Coffs Harbour MP loses defamation case

COFFS Harbour MP Andrew Fraser has been ordered to pay $70,000 to a union boss over a defamatory letter sent to nurses ahead of last year's state election.

Mr Fraser referred in the letter to NSW Nurses Association general secretary Brett Holmes, alleging the union leader had personal motives for a public campaign he was running before the March 2007 NSW election.

The association's campaign claimed that a coalition government would hand responsibility for industrial relations to the federal government, which could jeopardise the jobs of hundreds of NSW nurses.

In the letter, sent to 629 nurses in his Coffs Harbour electorate on the mid-north coast, Mr Fraser said Mr Holmes was campaigning because he was seeking preselection in the safe Labor seat of Fowler and "this is his contribution to the Labor Party".

"I find it appalling that he is using his position and your subs to promote his political career," Mr Fraser wrote.

"$1m on this campaign is $1m less the association has to genuinely help nurses."

NSW Supreme Court Justice Carolyn Simpson awarded Mr Holmes $70,000 in damages, finding the letter had defamed him and damaged his reputation.

"The clear inferences are that Mr Holmes improperly took advantage of his position as general secretary of the association in order to promote his own political career, by directing that association funds be used for that purpose," Justice Simpson said.

Mr Fraser attempted to defend the letter by arguing it was fair comment and his honest opinion.

He also claimed the damage was "trivial", with the letter reaching only a limited number of people.

Justice Simpson rejected his claims, saying the recipients were potential union members and the letter was sent just before an association election.

"Each individual publication had potential to damage Mr Holmes' prospects of re-election. Multiplied by 629, considerable potential damage was caused," the judge said.

Mr Fraser said he sent letters to the same 629 people on June 26 last year admitting he had been wrong about Mr Holmes.

This was done only after Mr Holmes started legal proceedings, Justice Simpson observed.

The judge described Mr Fraser's actions as "careless and impulsive", and ruled he acted out of malice in sending the letter.

Mr Fraser was ordered to pay $70,000, plus Mr Holmes' legal costs.

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