Friday, November 19, 2010

Doing a runner from the Cab-Rank Principle

Recently, while haranguing my old sparring partner Kerry O’Brien about the increasing sexualisation of ABC’s formerly family orientated “Songs of Praise”, Kerry accused me of ‘playing the man, not the ball’. He pointed out that my criticism of the ABC and Songs of Praise was merely a politically correct way to pan the embarrassing aesthetic decline of Aled Jones and the team, a soft target for a populist rant if ever there was one. Not for the first time in the conversation, I remarked upon Kerry’s perspicacity and the fearsome orange glow of his head-hearth, which in days gone by would not doubt have served as an invaluable communication device between distant villages in times of Viking attack.

Mr Kerry O’Brien, a constant bulwark against Viking attack

Kerry was, however, as always, correct. I was like a politician, railing against ‘people smugglers’ instead of coming clean to the electorate and explaining that, in fact, they didn’t care at all about a couple of Indonesians making a dirty buck, but were kept awake at night by the fear that one day their coffee on Avenue Road, Mosman, would be served by someone whose ‘single origin’ was, like the coffee, from somewhere unpronounceable, causing them to make awkward jokes about long blacks and Arabica beans while backing out the door.

As one would expect for a man of my seniority and media appeal, this was not the first time that I had been rightly accused of this very vice. Now, dear reader, cast you mind back to the summer of ‘92 when I appeared on a special pilot edition of Q&A on a panel comprised of Sir Gustav Nostle, Hazem El Masri, Lee Lin Chin and Che Cokatoo Collins, to discuss multi-culturalism in the early nineties. As the show commenced I immediately launched into a lengthy retelling of the development of my famously successful tactic of demonising a group of individuals, already unpopular in the general public, in order to surreptitiously take shots at a political sacred cow. Of course I am referring to my famous campaign against taxi drivers in order to bring down the cab-rank principle!

Throughout history, the cab-rank principle has been the unspoken cormorant around the neck of barristers the world over. This is because an unfortunate (and, if I may be so bold as to suggest, unforeseen) bi-product of the cab-rank principle is that you find yourself having to act for literally anyone who finds their way to your door, regardless of how unpleasant their cause of action or personal hygiene! This absolute nightmare, which my glorious forebear Bulstrode (sic) Whitelocke fought so hard against in the 1600s, continues to haunt us today! Well it did, until I took matters into my own hands.

Bulstrode [sic] Whitelocke, a man of uncommon courage and benevolence

Throughout my career at the Bar I had spent many an idle Tuesday afternoon reflecting upon how I could tear down the anti-competitive nonsense of the cab-rank principle, without undermining my reputation in the community as a powerful advocate of social justice and “the little guy”*.

After considering this proverbial Scylla and Charybdis at length, it occurred to me that if I launched a vitriolic campaign against taxi drivers, I could create a situation whereby their passengers, the real cause of my discomfort, would simply not be able to avail themselves of my sought after legal acumen.

I started testing the public’s temperature to this position on my weekly talk-back radio appearances by letting it be known that taxi drivers are motivated by profit. These human traffickers were demanding payment for driving passengers to their desired destinations, often in amounts that would make Jonathan Sumption QC blush, most particularly when coming from the airport or when the taxi had been pre-booked!!

Understandably, the public didn’t like what it was hearing and the reassuring voice of Uncle Bulli was there to keep stoking the flames. Slowly but surely I ramped up my attacks until stopping cab-drivers and the ever-increasing arrival of their passengers all over Sydney became the most important and divisive political issue of the day. This masterful political strategy culminated in me using my influence in the NSW government to establish an offshore processing centre for taxi passengers on Pitcairn Island.

With stage one complete, the second phase of my inspired plan was to ride the wave of grassroots opposition to taxi drivers and their miserable human cargo by announcing that I would read my professional and ethical obligations under the cab-rank principle strictly. That is, that the cab-rank principle did not oblige me to take a brief unless my prospective client had literally arrived by taxi. Furthermore, I would only accept clients that arrived by means of a taxi that had been processed offshore and which originated from the regional cab-rank in Pitcairn. I then created a further (objectively fair but substantively unfair) criterion** by only receiving clients between 3 and 4pm and 3 and 4am – the time where no taxis in the world operate, not even water taxis from the South Pacific!

Looking for a taxi at 3pm in downtown Adelaide

In a matter of days I was able to rid myself of the burdensome nightmare that was the cab rank principle without ever having to say a bad word about the people for whom I was meant to act!

As you can imagine, this compelling tale took up the full hour of the show and thankfully neither Tony Jones nor any panellist (not even the usually effusive Ms Lin Chin) were able to get a word in edgewise. I then, naturally, exercised the privilege against self incrimination and refused to take any questions from the audience whom I feared to be filled with unsympathetic hipsters and Mark Latham.

This legendary performance allowed the ABC to receive funding for a full season of Q&A within only 27 years, a mere blink of the eye in the scheme of things. The ABC’s debt of gratitude to me remains, however, tragically unpaid.

* I had spent years as the President of the Senate Committee for Access to Justice during my time in parliament and I was, at the time, particularly eager not be seen to do anything that would impinge on my chances of being elevated to the High Court under the increasingly radical left-wing Labor Government of the day.

**My thanks to Emile Durkheim and Anatole France for that little pearler.

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