One Nation leader Pauline Hanson will have to cough up a quarter of a million in damages after defaming former Senator Brian Burston on national TV. Investigations editor Ross Jones reports.
AS A POLITICAL PARTY, One Nation makes a great soap opera.
Or maybe a bad sitcom.
The latest episode was shot on location in a Channel 9 TV studio, a drab office in the Central Coast suburb of Toronto and, finally, in the Federal Court, where the lead character copped a hefty fine plus costs yet to be determined but will certainly include those of her very high-profile barrister.
This episode, the latest in a long-running series, takes viewers on a dizzying ride through office lust, unprovoked violence, reality contortions and simple malice.
Former One Nation Senator Brian Burston sued One Nation leader Pauline Hanson for defamation, claiming she falsely accused him of harassing and sexually abusing his staff, and of starting the fight with James Ashby in Parliament House.
Some of this was true.
As IA readers know, there has been bad blood between Burston and Hanson for some time. That blood always has James Ashby on its hands.
Bromwich J summed up:
Whatever the reason, One Nation decided not to endorse Mr Burston as the lead Senate candidate for the 2019 Federal Election. After some months following this decision, he resigned from One Nation on 14 June 2018.
He then joined the UAP, where he was endorsed as a Senate candidate for New South Wales for the 2019 Election. Mr Burston was not re-elected, so his Senate term ended on 30 June 2019.
Thankfully, no one can read Brian Burston’s mind, but holding a grudge against Hanson and Ashby must have been an option.
Before the rift, though, back in September 2016, when things were still good and Burston was a shiny new One Nation Senator, he hired Wendy Leach as his electoral office manager.
The two had previously only met by telephone, with Leach based in Brisbane working in sales for an architectural software company and Burston working as a draughtsman in his NSW Central Coast business.
They must have had a good working relationship because Leach accepted Burston’s offer to become his electoral office manager, quit her job, sold everything up and relocated to the Central Coast.
Burston has always been a busy man and in 2007, he hired a cleaner.
Enter Terri-Lea Vairy.
Bromwich J found her a credible witness:
On 1 May 2017, Ms Vairy commenced employment in Mr Burston’s office, undertaking the role of electoral officer. Mr Burston said this role predominately consisted of administrative tasks.
For ten years before Ms Vairy commenced this role, she performed part-time work as a cleaner at Mr and Mrs Burston’s home and upon her taking up this position, she went from earning about $16,000 a year as a cleaner to just over $65,000 a year.
Burston’s main reason for hiring Vairy soon becomes clear. He has the hots for her.
An old-school smoothie, he referred to Terri-Lea as “Miss World” and told her it was “nice to have a good-looking sheila in the office”.
As you’d expect, things got darker for Wendy and Terri-Lea.
The ageing Senator began his version of a courtship of the much younger woman.
Needless to say, it didn’t go so well:
...in or about May 2017... in the back room of the Senatorial office in Belmont, after Mr Burston had come to give her a hug as a form of greeting,
“he then leaned in and kissed me, which I felt extra uncomfortable because I knew that another staff member – or I thought that another staff member had seen that and that it was deliberately done so this person could see. So, again I just – I was just in shock”.
Things went on in this vein:
‘Ms Vairy described herself as growing increasingly uncomfortable working for Mr Burston as time progressed.’
Burston started taking Vairy to boozy lunches, where he – or maybe we – paid the bill and delivered Old Tiger lines including:
“You look sexy in what you are wearing;
Your legs look sexy;
You look sexy in that dress, it accentuates your figure;
You’re wearing your hair the way I like it.”
What girl could resist?
Vairy told the court of three instances when Burston unexpectedly went in for the full lip lunge.
Talk about passion.
Of Wendy Leach, Burston had opined to Vairy:
“She’s quite loud; she’s not as attractive as I thought she was and had I known that, I would not have hired her; she is old and hitting her 50s.”
But Leach reported an incident in May 2018 when Burston said to her:
“Oh Wendy, you probably just need a good fuck.”
In the words of Bromwich J:
Initially, Ms Leach says her response was one of bemusement, responding with words to the effect of “Ha, ha, ha. Thanks for trying to make me laugh.”
However, it quickly became apparent to her that he was not joking when he responded by grabbing Ms Leach by the face and said, “I’m not joking. I can come around to your place. No one would need to know. It will be the best fuck you’ve ever had.”
You can’t keep a good man down. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
The harassment of the women continued right through the June 2018 ructions caused by Burston’s split with One Nation and his acceptance of MP Clive Palmer’s inducements to save the United Australia Party.
Both women were well over Brian by now.
In October 2018, Burston got a couple of freebie tickets to a farmer charity concert in Tamworth. It was going to be big.
Burston had a dicky knee and couldn’t go. He tried to trade them with a radio station for a bit of thank you PR but no interest.
So he gave them to Wendy Leach, telling her she was to attend and take photos as part of her duties. No drinking!
According to Bromwich J:
‘On 27 October 2018, Ms Leach invited her boyfriend and Ms Vairy to accompany her and as she felt entitled to do, at the concert she had “heaps to drink”.’
Burston sacked Leach the next day. Vairy went on stress leave.
Then James Ashby got involved:
‘It became apparent at the trial, in Mr Ashby, Ms Leach and Ms Vairy’s evidence, that sometime during the latter half of 2018, Ms Leach began communicating via telephone with Mr Ashby regarding her experiences and observations working in Mr Burston’s office.’
The two women spilt all the beans.
As James knows, the Members Of Parliament (Staff) Act sets out well-defined procedures for dealing with allegations of harassment by parliamentary staff, but he apparently thought this path did not suit the occasion.
It’s not in Bromwich J’s written judgement, but IA’s court notes say James' first move was to put in a call to journalist Liz Hayes.
‘With Ms Hanson’s approval, Mr Ashby drafted a speech to be read in the Australian Senate by Ms Hanson concerning the sexual harassment and unfair dismissal allegations made against Mr Burston by Ms Leach and by Ms Vairy.’
Straight from the playbook of “shaft thine enemy”.
Pauline followed her Senate bucket-drop on Burston with a Facebook punch, posting, among other things:
‘This same Senator is now under investigation for serious sexual harassment.’
Ms Hanson didn’t stop there.
On 14 February, she texted Burston’s wife, Ros, telling her:
‘He is vindictive as you well know, Oldfield, Hinch, Dury, James and me. He is being investigated for sexual harassment by more than one of his former female staffers. They can’t all be wrong.’
The same text explained other reasons Ros had definitely made the wrong marital decision, but it also included the obvious revelation:
‘He turned on me because I couldn’t endorse him for another six years.’
When Knight steered the interview topic to James being banned from Parliament over his fight with Burston, Pauline sprang to his defence and claimed his innocence:
“No, sorry. Not the fight with Brian Burston. The aggression came from Brian Burston to James Ashby...”
Hanson said James “...never laid a hand. And James Ashby has been trying to bring it to the President's attention about the sexual abuse and harassment that was going on with a female staffer in his office. And the President just said ‘You go to someone else’.”
Burston called his lawyers.
To cut an already long story short, it was the bright lights of a TV studio that cost Pauline $250,000 plus costs.
Bromwich J found that only two allegations of defamation could stick and considering all that had gone on, that seems pretty mild.
But there is a big difference between sexual abuse and harassment.
There is also a big difference between being an unprovoked aggressor and being the victim on the other end.
Bromwich J found:
The questions of damages and mitigation only arise to the extent of Mr Burston’s success on the fourth imputation of sexual abuse and the sixth imputation of physical assault without provocation, both conveyed in the Today Show interview.
It is neither necessary or appropriate to consider either of these issues upon the alternative basis of a different outcome on liability, although taken on their own it is difficult to see how any substantial harm to reputation beyond what was justified could have been occasioned by the Facebook post and it is difficult to see how any harm to reputation could have been occasioned by the text message sent only to Mrs Burston.
Thus, the question is what, if any, general or aggravated damages is Mr Burston entitled to, taking into account the question of whether any of the matters pleaded in support of the defences mitigate any such damages, in relation to the fourth imputation and sixth imputation?
The first thing to note is that there is nothing in the evidence that mitigates the damage to reputation by such serious imputations as sexual abuse and physical assault without provocation. Both are in a different category to sexual harassment or treating staff improperly in respect of the termination of their employment.
While Ms Hanson seeks mitigation by reason of assertions that Mr Burston lied on oath, I consider that any objective falsity in his evidence was largely confined to his denials of having engaged in sexual harassment. I was unable to safely conclude that he, any more than Mr Ashby, deliberately lied on oath, although I consider that each in their different ways was not always doing their best to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, Mr Burston in relation to sexual harassment and Mr Ashby in relation to the altercation between them.
And the upshot of all this?
I find that both the fourth imputation and the sixth imputation were seriously damaging to Mr Burston’s reputation, being broadcast on a nationally broadcast television program watched by over 290,000 people at that time. They were both false. Both imputations were in the same program. I consider that a substantial award of damages is necessary to telegraph to the public that both of those imputations were false and without justification. I, therefore, award Mr Burston damages in the sum of $250,000.
If you’ve got time, have a read of Bromwich J’s judgement.
It does true justice to this tawdry episode from the tiresome soap that is One Nation.
Investigations editor Ross Jones is a licensed private enquiry agent and the author of 'Ashbygate: The Plot to Destroy Australia's Speaker'. Follow Ross Jones on Twitter @RPZJones.
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