The Case against John Pesutto: An Overview

The Case against John Pesutto: An Overview

By Stephanie Bastiaan

Liberal MP Moira Deeming has issued Victorian Liberal Opposition Leader John Pesutto with a third Defamation Concerns Notice as she prepares to launch defamation proceedings against him in the Federal Court.

The proceedings are in response to Pesutto’s actions following Deeming’s attendance at the Let Women Speak Rally in Melbourne in March this year with UK women’s rights advocate Kellie-Jay Keen, organised to raise awareness about the impact on women’s rights and safety by men self-identifying as women (see Women's Forum Australia's petition for further background).

The event was gate crashed by violent trans rights activists whose behaviour forced the event to an early finish, and a face-off between protesters from the far-left socialist alternative and far-right neo-Nazis. Several women were assaulted, one was hospitalised, and three trans rights activists were arrested. Politicians fuelled by media outrage rushed out to condemn the women and blame them for the presence of the neo-Nazis.

First Motion to Expel Moira Deeming

The day after the event, Pesutto announced he was moving a motion to expel Deeming from the Liberal Parliamentary Party Room under the Liberal Parliamentary Constitution on the grounds she had brought discredit to the parliamentary team. He cited her involvement in organising and speaking at the event, and her association with rally organisers and speakers who he claimed had links to far-right extremists and neo-Nazis. 

In the week following the announcement to expel Deeming, Pesutto reiterated Deeming’s connections to ‘Nazi sympathisers’ to multiple media outlets, and released a ‘dossier’ based on a Wikipedia page to the media compiled as part of the expulsion motion to the Liberal Party Parliamentary Team. In the dossier, Pesutto claimed Kellie-Jay Keen was known to be associated with far-right extremist groups, including neo-Nazi activists. He also claimed that a Jewish left-wing feminist, Angie Jones, was likewise a Nazi sympathiser, referring to an out-of-context comment on Twitter to back up his statement.  

Despite Deeming publicly condemning neo-Nazis and presenting a case against the dossier in a statement to MPs on the morning of the Party Room meeting, Pesutto pursued the expulsion motion. 

Although ten MPs spoke in support of Deeming, it wasn’t until after Deeming addressed the Party Room disclosing her personal history of child sex abuse which had led her to become a women’s rights activist, that sources say the support to expel her dropped, and a compromise was negotiated. 

According to Deeming and the original minutes from the meeting, the compromise included that Deeming accept a nine-month suspension, and that a media statement would be released clearing Deeming of the allegation or imputation that she is a Nazi or Nazi sympathiser. 

Second Motion to Expel Moira Deeming

While Deeming accepted the nine-month suspension, Pesutto refused to release the media statement, eventually publicly disputing the agreement noted in the minutes from the meeting. In a move to clear her name, Deeming threatened legal action to challenge the suspension. In response, supporters of Pesutto then circulated a motion to expel her. 

It is unclear on what grounds the second expulsion motion was moved, as none were provided, and Pesutto refused to clarify in subsequent interviews. Deeming’s lawyers argue that the second motion is invalid as it failed to provide grounds for the expulsion, included no signatures, nor the adequate notice of 5 business days for the motion to be voted on as per the rules of the Constitution. 

The expulsion motion passed 19-11.

For: John Pesutto, Brad Rowswell, Ann-Marie Hermans, Evan Mullholland, Trung Luu, Matt Bach, David Southwick, Georgie Crozier, Jess Wilson, Wendy Lovell, James Newbury, Roma Britnell, Wayne Farnham, Michael O’Brien, Matthew Guy, David Davis, Sam Groth, Cindy McLeish and Bridget Vallance.

Against: Bev McArthur, Renee Health, Richard Riordan, Brad Battin, David Hodgett, Joe McCrackin, Chris Crewther, Nick McGowan, Ryan Smith, Bill Tilley and Kim Wells.

A second motion to sanction and remove party room secretary MP Renee Heath was passed on the same votes, followed by a third motion where Pesutto’s own version of the minutes was endorsed as the official version of events. 

Despite being expelled from the Liberal Parliamentary Party Room, the Administrative wing of the Liberal Party refused to remove her from the Liberal Party. In fact, Liberal Party members took a stand against Pesutto’s treatment of Deeming at the Party’s State Council in Bendigo in May, where some members walked out during his speech while others called out ‘shame’ and held up signs condemning Pesutto. Deeming remains a member of the Party and now sits as an independent Liberal MP.

First Defamation Concerns Notice

On 11 May 2023, twenty-four hours before the second vote to expel Deeming, her lawyers issued the first Defamation Concerns Notice to Pesutto, informing him that she would commence defamation proceedings against him if the vote went ahead. Her conditions to prevent legal action included that the expulsion motion be withdrawn, that Pesutto issue an apology, that he pay costs and damages incurred by the false allegations, and that he uphold the agreed terms accompanying Deeming’s suspension. Pesutto refused. 

In a letter to Pesutto, leading defamation lawyer Patrick George outlined the case as follows:

(a) You have accused our client of being a Nazi sympathiser, amongst other things, and have sought to expel her from the Parliamentary Liberal Party. 

(b) These accusations, and the Motion to expel her, leaked by you to the media to be published as widely as possible, were defamatory of our client, are false, and have caused serious and potentially irreparable harm to her reputation. 

(c) You subsequently withdrew the Motion and instead offered to accept, by way of resolution, a 9-month suspension. 

(d) The suspension was based on certain conditions, which you and our client agreed to, which was to include a full and public retraction by you of the accusations you made about her. 

(e) You then proceeded to disregard those conditions and refused to carry them out. 

(f) When our client complained and insisted that you do so, and indeed sought the Minutes of the meeting in which the conditions were approved by Members, she was served with a second Motion to expel her. 

(g) This second Motion does not state the grounds for our client’s expulsion, and yet you still have publicly stated your support for it. In the absence of any grounds, and in the absence of your withdrawal of the accusations, this second Motion, it can reasonably be assumed, is made on the same basis as the first Motion, with the same false and defamatory accusations made against our client. 

Deeming’s lawyers also allege that the release of the second motion to the media without providing Deeming an opportunity to refute the allegations prior to publication or present her version of events in the document "not only created an impression in the minds of readers that Mrs Deeming is a callous, irresponsible, despicable, racist and white supremacist that supports Neo-Nazi ideology but also caused her and her family great hurt, distress and embarrassment". 

Second Defamation Concerns Notice

On 31 May 2023, Deeming issued a second Concerns Notice against Pesutto alleging he accused her of being a ‘Nazi sympathiser and associate’ to ‘threaten and bully’ her out of the Liberal Parliamentary Room. 

The notice alleges Pesutto’s leadership team stationed a male staffer from Deputy Leader David Southwick’s office outside her office as an intimidation tactic to monitor her activities and guests.

The notice also further elaborates on issues raised in the first Concerns Notice around the ‘dossier’ Pesutto distributed to MPs and the media, arguing he did so to intentionally damage Deeming’s reputation within the Parliamentary Party and the public and to “hold her up to vilification, contempt, abuse and ridicule, and mislead the public into believing that the expulsion was justified”. 

Third Defamation Concerns Notice

On 14 July 2023, Deeming issued a third Concerns Notice introducing a claim for aggravated damages for the harm caused by Pesutto’s actions to defame her, which she alleges caused "intense vilification online", "irreparable damage to her reputation", and held her up to "public hatred, contempt and ridicule and caused her extreme distress, embarrassment, humiliation and upset".

The third notice is centred around claims made by Pesutto during a media conference on 20 March 2023 to justify her expulsion (6:40-7:30 in above video). In the press conference, Pesutto claimed that Deeming “has had an association with people who organised the rally, along with her assistance, who have shared platforms with and viewpoints with people who promote Nazi views or sympathies,” “stayed at the rally when the Nazi’s arrived” and “having seen the ugly scenes and having had an opportunity to disown and dissociate from those very people...chose to celebrate as evidenced on social media.”

The notice maintains that these statements by Pesutto carried imputations that Deeming "helped Neo-Nazis by working with them to promote their hateful agenda of vilification and hate" and that she "deliberately gave Neo-Nazis a platform on the steps of Parliament".

Since issuing the first Concerns Notice, Deeming has offered to resolve the situation without litigation. In the third notice, Deeming has given Pesutto 7 days to make a public apology, agree not to repeat the defamatory statements outlined in her concerns notices, and pay for her costs to avoid legal action commencing in the Federal Court.

Impact on Moira Deeming 

In a statement released after the threat of legal action, Deeming outlined the terrible toll the matter had had on her mental health. 

“The past six weeks have taken a terrible toll on me personally. I have had to publicly disclose childhood sexual abuse and endure constant media attacks while remaining silent.”

In their letter to Pesutto, Deeming’s lawyers outline the serious harm caused by his defamatory statements:

“Before the Motion was published, Mrs Deeming had a respected reputation within the Victorian Liberal Party, her constituency, and the community, and was proud of the contribution that she and her family had made as a Member of Parliament. Our client considers that the Imputations levied against her have caused, and are likely to cause, very serious harm to her reputation by making her a pariah in the Victorian and Australian communities and in particular within that segment of the electorate that previously supported her and the Liberal Party politically and elected her to office. 

Since the publication of the Motion, Mrs Deeming has been subjected to vile abuse and harassment from sections of the public and fears for the safety of her family. This reaction, which has been caused by the Motion, reflects the significant damage to her reputation within the broader community. 

Your role as the Leader of the Liberal Party making allegations about a Member of your own Parliamentary Party means that readers have believed, and were likely to believe, that the Imputations are true, irrespective of their falsity or contrary information from our client or other sections of the public and media – not only constituents and members of the public or the Left or other political persuasions who may actively disagree with Mrs Deeming and her political positions but also members of the Liberal Party and other persons with centre right views that would otherwise support her. This is particularly the case as you took the drastic steps toward expelling Mrs Deeming from the Parliamentary Liberal Party, a highly unusual step in Australian politics.”

Apology Requested by Moira Deeming

In her third and final Concerns Notice Deeming has requested Pesutto publish the following set of words on his social media and website: 

"On 20 March 2023, I gave a press conference and made a number of statements about Moira Deeming’s promotion of and participation in the ‘Let Women Speak’ event on 18 March 2023.

I also made statements about her subsequently.

In these statements, I suggested that she had helped promote and assist others with Neo-Nazi sympathies to pursue a hateful agenda to vilify others.

Neo-Nazis gate crashed the event, and they raised Nazi salutes on the steps of parliament House. I suggested that Moira Deeming had celebrated these neo-Nazis’ attendance and I blamed her for their attendance.

I sought her expulsion from the Parliamentary Liberal Party on the basis she was unfit to be a Member and, as a result of my statements, she was expelled.

I now accept that the statements I made about Moira Deeming are false and seriously defamatory of her.

I accept that she has no association with neo-Nazis or anyone with links to Nazism and should not have been expelled from the Parliamentary Liberal Party.

I fully regret making these statements. I unreservedly withdraw them and I undertake not to repeat them.

I sincerely apologise to Moira Deeming for the harm, hurt and distress which she has suffered and which I caused her and her family by making those false statements."

Deeming has spent months trying to seek private and internal mediation of the dispute. But if Pesutto declines her request in this latest notice, Deeming will file her defamation action in the Federal Court after the Warrandyte by-election on 26 August 2023. 

Kellie-Jay Keen has also said she is considering taking legal action against Pesutto, for “telling ‘egregious lies’ that have put her safety and that of other women at risk”, meaning he could soon face a second defamation suit.

Stephanie Bastiaan is a Research Fellow with Women’s Forum Australia


**Sign the petition demanding the reinstatement of Moira Deeming to the Victorian Parliamentary Liberal Party**

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