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NSW nurses to pick up legal tab

The NSW Nurses Association is expected to be asked to pick up the tab for the failed defamation proceedings launched by the union’s right-wing general secretary Brett Holmes against Andrew Fraser, MP for Coffs Harbour.

The libel action arose out of a letter Fraser sent to 629 constituents criticising the nurses’ leader during the March 2007 state election.

In the NSW Supreme Court last June, Holmes won his action and was awarded $70,000 damages plus costs. But in the NSW Court of Appeal two weeks ago, Justices Murray Tobias, Ruth McColl and John Basten overturned the lower court’s judgement, dismissed the proceedings, set aside the $70,000 damages and ordered Holmes to pay Fraser’s costs.

With total costs for Holmes and Fraser amounting to almost $100,000, the long suffering union membership is wondering how and why it got into this legal debacle.

If the court action initiated by Holmes related to the Nurses’ Association or to his role as the union’s general secretary, then there would a clear obligation on the membership to pay up.

But the issue is somewhat blurred. In Fraser’s letter he falsely accused Holmes of running a political campaign against the Howard Government’s Work Choices legislation in order to position himself to take a federal seat on behalf of the Labor Party at the next federal election. Fraser’s allegations were untrue and highly damaging, according to Holmes, and that is why he sued.

Some members of the association believe that Holmes was acting to defend his personal reputation and that the legal stoush was all about his membership of the Labor Party and not his role as the union’s general secretary. The issue is further complicated because the association is not affiliated to the NSW Labor Party and maintains an apolitical stance.

They argue that the cost of this hugely expensive legal exercise — the initial trial plus the appeal — should, at the very least, be shared between Holmes and the union’s membership.

Last year, Crikey revealed that the NSW Nurses’ Association had donated $5000 in sponsorship to the Hills District Women’s Football Club. The star striker in one of the club’s teams was Holmes’ daughter.

The money was donated from the union’s Nurse Power Fund comprising contributions from the association’s 51,000 members.

He dismissed calls for his resignation saying he had been upfront with the union executive about the conflict of interest, he had left the meeting when the donation was being discussed and he abstained from the vote.

4
  • 1
    John Hamer
    Posted Tuesday, 17 March 2009 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

    A simple test to determine who should pay the legal costs for the failed defamation case is this. If Brett Holmes had received the original damages award of $70,000 would he have paid them over to his union. If he had, then it would be fair enough for the union to pay the legal costs, otherwise Holmes should pick up the tab.

  • 2
    ECS
    Posted Tuesday, 17 March 2009 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    What! Brett Holmes has no aspirations to enter Parliament? I thought Union General Secretaries looked to that as being the next stepping stone in their career. But then again one could say that he has officially denied any interest in that field, so he must be going to enter the Federal arena. Afterall one must remember, ” never believe the rhetoric unless it has been officially denied”.

  • 3
    steve martin
    Posted Tuesday, 17 March 2009 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

    It may well be true that Holmes left the meeting in order to avoid a conflict of interest when the donation to the Women’s Football Club was discussed - But why was it on the agenda in the first place? This is not CUB sponsoring sport as a quid pro quo for the boozers buying their product. What on earth is the Nurse’s Association’s interest in sponsoring football?
    Holmes should pay his own costs, or at the very least ballot his association regarding payment of costs.

  • 4
    Edward James
    Posted Tuesday, 17 March 2009 at 6:49 pm | Permalink

    The Nurses need to start thinking about what they pay their membership fees for. Fancy taking a political arguement into a law court ! I agree with John was the win paid over into the Union funds ? The answer lies in the answer to that question.

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