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'Baffling': Brittany Higgins weighs in on Dutton defamation action

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Defence Minister Peter Dutton was so “horribly” offended by a tweet calling him a “rape apologist” that he decided to launch defamation proceedings for the first time, he has told a court.

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Dutton appeared on Wednesday morning as the sole witness in his defamation trial against a refugee activist.

He claims Shane Bazzi’s now-deleted tweet suggested he condones and excuses rape.

“As minister for immigration or home affairs … people make comments that are false and untrue, offensive, profane, but that’s part of the rough and tumble,” he said.

“But this went beyond that. And it went against who I am, my beliefs.”

The tweet came hours after Dutton said at a press conference that he had not been provided with the “she said, he said” details of a rape allegation made by former Coalition staffer Brittany Higgins.

His comments were in explaining why he did not disclose what he knew about the allegations to Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

Higgins on Wednesday said on social media that she found Dutton’s evidence that Bazzi’s tweet had offended him “baffling”.

“I’ve been offended plenty,” she wrote on Twitter, in reference to Dutton’s comments on her alleged assault.

“That still affords people … the right to engage in public debate and assert their opinion,” she said.

She described the case as a “shocking indictment on freedom of speech”.

Dutton told the Federal Court he had investigated sexual assault allegations as a police officer in Queensland.

Later, as minister for home affairs, he set up the Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation.

He sent Australian Federal Police officers to Nauru to investigate sexual assault allegations, he said.

Despite regularly being the subject of criticism, Dutton said it was the first time in a 20-year political career he’d ever sued for defamation.

The comment was made worse because Bazzi is verified by Twitter, Dutton said.

His account’s blue tick “in my mind didn’t make it just a rant of somebody randomly on Twitter,” Dutton said.

“It was somebody that held himself out as an authority or a journalist.”

Bazzi denies the tweet was defamatory but if found to have defamed the minister, he pleads defences of honest opinion and fair comment.

The tweet included a link to a 2019 Guardian Australia article reporting comments by Dutton that refugees on Nauru were “trying it on” by claiming they had been raped.

Bazzi’s lawyer, Richard Potter SC, told the court on Wednesday that the ordinary reader of the tweet would have been aware of comments Dutton had made the same day about allegations of a rape in Parliament House.

Bazzi’s law firm, O’Brien Criminal and Civil Solicitors, have framed the legal contest as a battle over freedom of speech.

“For a politician to use the defamation law to stifle the expression of a public opinion is a cause for real concern,” the law firm wrote in a press release in April.

Dutton on Wednesday said the media release “continued the hurt against me”.

“(I) don’t believe, as they assert, that it’s a freedom of speech issue or anything like that. It’s clearly defamatory,” he said.

Justice Richard White on Wednesday said it was “a little surprising” to see the firm’s comments.

He advised the lawyers to reflect on whether they were appearing as solicitors with obligations of objectivity and independence, or whether they were “supporters or barrackers” of their client.

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