Editorial: Democracy was the winner on the day

The jury found that Lani Hagaman was not defamed by Labour leader Andrew Little.
Kevin Stent

The jury found that Lani Hagaman was not defamed by Labour leader Andrew Little.

OPINION: Labour leader Andrew Little is not a particularly demonstrative man but you could almost hear his whoops of joy from Wellington. His partial victory in an expensive defamation case means that his leadership survives to fight the election in September and doubts about his personal judgment have mostly disappeared. 

But greater than that, Little's narrow victory was also a win for democracy. It enshrines the vital role of the leader of the opposition as someone unafraid to examine and criticise the workings of government. It could even boost Little's credentials as a campaigner against cronyism. 

It was not a clear or conclusive result. It took journalists and legal pundits some time to unpick the jury's majority decision that found that while Little had not defamed hotel owner Lani Hagaman​, he had defamed her husband, Earl, but the jury could not agree on whether a defence of qualified privilege applied.

The Hagamans, said to be worth $190 million, are frequent donors to political parties, particularly Act and National. Lani referred to their connections in a 2014 profile when she said that she "had many conversations" with then-Transport Minister Gerry Brownlee about keeping the inter-island ferry terminal at Picton. 

In the same year, the Hagamans gave National $101,000 after party president Peter Goodfellow met them at their Christchurch home. The Hagamans' Scenic Hotel Group won a contract soon after to manage a resort in Niue that is funded by the New Zealand Government. 

It looked "too cosy" to Little. He put the Niue story in a wider context of crony capitalism, including the Government's convention centre deal in Auckland and the murky Saudi sheep deal. He argued that "if you make massive donations to a political party in Government", and are then awarded work by that Government, "it is natural suspicions are aroused and questions are asked".

The offended Hagamans threatened legal action and followed through. It helped their cause when the Auditor General found nothing unusual in the Niue contract. Little's attempts to apologise and settle the matter became bogged down in legal wrangling over wording and costs. Going to court is a last resort. The dispute should have been settled more quickly and less publicly. 

The jury accepted that Earl's reputation had been harmed by Little's statement but was less certain about whether or not he had the right to say it. In New Zealand law, "qualified privilege" allows for stronger criticism of politicians than of ordinary people. While the Hagamans are not politicians, the Government was Little's target and the Hagamans were merely collateral damage in a larger battle between Labour and National. 

That interpretation may not be much comfort to the Hagamans who sought $2.3m in damages from Little and are now reconsidering their options. Lani talked of the defamation case as an important legacy project for her 91-year-old husband who reportedly has just weeks to live. But the Hagamans also have to understand that it is essential to the proper functioning of a democracy that the process of political donations and the possibility of influence is scrutinised by politicians and the media. 


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