Avoiding defamation: lessons for Little

Andrew Little began as Leader of the Opposition in Parliament by saying “Cut the crap!”. He has tried to present himself as a decent honest politician who would do things differently.

Instead he copied the dirty attack tactics of Winston Peters, except that he left himself open to being sued for defamation. And when he was threatened with exactly that he took far too long to back down and half apologise.

So he got dragged into court when his late offer of a settlement and half apology was turned down.

This case has been costly, ikt’s just not yet clear who has to pay all the costs, which amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees.

It is important that opposition MPs and especially the Leader of the Opposition holds the Government to account and questions issues of democratic and public concern.

Members of Parliament have special legal protections because of this – they can claim qualified privilege.

But this also should raise their levels of responsibility.

Little could have handled this much better if he really wants to be a more honourable but effective leader.

Here is the media statement from Little that started this expensive and inconclusive political and legal exercise: Auditor-General must investigate Niue deal for donor

It is loaded with political insinuations that associate Earl Hagaman and his Scenic Circle company.

Here’s a suggestion as to how Little could have done it better:

Auditor-General must investigate Niue deal for donor

The public have a right to know if there is any connection between a donation of   $100,000 to the National Party and the tender process and awarding of a hotel management contract which led to a Government-funded, $7.5million upgrade to a Niue resort, Leader of the Opposition Andrew Little says.

“Today it was revealed that owner of the Scenic Hotel Group, Earl Hagaman made a substantial donation not long before his company was awarded the contract.”

“It is why I have today written to the Auditor-General asking her to investigate whether there was any connection between the two. I have no evidence of impropriety, but it is important that this is checked out.”

“We must have questions answered on how the tender process worked, who if anyone knew about links between donations and the tenderer, and whether Niuean people will ultimately benefit from the resort’s funding. The perception of propriety is key” Leader of the Opposition Andrew Little says.

Little should have responded to any follow up media questions by saying that it was now up to the Auditor General and he would not comment any more until the results of any investigation were known.

This would make it clear that it was holding the government to account and not an attempted political hit job.

It should have avoided any media mayhem or threats of defamation.

Earl Hagaman or Scenic Circle could have released a statement denying anything improper had occurred.

A few people on Twitter and at The Standard would have still ranted about rich pricks getting political favours but that’s normal and would have been of little consequence.

Then when the Auditor General released her finding that there was nothing to indicate any connection between the donation and the awarding of the contract Little could have said something like this:

No problem found with Niue contract

I accept the finding by the Auditor General that there was no link found between a personal donation by Earl Hagaman to the National Party and the awarding of a hotel management contract to his Scenic Circle Company.

As Leader of the Opposition it is important that I hold the Government to account and that I question possible improprieties. I apologise if any impropriety was inferred or perceived in this case.

Little would have done his job effectively, in this case with no wrong doing found,and with no egg on his face.

No direct damage would have been done, nor any unintended collateral damage.

It is very unlikely there would have been any defamation threats or actions, therefore no large costs nor distractions from Little’s job as Leader of the Opposition.

It would have improved his chances of becoming Leader of the Government.

And he would have had more time to look for actual impropriety on the part of John Key and the National Party.

He may even been able to have some success in holding Murray McCully properly to account over the Saudi sheep deal.

Little picked the wrong target – that will happen sometimes – but in attacking too strongly without evidence, either targeting a National donor or being reckless about collateral damage, failing to back off and apologise in a timely fashion, he distracted attention from fights that should have been a priority.

I hope Little has learnt something from this, eventually.