The Peris Affair: perhaps ethically dubious but not legally

I don’t have a particularly high opinion of Senator Nova Peris. I certainly don’t think Prime Minister Julia Gillard should have effectively sacked long-standing and well regarded Senator Trish Crossin to get her into Parliament. Moreover, even if it was reasonable to aim at getting new blood into the Senate and do so by introducing a capable Aboriginal woman, retired Territory Minister Marion Scrymgeour would have been a much better bet.

However, none of those factors justifies publication of the story about Senator Peris’s romantic liaison with international superstar Ato Boldon, at least with the slant it was given. Let me be clear. I certainly don’t take the Pollyanna attitude that the salacious emails should not have been published at all. Whatever some may assert, I suspect there wouldn’t be a single newspaper editor anywhere in Australia who would have refrained from publishing those emails if he/she had them and had obtained them lawfully (or at least without any specific knowledge about how they were obtained).

If they had merely been published as an avowedly prurient exercise in boosting tabloid circulation (as gossip magazines do on a weekly basis), I would have no problem at all. However, the Northern Territory News attempted to dress up its publication with an element of “public interest” which is almost certainly spurious.

The NT News claimed (and still claims) that the story raises serious questions of “misuse of public funds” on the part of Senator Peris, albeit in 2010 well before she became a politician. However, the facts as revealed by Peris in the Senate this afternoon indicate that no such claim can sensibly be made. Moreover, she asserts that the NT News was aware of all the relevant circumstances before deciding to publish the story.

Judging by the publicly revealed facts, It seems that Peris was working as a paid Ambassador for Athletics Australia at the material time in 2010. Unless her duties involved having some specific role in proposing, assessing or approving visits by overseas athletes like Boldon, it is difficult to see how any claim of “misuse of public funds” could plausibly be made.  Even if her duties did include any such role, it would almost certainly be very minor. Failing to disclose that she had a personal relationship with Boldon might conceivably in those circumstances have given rise to a minor matter of misconduct in employment, but no more than that. Moreover, it would at most be a matter for warning and counselling not summary dismissal. And if she had no role at all in proposing, assessing or approving international athlete visits (as is almost certainly the case), then you can’t even say that there was a conflict of interest. The most you could say is that it might have been preferable in a private ethical sense had Peris disclosed her personal relationship with Boldon.1  She couldn’t be accused of “misuse of public funds” if she had no role at all in deciding how those funds were used.

If the NT News was indeed aware of all or most of the relevant circumstances, as Peris claims, it might well have significant problems in defending any defamation proceedings that either she or Boldon chose to commence. It is unlikely to be able to defend its publication on grounds of either justification or fair comment.

Nevertheless, if I was advising Nova Peris, I would be suggesting she think carefully before commencing court proceedings. She certainly should demand a retraction and apology from the newspaper, and consider suing if one is not promptly forthcoming, but it usually isn’t a good idea for a politician to engage in an ongoing feud with the only metropolitan newspaper in her electorate.

As for the NT News, I have a great affection for its larrikin style but this isn’t its finest hour.

  1. If it were to be regarded as an indictable offence to urge a colleague to do (or not do) a particular act, whenever we had mixed motives including some involving undeclared self-interest, then just about everyone in the world would be in prison!

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
This entry was posted in Law, Politics - national, Politics - Northern Territory. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to The Peris Affair: perhaps ethically dubious but not legally

  1. Politicians are masters at combining private benefit with business travel, and of course there are likely to be hundreds of examples of a hastily arranged “party business” meetings to provide cover for a dirty weekend with a lover. Given that Peris’ case appears to have involved an actual highly successful visit at relatively modest cost that her organisation was delighted with, the money spend was almost certainly better value than (I would guess) 1/4 of the travel spend of politicians in any year.

    I am not as sanguine as you, though, Ken about the decision to publish the emails, given the press’ attitude towards protecting (only some) politicians from publicity about affairs. Anyone who was reading right wing blogs during the Gillard government knows that she was continually derided for having had past relationships with men while they were still married (even though the status of those marriages at the time was never clear.) Widespread media insider knowledge of adulterous relationships on the Coalition side (which I remember Chris Uhlmann alluded to in one interview on 7.30) remained firmly on the quiet in the same period.

    Now, I agree that generally adultery should be off the media agenda, but when the conservative side makes snide remarks about a PM’s father being ashamed of her, and use their families continually with the message “look at me, the good family man, leading the family friendly party!” – as Abbott did to nauseating extend during the last election – I am certain that the media’s approach is benefitting one side much more than the other….

  2. I would add, in anticipation of someone saying “what about Tony Abbott and the illegitimate “son” story?” that the media (and commentary generally) handled that as a human interest story, not as a salacious scandal with which to attack him.

  3. Paul Bamford says:

    It’s clear from the coverage of various right wing blogs (Including Quadrant) that a lot of the venomous slime that’s being poured on Nova Peris is because of the Gillard connection. They don’t have Gillard to kick around any more, so Peris will have to do.

  4. Jim Rose says:

    We live in such a prudish age.

  5. john Walker says:

    There seems to be a bit more to this one, and this comes from a ‘left’ source

  6. M Wohling says:

    Big deal and who cares, the MSM in Australia does but so what. It is all so very simple, Senator Peris has a private life, it belongs to her, its private, so really she could just choose to say out loud to all and sundry, sorry none of your business, it is my private life. If they want to make accuasations about the improper use funds let them, invite the appropriate authorities to investugate, if their is a case to answer, OK so fine answer it. Senator Peris is there to do a job repersenting her Territory electorate, good oh, let her get on and do that. There is absolutley way more important issues for Senator Peris and the NT to be concerned about, lets hear about some of that. Of course you know that Mr Parish, that would be why you are busy investigatibng and writing up more relevant issues of the day.

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