PAUL AUSTINJuly 15, 2010
IN AN election-year rebuff expected to cost the state opposition more than $100,000, one of Ted Baillieu’s key lieutenants has been forced to apologise after branding as corrupt Premier John Brumby’s former campaign director.
Liberal upper house leader David Davis has made an ”unreserved apology” as part of a confidential settlement of a defamation action against him by former Victorian ALP secretary and Brumby ally, Stephen Newnham. Mr Newnham issued a writ after Mr Davis accused the then ALP chief of being ”up to his neck in sleazy electoral rorts” in Labor’s heartland western suburbs.
The Age believes Mr Davis and the cash-strapped Victorian Liberal Party will be out of pocket by more than $100,000 after fighting the case for the past year.
The Liberals had hoped to use the case in the lead-up to November’s election to shine a spotlight on Labor’s controversial conduct in the 2007 Kororoit byelection and the party’s dealings with the now-sacked Brimbank council.
Legal and political sources said the case could also have repercussions for free speech, because it might cause MPs to avoid what has been regarded traditionally as robust but legitimate political discourse.
”It could have a chilling effect on political debate,” one source said last night.
As part of the settlement, Mr Davis on Tuesday signed a statement saying he had arranged to have withdrawn from the Liberals’ website a media statement in which he called for the Premier to sack Mr Newnham. Mr Davis accepted that readers of the statement ”may have understood it to assert, amongst other things, that Mr Newnham had acted fraudulently and corruptly” by knowingly and intentionally helping and encouraging a Brimbank councillor to misuse his position for personal gain.
”If any person who read the press release took that to be one of its meanings, then I retract the same and unreservedly apologise to Mr Newnham,” he said. ”It was never my intention to suggest that Stephen Newnham had acted fraudulently or corruptly in the manner suggested by being improperly involved in the misconduct of a councillor.”
Mr Davis said he and Mr Newnham had agreed that, beyond the specific issue of the councillor, ”the press release related to robust discussion of legitimate political topics”.
Mr Davis issued the statement in May last year after the Ombudsman reported to Parliament that some ALP figures had improperly influenced Brimbank councillors.
Three months earlier, the Electoral Commission told Parliament a Labor pamphlet distributed during the byelection and authorised by Mr Newnham was likely to have misled voters.
Mr Davis said in his media release that the Premier was posturing about corruption while harbouring a state secretary who had been caught ”rorting” electoral laws.
Mr Newnham, who resigned in September, sued on the basis that the statement was designed to suggest he was not a fit and proper person to be state secretary ”because he is corrupt”.
Under the terms of this week’s settlement, neither Mr Newnham nor Mr Davis can now comment on the case.