Sharma lashes former MPs libel ‘warfare’

Sharma lashes former MPs libel ‘warfare’

David Penberthy – The Australian – 25 May 2020

Liberal MP Dave Sharma has broken his silence about his defamation battle with former Labor candidate Melissa Parke, saying her ongoing bid to sue him over a solitary tweet criticising her antiIsrael views was a form of “lawfare” that threatens free speech in Australia.

Mr Sharma has been backed by other politicians including former Labor MP Michael Danby and Liberal senator James Paterson in warning that the case brought by Ms Parke has major ramifications for public discussion and media coverage in Australia.

“This was a topic of widespread public interest at the time, including to a large number of my own constituents in the seat of Wentworth,” Mr Sharma told The Australian.

“This was entirely appropriate and part of normal political discourse and debate, and I would find it troubling if the law was used to prevent such discourse and debate, which lies at the heart of our democracy.”

In the same lawsuit, Ms Parke is also suing the executive director of the Australia-Israel Jewish Affairs Council, Colin Rubenstein, over an article he wrote denouncing the speech that ended her political candidacy and sparked Mr Sharma’s tweet.

Ms Parke, a human rights lawyer and former member for Fremantle, countered that she was mounting the defamation action in defence of free speech.

“By accusing me of anti-Semitism simply for criticising the Israeli government, Mr Sharma and Mr Rubenstein seek to shut down my right to speak freely about documented Israeli human rights abuses against Palestinians,” Ms Parke told The Australian.

“I have brought the defamation cases against Dave Sharma and Colin Rubenstein in order to defend freedom of speech in Australia.”

The legal battle looms as a test case for political discourse, with Mr Sharma defending the claim by relying on fair comment and qualified privilege, especially the privilege that attaches to political candidates during an election campaign.

The Australian has also spoken to members of Australia’s Jewish community who believe the case is an attempt to “put Israel on trial” and shut down public debate over Middle Eastern affairs.

The list of witnesses called by Ms Parke for the trial includes high-profile critics of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, including former NSW premier Bob Carr and author and drug reform campaigner Anthony Lowenstein.

Even though Ms Parke is Perthbased and her respondents live in Sydney and Melbourne, she has opted to pursue her case through the Federal Court in Adelaide, where her legal team has strong links to the Palestinian cause.

Her solicitor Abby Hamdan is the co-founder of The Australian Friends of Palestine Association and her barrister, Paul HeywoodSmith QC, is its patron.

The organisation supports the BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanctions) campaign aimed at crippling Israel’s economy and also supports the boycott of Eurovision Israel.

Ms Parke said South Australia was chosen as the most convenient jurisdiction “because I live in Western Australia and there were initially four defendants in different locations: one in Western Australia, one in NSW and two in Victoria”.

Billed as a “star” Labor candidate for the West Australian seat of Curtin at last year’s election, Ms Parke suddenly withdrew her candidacy just weeks from polling day when it emerged she had made a speech to Palestinian activists where she rationalised Palestinian rocket attacks on Israel and claimed that Israeli soldiers had forced a pregnant woman to drink bleach at a Gaza checkpoint.

Ms Parke was quoted as saying that while rocket attacks were illegal under international law, they were also “a reaction to and a consequence of decades of brutal occupation”.

She also said she hoped that a Shorten Labor government would join the other 137 nations that recognise the state of Palestine. “Inshallah (Arabic for ‘God willing’), Australia will join that consensus once we have a federal Labor government,” she said.

Her comments enraged many Labor MPs, including then Labor leader Bill Shorten, and when Ms Parke withdrew from the race, Dave Sharma tweeted a link to an article about her resignation headed “Melissa Parke quits as Labor’s Curtin ‘star candidate’ over Israel remarks”.

On his tweet, set out in court documents, Mr Sharma wrote: “Remarks? I think anti-Semitism and trafficking in conspiracy theories amounts to a bit more than mere ‘remarks’.”

On the basis of that tweet, Ms Parke is suing Mr Sharma, claiming the tweet exposed her to “public scandal and contempt”, caused her “embarrassment and distress”, and imputed that she was an antiSemite and peddler of baseless conspiracy theories against Israel.

In the same defamation suit, Ms Parke is also suing Mr Rubenstein, over an article he wrote following her speech, which Ms Parke says portrayed her not just as an anti-Semite and conspiracy theorist but also as a “liar, fanatic and compulsive slanderer”.

Mr Rubenstein declined to comment, saying the matter was being handled by his lawyers. Former Labor member for Melbourne Ports Michael Danby said Ms Parke was “a PC stereotype” and that the case was an attack on free expression.

“She and the pro-Palestinian lobby could be considered to be using vastly expensive defamation proceedings to embroil Dave Sharma in crippling costs and an immense diversion of time,” he said.

Senator Paterson said the case would stifle the free exchange of ideas. The case went to mediation last week, which was unsuccessful.

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