Former senator David Leyonhjelm’s bid to overturn a $120,000 defamation bill owed to Sarah Hanson-Young has been dismissed by the full federal court.
On Wednesday Justice Steven Rares announced he would have allowed the appeal against the finding he defamed the Greens senator, but was overruled by justices Michael Wigney and Wendy Abraham, who dismissed Leyonhjelm’s case with costs.
Hanson-Young welcomed the decision, which she said was “important for all women” for sending “a timely and critical message that women deserve to be safe and respected in our workplaces, in our schools and in our communities”.
“It shows that speaking up and calling out abuse and harassment is important for holding perpetrators to account,” she said in a statement.
“It is hard and difficult to do, but by supporting the women who dare to speak up, we are supporting the rights of women and girls to be respected, everywhere.”
In November 2019, federal court judge Richard White found Leyonhjelm had portrayed Hanson-Young as a hypocrite and misandrist during media interviews about a 2018 confrontation in the Senate.
Leyonhjelm had interjected in a Senate debate about women’s safety, exclaiming that Hanson-Young should “stop shagging men”.
He claimed that he said this in response to an interjection from Hanson-Young to the effect that “all men are rapists”, but, after hearing evidence from senators who were present at the time White found she did not do so.
In his appeal, Leyonhjelm sought to argue that the Parliamentary Privileges Act prohibited consideration of what was said during the Senate debate. All three appeal judges disagreed, finding White was right to hear evidence from fellow senators.
Wigney described Leyonhjelm’s public comments as an “unedifying episode in [his] relatively brief and at times controversial political life”.
The judge rejected Leyonhjelm’s defence of qualified privilege, finding his conduct was not reasonable because he did “next to nothing” to check what Hanson-Young had said.
“Simply put, Mr Leyonhjelm launched a full-scale personal attack on Senator Hanson-Young’s character and integrity on the most flimsy of pretences,” he said.
“That attack was manifestly crass, offensive and obviously sexist.
“It employed boys’-own locker-room gossip and innuendo – of the most dubious provenance – to shame, ridicule and embarrass Senator Hanson-Young before the public at large.”
Rares found that Leyonhjelm’s statements were protected by qualified privilege and rejected the primary judge’s finding that he was motivated by “malice” and an intention to shame Hanson-Young publicly.
That was because Leyonhjelm “mistakenly, but honestly, believed that he was responding to what Senator Hanson-Young had said in her interjection and subsequent statement to the Senate”, Rares said.
Abraham disagreed, finding that even if Leyonhjelm believed Hanson-Young had made the statement that “cannot be used as a cover or guise for statements made foreign to the occasion of the privilege and where those statements are actuated by malice”.
Hanson-Young said the finding on parliamentary privilege “sends a strong message to parliamentarians that they are not above the law and in Mr Leyonhjelm’s case he could not use the cloak of parliamentary privilege to shield him from the consequences of his attack”.
Hanson-Young has said she will donate the damages to two women’s groups – Plan International and the South Australian Working Women’s Centre.
• In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, family or domestic violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit www.1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000. International helplines can be found via www.befrienders.org.