Judge ‘irritated’ by McGowan’s conduct

Cheryl Goodenough |

The judge presiding over the defamation trial between businessman Clive Palmer and WA Premier Mark McGowan says he’s “irritated” over the politician’s conduct in the case.

Mr Palmer is suing Mr McGowan claiming public comments, including labelling him the “enemy of West Australia”, made in July 2020 had damaged the Queensland businessman’s reputation.

The legal stoush over defamation claims got underway in the Federal Court on Monday.

The premier has lodged a counter-claim that the billionaire defamed him in several interviews.

Lawyers have argued over the meaning implied by each of the statements in question after playing footage from media conferences Mr McGowan held in July and August 2020 and interviews Mr Palmer gave around the same time.

Justice Michael Lee was set to rule on the meanings at the end of proceedings on Tuesday, but delayed handing down his decision as Mr McGowan’s lawyer Clarissa Amato had been unable to get instructions from her client on the draft order.

Justice Lee confirmed the ruling had been suggested by Mr McGowan’s legal team and was something he had raised months ago.

“The respondent’s conduct in this litigation in seeming incapable of making any concession whatsoever about anything is something I’m finding increasingly irritating,” Justice Lee said.

Justice Lee is expected to be handed down his ruling on Wednesday before Mr Palmer takes the stand.

During earlier argument, Peter Gray SC told the court Mr McGowan used “Churchillian language” when the premier said: “Whatever the outcome of the Federal Court I want every West Australian to understand that whether the commonwealth government supports us or not Western Australia will keep fighting.”

Mr Gray said Mr McGowan regarded the contest with Mr Palmer as at the level of a war, which he distinguished “from a mere battle” by saying: “It’s not just a fight, it’s not just a stoush, it’s not just a battle; it’s a war”.

One of Mr Palmer’s complaints relates to Mr McGowan saying the businessman “wanted to come to Western Australia to promote (anti-malarial drug) hydroxychloroquine to the people of the state as some sort of cure for COVID”.

The premier said he was pleased police rejected Mr Palmer’s application to enter WA because Mr Palmer “coming to Western Australia to promote a dangerous drug I don’t think was a good thing for our state”.

Mr Palmer’s lawyers have argued Mr McGowan’s statements imply the businessman is seeking to harm the people of WA by providing them with a drug he knows is dangerous.

But Ms Amato said the comment referred to the drug being dangerous for the treatment of COVID-19, not dangerous generally.

“And that’s a very different distinction,” she added.

The complaints by Mr McGowan about statements Mr Palmer made relate to circumstances surrounding WA legislation which prevented Mr Palmer and Mineralogy from suing the state for billions of dollars over the Balmoral South iron ore project.

Ms Amato argued Mr Palmer had conveyed that the premier used his position to pass legislation to cover up criminal acts.

Mr Gray said Mr Palmer was referring to the law relating to the project having been drafted in secrecy for months before being passed.

But Ms Amato argued it was an allegation of corruption in the starkest terms.

She also argued Mr Palmer implied Mr McGowan was open to accepting multi-million dollar bribes during a media interview about the Australia-China relationship in September 2020.

Mr Palmer said Mr McGowan was “very close to China” and the businessman had heard stories about “a lot of heads of state” being offered a passbook with the Bank of China with $50 or $60 million in it.

Mr Gray argued Mr Palmer was talking about how the Chinese operate and the ordinary, reasonable person wouldn’t think “heads of state” referred to a premier.