the other side of the world. Will moisten your eyes.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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