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.
- 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! ↩