No doubt
Melbourne University Press’s lawyers have gone over the Latham book
with a fine-toothed comb. But could (or would) Kim Beazley sue his
former leader? It’s been an extraordinary attack on him so far, and the
hordes of hacks assembled to hear Beazley’s response to the allegations
were all interested in the prospect of another Abbott/Costello style
defamation case being played out through the Australian media.

In
response to a question from a journalist about whether he’d sue Latham,
the Labor leader responded, saying: “You do reserve your legal
position.” Excited by the smell of litigation, Crikey went to
leading defamation lawyer Veronica Byrne from law firm Minter Ellison
to find out how likely a no-holds-barred Latham v Beazley court battle
could be.

Byrne told Crikey that Beazley, like most
politicians, would be unlikely to go to court because it would mean
publicly opening up all his old wounds and examining his leadership
mettle in a public and open forum – and no-one in the Labor Party wants
that. “He’ll be putting his character on trial,” says Byrne.

According
to Byrne, the sticking point for Latham would be trying to prove that
his broadside came under the extended qualified privilege defence,
which gives journalists and public figures the right to criticise the
public role of politicians. “Obviously the attack (so far) has been
personal rather than an attack on his leadership style, policies or
governing style,” Byrne told Crikey. The question to ask would be: “is
what Latham’s saying about his (Beazley’s) political role?”

As for the “I’ll keep my
options open” statement, it’s probably meant to act as a warning shot
for a bitter Latham to keep away. And not just from Beazley, but from
Labor altogether. After all, says Byrne, “Beazley’s not the first
person or the last person he’ll (Latham) choose to target.”

Peter Fray

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