Peter Dutton Drops Defamation Case Against Refugee Advocate

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Peter Dutton

Federal Coalition Leader Peter Dutton has ended his appeal against a decision by the Full Bench of the Federal Court of Australia which found that it was not defamatory for refugee advocate Shane Bazzi to call him a ‘rape apologist’.

The story so far 

The defamation suit centred around a 2019 tweet by Mr Bazzi in which he labelled Mr Dutton a ‘rape apologist’. 

The since-deleted tweet was sent after Mr Dutton publicly remarked that some female refugees were “trying it on” by making claims they had been raped, in order to be sent from offshore detention to Australia to seek medical help under Medevac laws.

In 2021, a single judge of the Federal Court ruled against Mr Bazzi, finding that his tweet was defamatory and ordering him to pay $35,000 in damages. 

The refugee advocate appealed the decision to the full three judge bench of the court which overturned the single judge’s decision in May this year, finding that the tweet did no carry the claimed defamatory imputation that Dutton excused rape.

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. 

In reaching that finding, the judge’s opined that the tweet must be read in conjunction with the contents of the original article published in the Guardian.

That argument was successful, with the court finding that ordinary readers would have gone on to read the contents of the entire article, which put the tweet in context.

Dutton abandons High Court appeal

On Friday, 23 September 2022, Mr Dutton formally discontinued his efforts to have the matter heard before the highest court in the land, the High Court of Australia, with the Coalition leader’s publicists somehow claiming this as a victory.

It’s been a long and stressful battle for Mr Bazzi, who told the media:

“I am proud that I fought this case and was vindicated by the Full Court of the Federal Court.” 

Spotlight on free speech

Many have been critical of Mr Dutton for having taken legal proceedings in the first case, given his appalling rhetoric, policies and actions towards some of our most vulnerable.

Indeed, the now Coalition Leader’s political career has been signified by aggressive, insulting and often entirely baseless attacks against those he does not consider as desirable. 

As Home Affairs Minister, he often expressed the view that refugees were trying to “con” their way into Australia, or “rort” the system. While his comments might have often struck a chord with some Australians, many found them in bad taste, and poorly chosen, particularly given his political profile. 

But it was the treatment of the Margaruppans (the Tamil family from Biloela in Queensland)  who were removed from their home in a dawn raid in 2018 and put into detention on Christmas Island at exorbitant cost to Australian taxpayers – which occurred under Mr Dutton’s  watch as Home Affairs Minister — which gave Mr Dutton a particularly controversial reputation. 

Since his election to the Leadership of the Liberal Party, Mr Dutton has been noticeably quiet – far from the outspoken minister we know. Many say that this is simply a result of him getting on with the tasks ahead of him, with others speculating it’s part of a strategy to make him more likeable.  

Coalition turmoil

In the final months of Scott Morrison’s tenure, the Liberal Party faced internal turmoil and infighting, along with the wrath of the Australian public over its failure to act on climate changelack of leadership during natural disasters, pork-barrelling, the sports rort scandal, poor treatment indigenous Australians and other minority groups, staff misconduct, amongst other very serious issues, along with sexual assault allegations emerging from Parliament House. 

There is much to be done to soothe fractured ranks within the Liberal Party, and there is also a lot to be done in terms of the Liberal Party regaining the trust of the majority of Australians. 

To that end, since taking the leadership, Mr Dutton has aimed to ‘soften’ his reputation with the Australian public. 

There is speculation that negotiating the end of the defamation case against Mr Bazzie is part of that PR strategy.

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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, Spring 2022.

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