Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Collins defamation suit

The big news this morning is that Judith Collins is suing two Labour MPs - apparently Trevor Mallard and Andrew Little - and Radio New Zealand for defamation for suggesting that she is the ACC leaker. Its difficult to see this as anything but an attempt at intimidation. Lange v. Atkinson firmly established that there is a very strong defence of qualified opinion when it comes to politicians, and its hard to see how such claims wouldn’t fall under it if they looked reasonable at the time. But there's also the other problem: Collins is a politician. Pretending that she has some reputation for honesty which has been "damaged" by the suggestion that she engaged in information thuggery is a bit rich. There's simply no reputation there to destroy.

Meanwhile, the fact that proceedings have been filed effectively insulates Collins from having to answer any further questions in the House about the issue. How convenient...

Also, there's now the interesting question of whether Collins will be able to use taxpayer's money to intimidate and suppress the opposition. There's provision for this: the Cabinet Manual allows Ministers to be indemnified as plaintiffs in private suits, and specifically gives defamation as an example. The process is that Collins asks the Prime Minister and Attorney-General, who assess the case and seek Cabinet approval if they believe it to be in the public interest. This would of course be spending public money on the private political interests of Ministers - but do we really believe that National won't do that?