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Dutton wins $35,000 defamation suit over six-word 'apologist' tweet

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A six-word tweet that “deeply offended” Peter Dutton unjustly defamed him, a court has ruled.

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The defence minister and Queensland MP was awarded $35,000 damages on Wednesday after succeeding in his defamation claim against refugee advocate Shane Bazzi, who tweeted in February the MP was a “rape apologist”.

The since-deleted tweet contained a link to a 2019 news article quoting Dutton saying some refugee women on Nauru who complained of rape were “trying it on” in order to come to Australia.

Bazzi, through lawyer Richard Potter SC, told the court he was expressing his honestly held opinion that was based on fact.

But the Federal Court determined the tweet went beyond the facts of the article, concerning Dutton’s questioning of the bona fides of the women’s claims.

“This is a different subject matter than diminishing the significance of rape, or not treating it seriously when it occurs, or any action which involves excusing rape,” Justice Richard White said in written reasons.

“Mr Bazzi was not making some stark or exaggerated or prejudiced comment based on the material but making a different assertion again, directed to Mr Dutton’s attitude or conduct in relation to the very act of rape.”

He said a rational relationship must exist between the statements of Dutton, on the one hand, and the opinion that Dutton excuses rape itself when it occurs, or that he is a rape apologist more generally, on the other.

“That relationship is lacking,” the judge said.

Dutton told a hearing in October he was “deeply offended” by the tweet because it was the opposite of who he was.

His lawyer drew attention to Bazzi’s repetition of the “rape apologist” line in a later tweet that added the descriptors “fascist”, “f***en scumbag” and “c***”.

The tweet was posted hours after Dutton drew criticism for referring to the “he said, she said” details of former Coalition staffer Brittany Higgins’s rape complaint.

Potter argued the tweet may have been insulting and extreme but the opinion was rationally based on those facts, a Guardian article and other “notorious” facts concerning Dutton.

Honest opinion is a defence to a defamation claim, even if the court agrees the tweet was defamatory.

“Whatever the outcome, I’m proud that I’ve stood by my principles,” Bazzi tweeted on Wednesday, before the judgment.

The member for Dickson, first elected in 2001, had sought aggravated damages but that claim was rejected.

The case is the latest defamation claim made by a federal MP about social media posts.

Andrew Laming took action over tweets by various figures, including ABC’s Louise Milligan, made after a Nine News report about a photo the Queensland LNP took.

In September 2020, first-term Nationals MP Anne Webster, her husband and their charity were awarded a combined $875,000 for “disgraceful and inexplicable” claims made by a conspiracy theorist.

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