Anti-corruption campaigners taken to court

Rob Pyne supporting anti-nuclear activists campaigning against nuclear-powered submarines.
Rob Pyne (right) supporting anti-nuclear activists campaigning against nuclear-powered submarines. Photo: Rob Pyne / Facebook

Cairns local government presents a spectacle of contrasting treatment for establishment figures and their critics. You can see this playing out at the courthouse or almost daily in local media reports.

Anti-corruption campaigners Lyn O’Connor and Cairns councillor and Socialist Alliance member Rob Pyne face a defamation suit funded by the corporatised Local Government Association of Queensland (LGAQ).

In Pyne’s case, this could force him from office by bankrupting him. The suit by LGAQ head Greg Hallam claims damages from Facebook posts related to widespread corruption in Queensland.

Hallam has previously sent many notification letters regarding legal action to his critics. Now that a matter has reached court, he’s lawyered-up, while O’Connor and Pyne are defending themselves.

Hallam claims about 40 Facebook posts by the two defendants, starting in June 2017, defamed him. Five are from Pyne. The most prominent of these is a meme he shared that depicts the Star Wars villain Jabba the Hutt wearing a LGAQ T-shirt.

O’Connor authored the remainder, including one that drew an analogy between a “LGAQ boys’ club”, protecting council chief executive officers from being pursued for corruption by shifting them from one council to another, and the Catholic Church, protecting priests engaging in child sex offences by moving them on to new parishes.

The suit alleges that these Facebook posts impacted on Hallam’s mental health, causing a 20 kilogram weight gain, insomnia and anxiety, conditions that required medication. However, the court also heard that Hallam has long-standing health conditions and that there were numerous events in 2017 and 2018 that might have had an impact on him.

The court also heard how Hallam puts himself into disputes. On Facebook he called anti-corruption campaigner Gary Duffy “Daffy Duck” and in another Facebook post Hallam called a critic a “pathetic, lying rodent”.

Pyne told Green Left that the LGAQ had, decades ago, provided grassroots support to smaller local councils, but it now operate as a self-funding corporation. In court, Hallam celebrated its current role, saying, “we are a body who looks after its members” and noting its successful businesses providing services to councils.

Analysis of news reports over the years suggests Hallam has also frequently used his position as head of this body to offer support to sitting mayors and councillors involved in political controversies.

For example, Hallam was asked about his statements in a 2013 Courier Mail report in relation to a mayor “planting a donation” on a political rival. He had said: “Courts have long held that when it comes to politics, most things are fair game … No one wins, but our view of it is there’s no criminal offence and there’s no breach of the Local Government Act.”

Notably, Pyne is accused of neither of these things.

Hallam, however, hadn’t accepted Pyne speaking out against corruption. O’Connor asked Hallam about his actions when Pyne used parliamentary privilege. Hallam said he had met the premier and deputy premier “to explain our desire for the parliament to censure” Pyne and another MP for “seeking to damage council and councillors”.

The August 24 Cairns Post reported that Hallam, according to the notes taken by his psychiatrist in November 2017, “spoke about Pyne and his ‘whole bunch of nutty followers … on a crusade about council” and called them “idiots”. But there was and probably still is reason for substantial concern about corruption in local government in Queensland.

Hallam told the court he “felt powerless, like I had no control of the agenda”.

Yet the psychiatrist’s November 2017 notes show Hallam said “I’m a target because I put up my hand to say Pyne’s a grub”. Hallam, according to the August 28 Cairns Post, claims Pyne was “grandstanding” and engaged in “a political strategy” to gain attention.

A recent High Court ruling upheld former Northern Territory youth detainee Dylan Voller’s claims of defamation in posts on the Facebook pages of establishment media outlets. This shows defamation laws offer some protection against being unfairly run down in public. But this protection is distributed unequally.

Defamation laws favour those who have the funds to threaten and launch suits.

Pyne has submitted to the court that “it’s a pattern of behaviour that anyone that disagrees with the LGAQ is open to litigation”. Hallam’s suit, started in 2018, is proceeding under defamation laws that have made it notoriously difficult to mount a defence (the final impact of recent reforms is unclear). For example, the level formally set to find a suit “trivial” has been that no harm “at all” occurred.

Before the trial began, the August 13 Cairns Post said that, “according to court documents, defence of the defamation allegation will centre on Facebook algorithms, sharing rules with Facebook groups, Google searches, online ‘grapevining’ and tagging within Facebook posts”.

In essence, Pyne in particular is arguing that the Facebook posts didn’t get around very much, so no real harm was done. Pyne has also had Hallam confirm that he never reported the Jabba the Hutt post to Facebook, nor had he sent a concerns notice to Pyne.

On the other hand, Hallam had earlier told the court, according to the August 27 Cairns Post, that in his opinion Pyne’s involvement “changes everything. It goes from being someone out there in the community having a crack to a member of parliament, someone with standing … directly attacking me”.

This will be a consideration as the defamation trial works towards a conclusion in the coming months; it has been delayed because O’Connor became ill during the trial.