The controversial Liberal leader in Victoriaâ€™s upper house David Davis has been forced to apologise and cough up an estimated $200,000 in a confidential settlement of defamation litigation brought by highly regarded Labor strategist and former ALP boss Stephen Newnham.
A statement â€“ obtained by VEXNEWS â€“ signed by Davis indicates his grovelling apology and tells only part of the sorry tale.
In a fiasco that will put further pressure on David Davisâ€™s leadership in the LegCo, Davis had falsely accused Newnham of various obviously stupid things in a press release authorised by him, completed by a staffer and published on the Liberal partyâ€™s website. Those defamatory claims cannot be repeated here for legal reasons although were republished to some extent in The Age.
NEWNHAMâ€™S TOTAL WAR
Newnham, widely regarded by all but his Labor factional foes as the most fiercely effective ALP official in living memory, surprised political operatives by immediately demanding a full apology from Davis and making it clear that if it didnâ€™t come, a writ would soon follow.
These threats are commonplace in politics (VEXNEWS gets them frequently enough) but much less common is Newnhamâ€™s unique brand of political total war.
Liberal insiders say Davis was wrongfooted from the beginning, never expecting a writ in the first place and making a series of misguided legal calculations that were basically calculated to embarrass Newnham out of proceeding with the case. As it gradually dawned on him that Newnham wasnâ€™t backing off, his desperate moves grew in number. His crazy ideas centred around dragging Premier Brumby and others into the case but the Supreme Court judge hearing the case along the way seemed unimpressed with Davisâ€™s attempts to make the case about something other than what heâ€™d said about Newnham.
FEELING THE HEAT
All of these legal maneuvers horribly backfired, prompting a number of Supreme Court costs orders (here and here [pdf]Â ) against the Liberal lefty, thought themselves to involve around $40,000 in total. One of those orders required Davis to pay Newnhamâ€™s costs. Those in Davisâ€™s circle say at that point genuine concern and panic set in about how comprehensive Newnhamâ€™s victory could be, with potentially gravely embarrassing political and financial consequences for the politician.
As the case was set down for trial next month, the pressure on Davis started to mount while his initial bravado about the proceedings started to fade.
Legal insiders believe that Davis repeatedly ignored his lawyersâ€™ advice and even now has not yet paid them in full. Party insiders say that Davis has hit up all sorts of people for money to bail him out, with Liberal party state director Tony Nutt initially refusing to brush the cobwebs from his chequebook to cover the cost of Davisâ€™s big mouth.
Some in Spring Street have speculated that a secretive â€œLeaderâ€™s accountâ€ controlled by Ted Baillieu and funded by MPâ€™s contributions would be used to pay down Davisâ€™s $200,000 tab but others close to the Leaderâ€™s office deny this.
Newnham, now a campaign strategist for overseas political parties, corporate clients and commentator for the Herald Sun, has been vindicated in his bold strategy to force Davis to be accountable for his ill-considered press releases.
VEXNEWS understands that Newnham sought merely an apology and withdrawal of the falsehoods initially and couldnâ€™t imagine Davis would handle things so badly.
â€œThis is the political equivalent of winning Tattslotto, forcing your foe to cough up $200,000 in an orgy of legal carnage and distraction,â€ one amused ally of Newnham reflected last night when told of David Davisâ€™s embarrassing backdown.
â€œNot since the Bob Hawke era, when heâ€™d scan the papers with an eagle eye looking for anything that crossed the line, so he could pass it on to his lawyer Peter Redlich, and in so doing was able to fund what he called a Packer pool and Murdoch tennis court, has defamation law been so shrewdly used to kick a foe. Hawke wanted his media critics to pay. Newnham wanted Davis to be a man and apologise for blatantly false claims that he hadnâ€™t given any thought to. What followed has clearly been nothing short of comedy gold.â€
THE GOLDEN GROVEL
Legal insiders tell VEXNEWS that even with defamation awards capped at $250,000 that had Davis insisted on defending his indefensible position in court that the total costs of his side and Newnhamâ€™s would have approached $700,000. The risk of that was too great so he issued a grovelling apology, which he apparently agonised about according to Liberal insiders, regularly consulting on the matter with Ted Baillieuâ€™s stunned chief of staff Michael Kapel who repeatedly urged him to â€œmake this go away.â€
Some Liberals close to Davis say that Newnhamâ€™s brutal approach took him by surprise. â€œThey were having a banter with Newnham writing him cheeky letters about Camberwell chiropractors and demanding apologies for various statements made in Parliament. I think D squared thought all was fair in love and war. Some â€“ like Michael Kapel â€“ think Newnham planned this sting all along and played David like a grand piano to distract the hell out of him during an election year. Who knows what went on but this saga will certainly go down in legend. I think it will be probably the last press release of this kind ever put out without parliamentary privilege.â€
Kroger aligned Liberals who regard Davis as a joke say itâ€™s further proof that the wrong Davis is in charge of the Opposition in the upper house. â€œPhil Davis had much more authority and impact. He and Coote probably made a mistake by resigning the leadership positions, it was an attempt to destabilise Baillieu that didnâ€™t work. Meanwhile, David Davis could become a senior minister after the next election and will be looking to wreak vengeance on all those in the party whoâ€™ve wronged him. Iâ€™m seriously thinking of leaving Melbourne if this clown is elected. Itâ€™s too late for Phil to make a move on him but if he did David would struggle to cling on with recent scandals over him bullying staff and drivers, this latest snafu and his hitting the grog repeatedly while Parliament sits. Heâ€™s very loyal to Ted but heâ€™s a huge liability too.â€