Paddy Manning

The seven-year-old Godwin Grech saga threatens to hit the headlines once more, with businessman John O’Sullivan suing Melbourne University Press and author Paddy Manning over Born to Rule, Manning’s biography of Malcolm Turnbull, in which O’Sullivan is extensively mentioned in the chapter on the Grech affair.

In 2009, now-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was Liberal opposition leader and still facing a largely popular PM in Kevin Rudd. Turnbull claimed that Rudd and his treasurer, Wayne Swan, had emailed Treasury officials suggesting financial assistance through the OzCar scheme be given to a dealer who had donated a car to Rudd’s campaign. The claim came from evidence given by Grech, a Treasury official. He later produced an email to support the claim, but this was discovered to be a forgery created by Grech himself. The saga left Turnbull badly damaged as opposition leader, and led to numerous inquiries by police and the Parliament.

O’Sullivan was, at the time, the head of Credit Suisse and the president of Malcolm Turnbull’s fundraising body, the Wentworth Forum. Inquiries into the affair unearthed emails sent between Grech and O’Sullivan. Manning quotes from some of these emails in his book.

The alleged defamation, O’Sullivan’s statement of claim says, comes from three paragraphs in particular, towards the end of the chapter. In these paragraphs, Manning comments that Grech was willing to favour Liberal donors in his own considerations — the very thing Turnbull had accused Rudd of in Parliament with Grech’s help. In one email, Grech wrote to O’Sullivan that he could change a contract signed off on by “Rudd and his hacks” to “reflect your preferred fee arrangement and push that through quickly next week” without running past “Henry and co”, a reference to then-head of Treasury Ken Henry. Manning wrote that O’Sullivan replied: “Thanks Godwin. Sounds sensible.”

Credit Suisse, Manning wrote, was advising on the OzCar fund. Manning also wrote that Grech had emailed O’Sullivan with early warning about an upcoming tender for which Credit Suisse “should definitely put its hand up — something extraordinary would have to happen for you not to end up on the panel and to cream most of the work”.

After reviewing such correspondence, Manning wrote:

“It was breathtaking, and it was amazing nobody landed in jail.”

The emails were the subject of a Treasury probe at the time — according to reports from 2009, Treasury was satisfied it had “resolved any probity concerns” raised by the emails.

Court documents reveal parties have been in contact about the chapter since November 19, when O’Sullivan contacted Manning and Melbourne University Press with his concerns over the chapter and demanded an apology and settlement. MUP refused his request a week later. Between December 4 and February 11, legal letters were exchanged in an unsuccessful attempt to reach a settlement.

There the matter lay until the Monday after the federal election, when the statement of claim was filed with the federal court.

That statement of claim — filed by top defamation lawyer Mark O’Brien — says the chapter in Born to Rule alleges O’Sullivan:

  • “conspired with a Treasury official to deceive the Head of Treasury in order to obtain a substantial fee”;
  • “that the Applicant committed a criminal offence which warranted a term of imprisonment”; and
  • “the Applicant unlawfully obtained inside information from a Treasury official about an upcoming tender”.

These imputations, the statement of claim says, are highly damaging and false, bringing O’Sullivan, and his business, personal and professional reputation “into public disrepute, odium, ridicule and contempt”. The statement alleges neither Melbourne University Press nor Manning informed O’Sullivan of what they intended to publish about him. O’Sullivan is seeking aggravated damages, partly for the “sensationalised manner” in which the imputations were published.

Asked this morning about the delay in launching proceedings after settlement negotiations failed in February, O’Brien told Crikey there was “no particular reason”. “Everyone’s busy”. He said advising on the imputations of the pleadings was Terry Tobin QC, a top defamation lawyer and the editor of Defamation Law and Practice. “It’s a very, very strong case,” he said. O’Brien is himself is one of Australia’s leading defamation lawyers, having successfully represented a number of high-profile clients.

At a directions hearing in Sydney yesterday, the MUP and Manning were given till 25 August to file their defence. A further directions hearing is scheduled for September 15 this year. HBL Ebsworth’s Andrew Miers, who is representing the MUP and Manning, was contacted for comment.

Peter Fray

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