Always with the jokes

triggs smileThe American comic Henny Youngman had a standard line, the one audiences knew for a certainty would be delivered and laughed at anyway. “Take my wife … please!” he’d say and Borscht Belt audiences at upstate New York resorts would roar. That’s the thing about lame but familiar gags — once you get used to them, learn to anticipate, what they lack in wit is mitigated by the pleasure of predictability. Youngman went to his grave in 2009, but here on the other side of the world the grand tradition of the limp and certain joke lives on.

“Take our Human Rights Commissioner … please.”

Not that any of our Antipodean jesters would dream of uttering such a remark about Gillian Triggs, as she is both a woman and identifies as one. Modern humour of the sort endorsed by state-subsidised festivals and public broadcasters is that kind of thing — constrained by all the many PC parameters that define which manifestations of the revered and ludicrous are available for scoffs and chortling. Christ and Christianity, absolutely! Ol’ Mo and Islam? Not on your decapitated nelly! Tony Abbott and John Howard? Plenty of pro forma yuks to be had with that duo, what with the former’s red Speedos and latter’s eyebrows. Yet of Julia Gillard we hear never a caustic peep, despite ample opportunities for jocular derision above and beyond the subject matter of that heavily ballasted silhouette, reference to which, since the former PM also identifies as a woman, contemporary sensibilities place well beyond “the appropriate”, to use one of  Triggs & Co’s favourite scoldings.

The business of being funny is now so restricted we are expected to chuckle chiefly at those who have not fully subscribed to po-mo pieties. Consider, for example, the current taste for cutesy gayness as the comedic flavour of the month. On the ABC, we have had Please Like Me, which hangs on central player Josh Thomas’ love life and intimate circle. There are few gags as such, nothing to see ribs tickled or thighs slapped, just a warm and fuzzy storyline about a fey young fellow’s love life and his quirky, share-house, twentysomething pals. Apparently the orthodoxy of modern humour rates gayness as funny in and of itself, which is a rather ironic when you think about it.

Over on SBS, more of the similar with The Family Law, which chronicles another fey young fellow, Benjamin Law, and his familial intimates’ journey through life. What each show has in common is the us-and-them presumption that anyone unimpressed by the series’ meagre mirth must be a sad joke of a person. Each serves “comedy” only in their implicit exhortations to laugh at viewers who rolled their eyes and reached for the channel-changer. Stuffy old fuddy-duddies, ha, ha, ha! Now, back to the edifying jollity of Mr Thomas reaching for his favoured lubricant from atop a very special best friend.

All of the above is noted by way of introducing the latest routine from Commissioner Gillian Triggs, our greatest exponent of the anticipated joke, exquisite timing being integral to her shtick. Recall when Labor was in office and Ms Triggs maintained a prolonged and extended silence about the many children in the camps and centres taxpayers have been obliged to fund for undocumented, uninvited and illegal arrivals. So long did she remain mute that the late Jack Benny, master of the pregnant pause, would have recognised a superior talent and retired his violin. Then the Coalition took office and she was ready for prime time with her farce of a report on the kids behind the wire. That the new government had reduced the number of children in detention to a mere handful was a fact deemed unworthy of mention.

Today, our Comical Commissioner has once again come in right on cue. Tony Abbott is in the US and talking about marriage to a conservative group — “a far-right Christian lobby”, if you read The Guardian — so Triggs has  taken to the pages of that other sad joke, the Fairfax Press, to beat him with the slapstick of the UN Charter of Human Rights. Well, sort of beat him.

Under article 26 of the  International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights  all people “are equal before the law and entitled without any discrimination to the equal protection of the law”. The Australian Human Rights Commission considers that this principle of equality means that civil marriage should be available, without discrimination, to all couples, regardless of sex, sexual orientation or gender identity.

Catch that? Ms Triggs reckons article 26 means the right to same-sex unions. Except, in the very next paragraph she concedes it actually does nothing of the kind:

It remains true that international human rights law does not mandate recognition of marriage between same sex partners. Rather, the principle of equality under the ICCPR is considered by the UN Human Rights Committee to neither prevent recognition of same sex marriage nor to impose a positive obligation on states to do so.

So, if it neither endorses nor condemns gay marriage, why mention article 26 in the first place?

The answer would seem to be in this paragraph of slick patter:

Of immediate relevance to Australia’s proposed plebiscite, is the [US] Supreme Court’s view that fundamental rights may not be submitted to a vote. Rather, “they depend on the outcome of no elections”. In principle, why should the right to equality in marriage depend upon a plebiscite?

And there we have the Triggs punchline. While PM Turnbull may well honour his pledge to permit a vote on gay marriage, and even though polls indicate such a measure would pass, the possibility remains that a critical mass of ignorant, knuckle-dragging bogans might yet prove the pollsters wrong. So let’s demean this ballot-box nonsense before things can go other than to our liking, she seems to be saying. And if that dire eventuality transpires, we can then ignore the public will, reference the UN or SCOTUS, and legalise gay marriage anyway.

The greater joke, you see, isn’t Ms Triggs’ specious logic, at-your-service inconsistencies or even her impeccable timing. It is the potentially “inappropriate” will and sentiments of her fellow Australians.

Come on, Gillian, deliver that line we’ve all been expecting:

“Take my countrymen … please!”

Triggs’ thoughts can be read via the link below. Enjoy! She’s always good for a laugh.

— roger franklin

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