Federal Court Justice Peter White has ordered that defence minister Peter Dutton and Shane Bazzi, the refugee activist the minister brought to court for a tweet calling him a ‘rape apologist’, attend mediation.
The parties have until August 31 to mediate the dispute. According to reports by the Guardian, Justice White described the defamation suit as not being among the court’s biggest and capable of being resolved before the trial, which has been scheduled for three days in October later this year.
Outside court Bazzi, who made the February 25 tweet in response to the minister’s characterisation of an alleged rape against former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins in parliament house, said that he would be ‘happy to participate in that mediation process’. The AAP and Guardian report that Bazzi said he was committed to not repeating the claim that the tweet has since been deleted.
Dutton however wishes to continue the case, seeking an apology and damages. The minister’s barrister, Nick Ferret QC, said Dutton was prepared to give evidence at trial ‘about the distress caused by the publication’ and that two other unnamed witnesses were prepared to testify to his reputation.
Bazzi’s barrister, Louise Goodchild, agreed with Ferret in that she doubted any pre-trial mediation would succeed.
“This is a relatively narrow scope and I would have thought the parties, acting sensibly, should be able to achieve a compromise in such circumstances,” Justice White said, acknowledging that he did not know all the things going on in the background.
The defamation action comes after the defence minister publicly vowed in March that he would aggressively pursue false and defamatory things published about him online.
Accompanying his ‘rape apologist’ post on Twitter, Bazzi included a link to a 2019 article by Guardian Australia that reported on comments Dutton (then serving as the home affairs minister) made to Sky News that female refugees were ‘trying it on’ in their claims that they had been raped.
Bazzi denies claims he defamed Dutton and intends to plead at trial the defences of honest opinion and fair comment. He believes that the minister’s ‘he said, she said’ comment constitutes the requisite ‘proper material’ on which to base his defence of honest opinion; and that the tweet amounted to fair comment because it ‘was based on facts which were state, sufficiently indicated or notorious’.
Similar rape apologist remarks about Dutton were made by Greens Senator Larissa Waters, who later retracted her claims and apologised to the minister.