Federal Treasurer Joe Hockey has told a court he was too busy preparing his first budget to respond to a journalist’s email that led to a story Mr Hockey now claims defamed him.
Mr Hockey was giving evidence at his defamation case against Fairfax at the Federal Court in Sydney.
The court is examining whether Mr Hockey’s reputation was damaged by a series of reports last year, including one that read “Treasurer for sale”.
The reports, published in newspapers including The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and online, related to his involvement with Liberal Party fundraising group the North Sydney Forum (NSF).
Fairfax barrister Dr Matt Collins QC questioned Mr Hockey about an email he received from reporter Sean Nicholls on Friday, May 2, that requested a response by Sunday, May 4, the night before the article was published.
Mr Hockey said: “At that time I was head deep in figures for the budget … we get hundreds of questions from journalists every day and I had priorities as Treasurer of Australia”.
“Sometimes journalists go on fishing expeditions and don’t necessarily publish everything … sometimes they never publish. They tend to blame their editor,” he said.
“I was preparing a budget and (the email) was a hugely time-consuming issue.”
Mr Hockey told the court he felt the email contained questions that should be answered by the NSF.
He said Fairfax “were clearly motivated by the fact they had to apologise for a previous matter in relation to me”.
“Fairfax has been running a relentless campaign against me since those articles were published,” he said.
He then referred to a separate article published on May 6, that briefly mentioned the Treasurer while reporting the Labor Party had charged $3,000 for a lunch with Opposition Leader Bill Shorten.
“Does it say ‘Bill Shorten is for sale’?” Mr Hockey asked Dr Collins.
“The (Sydney Morning) Herald‘s not suggesting Mr Shorten is receiving money or is buyable.
“That’s all it takes … words are bullets.”
During sometimes robust evidence Justice Richard White said “This is beginning to sound like an argument rather than a cross-examination”.
Hockey upset article implied he ‘could be bought’
Mr Hockey said he was upset by the suggestion in the article that he could be bought, or that public policy could be bought.
“The claims made against me from my perspective were defamatory,” he said.
The Treasurer said he did not accept any money personally, despite the NSF website stating that input was needed to “build the financial resources to support Joe going into the future”.
“They suggested I accepted money,” he said.
“I have accepted no money from any organisation or individual.”
Mr Hockey said any money donated would have gone to the wider Liberal Party.
“They (the NSF) have not provided any resources to me,” he said.
Dr Collins asked Mr Hockey what he thought about NSF membership forms that used the phrase “business and community leaders supporting Joe Hockey MP”.
“They’re not words I would have used … supporting should be engaging,” he said.
“Business and community leaders engaging with Joe Hockey MP.”
Dr Collins asked the Treasurer about the $22,000 membership fee for the NSF that provides members and one guest access to 10 boardroom functions a year and events like lunches, dinners, cocktail functions and breakfasts.
Mr Hockey said he did not attend 10 NSF events a year.
“It would be about five to six a year which would represent about 1 per cent of the functions I attend a year,” he said.
Dr Collins outlined that his case will centre on reasonableness and lack of malice.
Mr Hockey has been excused from court after a second day of questioning.
The case before Justice Richard White continues.