Dutton Loses Defamation Case

by Sonia Hickey
Peter Dutton

Refugee advocate Shane Bazzzi has won his appeal in a defamation case brought by Defence Minister Peter Dutton. 

The tweet

The case centred on a 2019 tweet by Mr Bazzi in which he labelled Mr Dutton a ‘rape apologist’.

The tweet came after the then Home Affair Minister publicly remarked that some female refugees were “trying it on” by making claims they had been raped.

The Minister went so far as to imply the refugees were fraudulently claim on that basis that they needed to travel to Australia from offshore detention centres to receive abortions.

Defamation ruling overturned 

Last year, a single judge of the Federal Court ruled against Mr Bazzi, finding his tweet to be defamatory and ordering him to pay $35,000 in damages.

But this week, the Court’s Full Bench overturned that decision, finding that the tweet did not carry the imputation that Dutton excused rape.

Defences

During both proceedings, Mr Bazzi had put forth two defences to the defamation claim: honest opinion as well as fair comment on a matter of public interest. 

During the appeal, Mr Bazzi’s lawyers submitted that the tweet must be read in conjunction with the contents of the original published article published in the Guardian.

The argument succeeded, with the Full Court finding that ordinary readers would have gone on to read the contents of the entire article, which put the tweet in context. 

“The Guardian material centres on allegations of rape, not the actual commission of it,” the Appeal Court remarked.

“When that material is read with Mr Bazzi’s six words, the reader would conclude that the tweet was suggesting that Mr Dutton was sceptical about claims of rape and in that way was an apologist. But that is very different from imputing that he excuses rape itself.”

Comments ‘offensive and hurtful’ 

In its judgment, the court did not:

‘It is understandable that, despite Mr Dutton being accustomed to bearing ‘the slings and arrows’ which are an incident of high political office, he found this statement of Mr Bazzi offensive and hurtful.” 

However, the court also noted that, “there is no suggestion that the tweet has affected Mr Dutton in his day-to-day political or ministerial activities, or in his relationships with other people.”

And it is exactly this which has baffled many Australians, not just in this defamation case, but others too, such as former NSW Deputy Premier’s John Barilaro’s defamation suit against Friendlyjordies presenter, Jordan Shanks.

Take as good as you give

Peter Dutton is known for slinging insults and making decisions which adversely affect others, but being less able to handle similar conduct towards himself.

On many occasions, he has expressed the popularist view that are are trying to “con” their way into Australia or ‘rort’ the system in some way or another so that they can make a home here. 

In 2020, he stunned audiences listening to radio 2GB when he commented on the fact that Priya Murugappan (the mother of the Biloela family) had to be flown to Perth after suffering severe abdominal pain. 

He bemoaned the fact that the Government had provided a chartered flight for her to Perth from the family’s detention on Christmas Island, claiming that Priya’s medical tests had revealed no real medical issues. In the same interview, he also suggested that the family were taking advantage of the system, saying:

“This is a situation that is of their own making – it is ridiculous, it is unfair on their children – and it sends a very bad message to other people who think they can rort the system as well.”

Mr Dutton also said the family was “playing funny games” through the courts to prevent their deportation to Sri Lanka, despite the fact that only three months earlier the family had won a court battle against the Federal Government, with The Federal Court ordering the government to pay the family more than $200,000 in legal fees in relation to ‘procedural unfairness’ during their bid to stay in Australia. 

Mind you, this is the same politician who went out of his way to approve visas for a French and Italian au pair in 2015.

Double-standard

What’s more, with the regular ‘mud-slinging,’ rudeness and insinuation that occurs in the course of general parliamentary debate, most Australians would consider Mr Dutton and other seasoned politicians to be much more ‘thick skinned’ when it comes to public criticism or commentary. 

The rise in defamation cases by politicians against the media and members of the general public who express views that may or may not be controversial is concerning for the core of democracy – the perceived right to freedom of speech and political opinion. 

Without the ability to question or criticise or express an alternate view, how else can we hold politicians to account for what they say, and what they do, in the context of their professional roles, which are, at the end of the day, created and intended to serve the public?  

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Author

Sonia Hickey

Sonia Hickey is a freelance writer, magazine journalist, and owner of 'Woman with Words'. She has a strong interest in social justice and is a member of the Sydney Criminal Lawyers® content team. Sonia is the winner of the Mondaq Thought Leadership Awards, Autumn 2021.

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