It’s a packed house for the start of the defamation case brought by Federal Treasurer Joe Hockey against the publishers of the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and the Canberra Times.
So far its been a fairly dry morning, consisting only of an opening address by Hockey’s silk, Bruce McClintock SC. McClintock, the country’s finest defamation barrister, is a familiar foe for the Herald after acting in all Eddie Obeid’s defamation actions (at one point this morning, he referred to Hockey as “Mr Obeid”). McClintock spent the morning taking the judge through the various aspects of the case, which centre around a story published in 2014 alleging that a NSW Liberal Party fundraising body, the North Sydney Forum, was charging for access to the Treasurer. Hockey’s electorate is in North Sydney. He is particularly upset about the headline on the story, which read “Treasurer for Sale”.
Joe Hockey, who will be giving evidence after lunch, was sitting in court this morning, clad in a navy blue suit and RM Williams riding boots with brightly coloured socks. At one point he leant over to his wife, Melissa Babbage, sitting next to him, placing a consoling hand on her back.
McClintock said the story had been written much earlier than it was printed, but held over to run one week before the Treasurer’s first budget on May 13. He said that when Hockey heard about the published story he had been angry and disappointed, in a state of disbelief.
“The overwhelming reaction of the people who saw this material … was that my client was being accused of corruption,” he said.
It’s a curious case for Hockey to bring. One on the one hand, he obviously wishes to clear his name of the taint of alleged corruption. But on the other hand, he doesn’t need the money. The family already have a swimming pool, the usual post-defamation household purchase). And drawing the public’s attention to the connection between politicians and donations is a dangerous one that could result in a Pyrrhic victory of monumental proportions. Polling and surveys have shown for many years that the public is increasingly cynical about political donations and perceived influence-peddling. Bringing this action, which is guaranteed to maximise the media coverage of the issues, will focus more voters’ attention on who is paying whom. At a time when the government is low in the polls and still trying to get its first budget through the Senate, this is probably not the time to be lifting the curtain on what goes on behind the scenes of our political parties.
Joe Hockey is the first witness, and his evidence will be fascinating.