Trifling with the house


A recent piece by Richard Ackland in The Guardian coined (or claimed to coin) the phrase “Asko-Hungarian empire” in reference to “Sydney’s famous cluster of Eastern European property developers and industrial types” knighted by Sir Robin Askin, onetim and notoriously (if not uniquely) corrupt premier of NSW.

It was unknown to me and so naturally I had to google it.

The problem with googling anything predating the internet age is that the sources are skewed. Apart from two relatively recent speeches by Michael Kirby (which roughly matched the sense claimed by Ackland) all I could find was a reference in Hansard for the lower house of the NSW Parliament in 1974. That pretty clearly was a reference not to some generality of knighted Hungarians, but to the business ventures of Sir Peter Abeles. Mr Mallam said:

The honourable member for Monaro should go out infront of Parliament House and hear what the demonstrators are saying. He should see the trucks of the Asko-Hungarian empire rolling down the Hume Highway. No policeman pulls up the trucks of Sir Peter Abeles, or checks their loads.

You can find a few other variations on this theme by Mr Hallam with reference to other recipients of Askin-recommended knighthoods, including Sir Paul Strasser.

But I was diverted by this question, asked earlier that day by Peter Coleman, the then member for Fuller:

Mr COLEMAN: I ask the Minister of Justice a question without notice. Is the Minister aware that Mr Barry Humphries was one of the guests on a recent presentation of the television programme, the Margaret Whitlam show? Is the Minister aware, also, that Mr Hurnphries made it a condition of his appearance on the show that his appearance fee be paid to the Liberal Party-in particular to the Liverpool branch?

Mr Kelly possibly knew what was coming, because he objected to the Speaker that

when asking a question without notice a member must seek information, must not give an opinion or information, and must not create argument. Your predecessor Sir Kevin Ellis ruled that a person who has no right of reply could suffer harm from inherently mischievous statements contained in questions. In fact, he said that in future he would accept questions only if they were addressed to a Minister concerning matters of state relating to his portfolio. I ask you to rule this question out of order.

The speaker allowed Mr Coleman to complete his question. He was a government member after all.

Mr COLEMAN: I ask the Minister of Justice whether he is aware that this debt to the Liverpool branch of the Liberal Party has not been paid by Mrs Whitlam. Will the Minister refer this matter to officers of the
Police Department, to see what steps can be taken to enforce payment of this debt?

You might be surprised to know that Mr Coleman, somewhere on the way between being a journalist and a politician, qualified and was admitted as a barrister. Ron Mulock (LLB Syd) who had actually practised as a solicitor for some years took the obvious point of order (and I say obvious because it is one of the first questions which will arise for any actual legal practitioner whose client who has a civil claim wants to know why the police cannot deal with it).

Mr MULOCK: On a point of order. Although the Police Department comes within the portfolio of the Minister of Justice, I submit that it is trifling with the House to ask the Minister to refer to it what can only be described, at best, as a civil debt.

Mr SPEAKER: Order! The question comes very close to trifling with the House, and
I rule it out of order.

Of course it was too late. The allegation was out under parliamentary privilege. That nasty Margaret Whitlam was not honouring a promise made to Barry Humphries.

The bickers of the past can look so pathetic.

What is even more pathetic is that Humphries could have been complaining about this when Gough Whitlam had so generously bestowed a damehood on his famous alter-ego. Let’s not even go into whether Margaret Whitlam was responsible for paying the fees for appearances on her TV program.

I suppose an alternative hypothesis is that Humphries wasn’t complaining and Coleman was giving Humphries a bit of publicity for Humphries’ wicked joke in engineering a payment to the Liberal Party emanating from Margaret Whitlam. Humphries wrote for Quadrant which Coleman edited. (These days the Australian Spectator continues the association.)

Not, in my opinion, Peter Coleman’s finest parliamentary moment.


One Response to “Trifling with the house”

  1. Andrew Says:

    Great story and I had not heard of the term Asko Hungarian Empire. But Askin corrupt? Who would have thought. I am surprised Wran stories haven’t started to appear, but they will.

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