Island Life by David Slack

The Peters Principle

Everything I know about defamation I learned from Geoffrey Palmer. He was our Torts small group tutor in his last year of teaching before he went in to politics, and he made that topic – as he did other topics also – one of the most interesting I studied.

I don’t know how they structure the law degree at Victoria these days, but back at the end of the seventies, you took just two law papers in your first year, along with a number from other degree courses. All in all, I wasn’t especially taken by university study for those first two semesters. I spent as much time travelling up to Palmerston North to visit my girlfriend, and learning how to drink at Barretts Hotel, as I did paying attention to my studies.

But then in my second year, I got fully engaged by the whole process, and that was in large part because of the way Professor Palmer took our small group. He had a capacity for placing particular concepts in their broader context in a way that gave everything a logic and coherence. He made it fascinating and, quite often, entertaining as well.

Defamation law would be a good example. We learned about the contending principles of freedom of speech and the right to protect your personal reputation, and the tensions you’ll get in balancing the two.

He especially drew our attention to the topic of parliamentary privilege, pointing out the tension that you potentially create by having to balance the need for free and frank debate against the protection of individual reputations.

I can’t recall any specific cases we studied in that area, but I do know that if we’d have been studying the topic two decades on, the lecture materials would have been full of the name of the Hon. Winston Peters, fearless defender of the oppressed and righteous campaigner against conspiracies both imagined and real.

Peters was actually one of the first politicians I met when I came to Wellington to write speeches for my former law professor. I remember him warning me over a bottle or two of wine that the administration I was hitching up with had some big scandals lying ahead of it. I decided to take my chances.

The administration, of course, was duly booted out, but not for the reasons Peters prophesied. I also remember Geoffrey observing around that time, as the new administration took office, that he thought Winston Peters’ star was on the wane. I guess what he wasn’t counting on was Peters’ unerring capacity for getting himself front and centre in time for every poll that mattered.

Well, you can’t blame a politician for trying. But there are ways and ways of getting yourself in the public eye, and Peters has a predilection for one that I have to say I’ve never much respected. This last week, I consider he’s gone scraping lower than a Cook Strait ferry.

He’s grabbed hold of the story about David McNee’s killer having been involved in an incident at the home of Peter and Coral Shaw some months earlier and he’s gotten himself on the front page of the Herald and the lead item on One News alleging in Parliament that Edwards was invited there, and that Mr Shaw had made a false complaint against Edwards.

In doing so, he’s once again put the maximum strain on that tension between those two principles they teach in Torts class about balancing the need for free and frank debate against the protection of individual reputations.

It surely can’t be that Peters doesn’t grasp both principles well enough. He’s forever declaiming against cover-ups and conspiracies and the right of the people to know the truth, but he also knows the other arguments, as we saw earlier this year when he raged at all and sundry for the aspersions being made against his “good name” over that scampi business

Well, what principle are you defending in this latest venture, Winston? I ask, because there seems to be something missing here.

The usual reason one doesn’t raise these things outside the House is that a fearless protector of the rights of the people will sometimes have to seek the protection of Parliament as the only place where the truth can be revealed.

But what forces outside the house does he have to be afraid of here? Judges are the most reluctant of all people to take action. And of course, he knows only too well that if he’s telling the truth, then he has an absolute defence to any defamation action.

For an answer to this enigma, I would suggest you flick your gaze back five paragraphs to the words “Herald and “One News”. This guy will profess that he’s shocked, shocked, to learn these things at any time, but he’ll make a special effort when the cameras are rolling, in my opinion. And if innocent people get trampled in the rush, well, too bad.

I know Coral and Peter Shaw. I haven’t asked them about the specifics of this case, and I hold no brief for them in writing this.

But I have known them for more than a decade and I admire them both for their integrity and their honour. If they maintain, as their lawyer has declared to the media, that “This attack in Parliament is having just the effect of re-victimising him when he has done nothing wrong", then I accept them at their word, and I wonder, once again, just what principles Winston Peters holds most dear.

Peters, of course, has to follow the rules of Parliament, and I wonder what happened to a private member’s bill that David Caygill - I think- introduced some years ago, seeking to bring a little more rigour to the rules of parliamentary privilege. If we keep seeing this kind of outrage on the front page of the paper, it might be a good idea to have another look at it.