Craig inches toward defamation suit

GREENS CO-LEADER: Russel Norman.
GREENS CO-LEADER: Russel Norman.

Conservative Party leader Colin Craig is inching toward defamation proceedings against Green Party co-leader Russel Norman, directing his lawyers to draft a claim and provide timings for court action.

Norman was given a deadline of 5pm today to retract and apologise for comments he made at Auckland's Big Gay Out suggesting Craig was sexist and homophobic.

An exchange of legal letters between the two saw the feud build over the past week, with Norman refusing to resile from his comments suggesting Craig thought a woman's place was in the kitchen and a gay man's place was in the closet.

BALANCING ACT: Colin Craig is considering how best to spend his money; on a defamation suit or on election campaigning.
BALANCING ACT: Colin Craig is considering how best to spend his money; on a defamation suit or on election campaigning.

Craig confirmed today he would take the next steps toward defamation proceedings, but had not yet launched a case.

He had written to his lawyers asking them to draft a statement of claim, provide an estimation of costs and advise on possible time frames for court proceedings, he said.

For the first time, Craig indicated court action might not go ahead if litigation costs dipped too heavily into campaign funds.

"We have to make decisions between ultimately funding election campaigns or litigation," he said.

"So that's not a small decision to make, and obviously the timing; I mean if the timing is that the case would be heard and take time out in the middle of an election campaign, those things become pretty important considerations as well."

He would also assess whether the process of launching a defamation case might do more harm than good.

"I think an apology would have been the easy way for him to sort this out," Craig said.

"He's not willing to give that it would seem, so it's a matter of consideration and, yes, how I'm perceived at the end of it does matter."

Alternatively, the case could be expanded to include further comments Norman had made during television interviews since the legal spat began.

"I have asked my legal team to review comments made by Mr Norman on the TVNZ Breakfast programme this week," Craig said.

"Preliminary legal advice is that part of those comments may also be defamatory. Once this assessment is made they may be added to the claim."

It was important to try to raise the level of political debate, Craig said.

"You don't get to change that unless you're prepared to be the person who says, 'hold on a minute, there's a line and we've crossed it'."

He expected to have the advice from his lawyers by late next week.

Norman was not fazed by the deadline, and questioned whether the whole thing was a bluff.

"He's made a big song and dance about it all week and here we are, it's D-Day and his response is he's going to talk to some lawyers." 

Norman was just as principled in his stance towards the possibility of legal action.

"My next step is very simple - I say to Mr Craig, we won't back down, we stand for an inclusive and tolerant New Zealand. We believe in free political speech and for those reasons we won't back down to Mr Colin Craig."

He said a court case would not be good for democracy.

"If you believe in free political speech, and I do, and I believe it's essential to democracy, then you don't want people rushing off to their expensive lawyers every time someone says something they don't like about them. 

"Mr Craig is dragging this into the gutter and the process of what he's doing is having a chilling effect on free speech if he gets away with it," Norman said.