Peter Dutton has told the federal court he was deeply offended by a tweet labelling him a “rape apologist”, which went beyond the “rough and tumble” of political life.
The defence minister gave evidence on Wednesday in his defamation trial against refugee activist, Shane Bazzi, over the tweet posted in February.
The hearing began with a warning from Justice Richard White to both sides about the failure to settle what he said was not “one of the largest or larger defamation cases the federal court has had”.
The judge noted even if Dutton won, Bazzi could seek reduced costs if Dutton were awarded damages of less than $100,000, or the proceeding could more suitably have been brought in another court or tribunal.
Bazzi’s tweet, since deleted, said “Peter Dutton is a rape apologist” and included a link to a 2019 Guardian Australia article reporting comments by Dutton that female refugees were “trying it on” by making claims they had been raped, and needed to travel to Australia from offshore detention to receive abortions.”
Dutton’s counsel, Nick Ferrett QC, submitted that after 20 years in politics, eight as a cabinet minister, Dutton had had “more than the odd number of unpleasant observations made about him in the course of things”.
Ferrett submitted the tweet was “very personal” casting him as “the opposite of who he is” – citing Dutton’s work in the Queensland police “bringing rapists to justice and supporting victims of rape”.
Dutton said he was “deeply offended” by the tweet. As the former immigration and home affairs minister Dutton said advocates had often made “comments that are false and untrue, offensive, or profane” about him.
“That’s part of the rough and tumble [of politics], but this went beyond that – to who I am, to my beliefs,” he said.
“Some people don’t construct an argument either because of the limit to their vocabulary or intellect, they resort to insults …
“But this is beyond reasonable bounds. This went to a different level, that’s why I was most offended by it. It was defamatory, hurtful, and I took particular exception to it.”
Bazzi’s defence, filed in June, denies he defamed Dutton, arguing the tweet does not convey imputations including that he excuses or condones rape. Bazzi pleads that, if he did defame Dutton, defences of fair comment and honest opinion should apply.
Bazzi’s counsel, Richard Potter, told the hearing the ordinary, reasonable reader “would not understand” the six-word tweet to mean Dutton was condoning or excusing rape when read in conjunction with the Guardian Australia news link.
Although Twitter is “conversational” and “impressionistic”, he submitted the reader must taken to have read the whole matter complained of and the context is also “significant”.
He noted the link included a partial headline “Peter Dutton says women using rape and abortion claims as ploy …” and a two-line summary of the article “home affairs minister says ‘some people are trying it on’ in an attempt to get to Australia from refugee centres on Nauru”.
Potter said the reader would understand that “Dutton was accusing women of lying about being raped” and therefore the whole tweet could not mean he was “condoning or excusing” rape.
Potter said the tweet was published on the same day Dutton had said he didn’t know the “she said he said” details of Brittany Higgins’ allegation of rape, and it was “unnecessary” for Bazzi to recite this fact in the tweet, because readers would be aware of the remark.
Ferrett countered that the phrase was “deliberately chosen and had a particular meaning”, and could not be explained away by context.
In cross-examination Potter suggested Dutton was not offended by Bazzi’s tweet – but rather a similar tweet from Larissa Waters accusing him of being a rape apologist, which she apologised for and deleted.
Dutton replied that Bazzi’s tweet concerned him not because it was a repetition of what Waters had said but because Bazzi’s account was verified by Twitter. Dutton said he viewed the matters as “completely separate”, that he was offended by both tweets, and was “equally offended” by what Bazzi had said.
Dutton confirmed on 25 March he had given an interview in which he said he intended to take proceedings against people using the term “rape apologist”. Dutton said he had done so because he felt anyone using it was “crossing the boundary”.
Bazzi has deleted the tweet but Dutton decided to pursue him for an apology and damages. The matter was not settled at mediation.
Dutton is seeking aggravated damages, citing more recent tweets from Bazzi suggesting the “wealthy and powerful cabinet minister” should focus on his defence portfolio, not the defamation case.
Asked about that tweet, Dutton said it made him feel that Bazzi was “not genuine about mediating or wanting to settle the matter”.
In his reply submissions, Dutton argues that his public comments, including those referenced in the Guardian Australia article, could not possibly justify the conclusion he is a “rape apologist”.
Dutton has also accused Bazzi of showing malice, citing a tweet labelling him a “cunt” and a “fucken scumbag”.
The hearing continues on Thursday.