Thursday, March 06, 2014

The tweet that cost $105,000

In the first Twitter defamation battle in Australia to proceed to a full trial, District Court judge Michael Elkaim ruled that former Orange High School student Andrew Farley should pay compensatory and aggravated damages for making false allegations about music teacher Christine Mickle.

Judge Elkaim said the comments had had a "devastating effect" on the popular teacher, who immediately took sick leave and only returned to work on a limited basis late last year.

"When defamatory publications are made on social media it is common knowledge that they spread," Judge Elkaim said in an unreported judgment in November.

"They are spread easily by the simple manipulation of mobile phones and computers. Their evil lies in the grapevine effect that stems from the use of this type of communication."

Mr Farley, who was 20 at the time of the judgment, is the son of the school's former head of music and arts, who was described as a "gentle man who had a number of health issues". Young Mr Farley graduated from high school in 2011 and had never been taught by Ms Mickle.

In November 2012, he posted a series of defamatory comments on Twitter and Facebook about Ms Mickle, who took over his father's job on an acting basis after the senior teacher left in 2008 for health reasons.

"For some reason it seems that the defendant bears a grudge against the plaintiff, apparently based on a belief that she had something to do with his father leaving the school," Judge Elkaim said.

"There is absolutely no evidence to substantiate that belief."

Judge Elkaim said his impression of Ms Mickle in the witness box was "of a very honest woman who had been terribly hurt both by the comments in general but perhaps more particularly by the suggestion that she may have been responsible for any harm, ill health or effect of any of her actions on the defendant's father."

There was evidence that, in the absence of the comments, the senior teacher would have continued teaching as she had before "until she reached the age of 65 which is in about seven years' time".

Judge Elkaim ordered Mr Farley to pay $85,000 in compensatory damages.

He also ruled that the young man's conduct in response to the case warranted an additional $20,000 in aggravated damages.

Mr Farley ignored a letter from Ms Mickle's lawyers in November 2012. He removed the comments and apologised "unreservedly" only after they wrote to him again in December.

Judge Elkaim said the apparent sincerity of the apology was contradicted by Mr Farley when he attempted to argue in his defence that the comments were true. He said the defence had "no substance" and was later struck out.

"The defence of truth when it is spurious is particularly hurtful to a person who has been the subject of such unsubstantiated allegations," Judge Elkaim said.

The judge added that Mr Farley appeared to have "abandoned his interest in the proceedings" and did not appear at the trial.


Tony Abbott should forge ahead with labour market reform

That backbench MPs raised labour market policy in the Coalition party room last week was remarkable in that it did not leak. But it did symbolise growing concern the government is not doing enough to tackle unemployment.

It was not the usual rebellion in which a backbencher just lobs a hand grenade, sends off an SMS with comments to a favoured journo and leaves it at that.

There might be a shift in sentiment about Prime Minister Tony Abbott within the ranks of his backbench. It should encourage Abbott to disabuse Martin Ferguson, who said Abbott's labour reforms were modest and timid.

The position taken by Abbott to reject corporate welfare has sent a strong, positive message to the backbench reformers. It seems Abbott can be drier than they thought. The result of his holding his nerve and not agreeing to send good money after bad is some of his less enthusiastic supporters are wondering if he might actually turn out to be a better leader as PM than he was an opposition leader.

One minister who has good instincts on economic management was heard to say that Abbott seems to be taking a special Thatcherite "dry pill". This is an unusual compliment for Abbott, who once took a bucket from Peter Costello for being too influenced by the Democratic Labour Party's collectivist and protectionist economic policy.

Treasurer Joe Hockey and Abbott have combined well on business welfare and produced a narrative the public understands. Although Abbott was not the reason for the car industry deciding to close down, it happened on Abbott's watch and he could have tried to save it despite the futility of continuing subsidies. In time, he will be entitled to be credited with taking the right approach.

Having publicly fought for zero tariffs in 1993 and having to endure the frustration of the cabinet negotiating more subsidies in 1996, I cannot help but note that the last bastion of protectionism has finally been breached and a burden on the economy will soon be lifted.

The Qantas decision is also important. Apart from the sensible argument that the Qantas Sale Act needs repealing, the other possible conditions for government support were never convincing. Hockey's fourth condition required Qantas to do the "heavy lifting on its own reform", but that is Qantas's job anyway. Labor's Fair Work legislation makes it difficult for any business to lift its game and hence that is an issue for government.

The labour market reforms that are needed are obvious. Reform is all about politics, especially Labor's domination by the unions.

The latest polling shows Labor ahead but, for now, that is irrelevant. The government's future will be judged at the next election on economic issues such as rising unemployment. Job losses at Toyota, Alcoa and others will ensure this issue will be paramount at the next election. And if the unemployment rate goes above Labor's predicted 6.25 per cent the public will not care who caused it, they will judge the parties by who is going to fix it.

Abbott needs workplace relations reform as soon as possible but has promised no big reforms until after the next election. He will keep his promise. But he could bring forward his process for labour market reform and keep his promise.

First, it is vital he appoint the right people to his Productivity Commission panel. There are few people with labour market policy experience and the necessary commitment to reform. The government should be talking to Judith Sloan, Peter Anderson, one or two lawyers from the bar, Herbert Smith Freehills or Ashurst lawyers or Professor Mark Wooden.

Second, the government should also be thinking about receiving the PC report well before the election and introducing the legislation before it. Priority must be given to this reform, so why not let the Senate have its committee hearings before the election? If the legislation is out before the election then the government's mandate is much stronger.

As opposition leader Abbott was disciplined and more than a match for his hapless opponents. But he also made some bad decisions in the cause of defeating Labor. He is saddled with his paid parental leave scheme, and various spending promises that Australia cannot afford. But I understand why he wants to keep his promises.

Abbott's rejection of business welfare has been good but regardless of how well you do one week, it is the next week that can bring you down. His approach on economic policy since Christmas has given his reformist supporters reason to think he can do better than some expected on economic policy, but he needs to push his reformist approach harder in the months ahead.


No more national parks as Tony Abbott pledges to support loggers as the 'ultimate conservationists'

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has said he will not support the creation of any more national parks in a speech lauding timber workers as "the ultimate conservationists".

Mr Abbott also told a timber industry dinner on Tuesday night that he would create a new Forestry Advisory Council to support the industry.

The council will be co-chaired by Rob de Fegely, president of the Institute of Foresters Australia. Mr de Fegely is the former Liberal Party election candidate for the seat of Eden Monaro.

"We don't support, as a government and as a Coalition, further lockouts of our forests," Mr Abbott said. "We have quite enough National Parks, we have quite enough locked up forests already. In fact, in an important respect, we have too much locked up forest."

Mr Abbott said the federal government was pushing to delist a world heritage listing of 74,000 hectares of forest in Tasmania. Mr Abbott said the area – which was protected under Tasmania's forest peace deal – was not pristine forest and was too degraded to be considered a sanctuary.

Tasmanians go to the polls on March 15 with jobs and the forestry industry big issues as Labor struggles to hold on to government.

"I don't buy the Green ideology, which has done so much damage to our country over the last couple of decades and I'm pleased to see that there are some sensible Labor Party people who don't buy it either," Mr Abbott said.

"When I look out tonight at an audience of people who work with timber, who work in forests, I don't see people who are environmental bandits, I see people who are the ultimate conservationists.

"I salute you as people who love the natural world, as people who love what Mother Nature gives us and who want to husband it for the long-term best interests of humanity."

Mr Abbott said Canberra would now be "friendly country" rather than "hostile territory" for the forestry industry following the change of government.

Greens leader Christine Milne said: "Who in the 21st century would say the environment is meant for man and not just the other way around?

"There is no economic future for Australia in trashing our precious native forests and national parks ... In pandering to the forestry industry the Prime Minister's statements last night reveal he's not only anti-environment and anti-conservation, he's anti-jobs."


Australia's GDP figures beat expectations

Consumers spending more and saving less have helped the Australian economy grow by a stronger than expected rate in the last three months of the year.

The economy grew at a seasonally adjusted 0.8 per cent in the December quarter, taking the annual growth rate to 2.8 per cent. The quarterly figures were up from a 0.6 per cent expansion in the three months to September.

"There are some positive signs," federal Treasurer Joe Hockey said of the latest GDP figures.

"I remain positive about the outlook for the Australian economy and the trends revealed today [show] we are headed in the right direction.

"[But the] numbers highlight the growth challenge that the economy will face in the next couple of years as construction on a number of large mining projects comes to an end."

The Australian dollar jumped nearly half a cent on the back of the stronger-than-expected figures to trade as high as US89.97 cents.

The fourth-quarter growth was driven by a 0.6 per cent boost from net exports and a 0.5 per cent contribution from consumption. A 0.3 per cent fall in investment offset some of the gains.

Australia has not fallen into recession - measured as two quarters of negative growth - for more than two decades, despite the impact of the Asian and global financial crises on the world's economies.


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