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11 March 2015

Joe Hockey defamation trial: Words are bullets, says the Treasurer

Joe Hockey takes the stand

Form inviting public to donate to the Treasurer was "clearly misleading", Joe Hockey tells defamation trial on Tuesday.

"Words are bullets," Joe Hockey told Matthew Collins, QC. As if to confirm his point, the federal Treasurer engaged in a marathon verbal shootout on Tuesday with Dr Collins, the barrister defending Fairfax Media against Mr Hockey, who claims its publications vengefully cast him as a corrupt minister who let businesses and lobbyists influence his decisions in return for bribes in the form of political donations.

The arsenal on day two of the Hockey-v-Fairfax defamation trial included some low-calibre words when considered out of the context of this case: instructed, bought, arm's length, exclusive, VIP.

Mr Hockey took some flesh wounds on Tuesday, as Fairfax had on day one. But it will be up to Justice Richard White, presiding, to decide which words if any carried lethal force and from whose six-shooter they were fired – Dr Collins' or Mr Hockey's.

Justice White chastised the trigger-happy Treasurer, telling the him at one point during the duel: "Mr Hockey, Mr Hockey, it's not for you to intervene at the moment."

Dr Collins honed in on the "marketing spiel" of the North Sydney Forum, a Liberal Party organisation formed in 2009 that offers donors meetings with the Treasurer – the subject of a Fairfax Media report on May 5 last year that carried the headline: "Treasurer for sale."

Dr Collins called it a Liberal Party "instrument". Mr Hockey preferred the term "entity". Either way, on its website, the forum promised access to the Treasurer for members who paid annual fees of up to $22,000.

Even when Dr Collins quoted the Hockey position – that he was at arm's length from the forum – the Treasurer took a shot: "That's your interpretation, Dr Collins … it depends on what you mean by arm's length."

The forum website says it "seeks to build the much-needed financial resources to support Joe Hockey and the Liberal team" and offers those who cannot become paying members the choice of making "a donation to assist Joe Hockey".

After much pressing under cross-examination, Mr Hockey agreed that this was "clearly misleading". He argues the donations were for the broader party and marginal seats – not his own campaigns.

Mr Hockey had envisaged the North Sydney Forum would effectively become a local chamber of commerce. But its membership, Dr Collins noted, included Fortune Corporation, a New Zealand-based poker-machine manufacturer, and the Melbourne-based Deutsche Bank and UBS, the Brisbane-based Metcash, the Bus Industry Confederation (Mr Hockey said he was proud of his bus driver's licence), the Australian Hotels Association and the Financial Services Council – the latter being a lobbyist on a controversial proposed legislation covering the financial advice industry.

Mr Hockey insisted he had no control over the forum's membership and he rejected the Fairfax report's claim of "exclusive" access. The forum did offer "VIP meetings" with the Treasurer, but Mr Hockey said these events accounted for less than 1 per cent of his outings and there was nothing privileged about the access.

He would drive four hours to $15-a-head fundraisers for the Country Women's Association in Bunbury and agree to meetings with constituents who approached him in shopping centres and at kids' soccer matches.

Surely he didn't agree to VIP meetings with people off the street, Dr Collins asked.

"I have, yes … Well, they're the VIPs in the world I occupy," Mr Hockey said.

The Treasurer repeatedly denied Dr Collins' assertion that he "instructed" the North Sydney Forum in March last year to refund a $22,000 donation to Australian Water Holdings, a company with links to corrupt former Labor MP Eddie Obeid and which became the subject of Independent Commission Against Corruption inquiry.

But Dr Collins produced an email from Mr Hockey's chief-of-staff, Grant Lovett, who indeed had written wrote that the Treasurer "instructs" the forum to refund the money. Mr Hockey agreed, then, that Mr Lovett's interpretation was inaccurate.

Dr Collins pressed Mr Hockey on why he did not include the detail and timing of the refund to AWH in a 3am press release he issued in March last year, which sought to correct a Herald story that Mr Hockey – rather than the North Sydney Forum – had returned the money.

"Dr Collins, it's a press release," Mr Hockey said. "It's meant to be pithy because our friends in the media like pithy statements."

Later, Dr Collins told the court that the headline that has so offended Mr Hockey: "Treasurer for sale" was the brainchild of the Herald's editor in chief, Darren Goodsir.

Mr Goodsir would argue it was a "pithy" way of capturing the substance of a story published in the public interest: not that Mr Hockey was corrupt, but that he was part of a political donations process that corrupted Australia's democratic integrity.