In qualified praise of the Andrew Little defamation verdict

The defamation case against Andrew Little did not result in his having to pay any damages. All in all, I think that is a good thing for the country as a whole.

Despite a degree of ambiguity over the outcome, Andrew Little appears to have come out ahead in the defamation action brought against him by Earl and Lani Hagaman. 

Insofar as anyone really can be said to have emerged as a "winner", that is. Asher Emanuel has written a great piece over on The Spinoff about the trial and its ultimate futility, so I won't try to comment on that aspect of proceedings. Rather, I want to say why I'm pretty happy that no legal liability was attached to Little for his statements about the Hagamans, their donation to the National Party, and their company's subsequent tendering success.

Let's take a moment to remember the bare bones of the background to Little's allegedly defamatory statements, as was reported in the media:

During the 2014 election, Scenic Hotel Group founder Earl Hagaman donated $101,000 to the National Party.

A month later, the company won a contract to manage the Niuean Matavai Resort, heavily funded by the New Zealand government. Last year, $7.5 million in aid funding was announced to expand the resort.

Now, as we know from a subsequent Auditor General's report, there wasn't actually anything untoward about the awarding of the management contract or extra increase in aid funding. Let's clarify that straight away, least anyone harbour any doubts.

But when the story first emerged, it looked like it could be the sort of cash-for-policy exchange that we shake our heads at in other countries that do not enjoy our low-corruption reputation. The sort of arrangement that we take great pains to ensure cannot happen in our governing practices.  

And so we require that large donors to political parties (those who give more than $15,000 in a year) publicly disclose their identity precisely so that any potential links between donations and favourable policy outcomes for the donor can be spotted and closely questioned. The mere fact that such donations become public is then thought to deter any temptation to engage in quid-pro-quo deals: "sunshine is the best disinfectant", as the aphorism goes.

(Actually, the full quote from Justice Louis Brandeis reads: "Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.")

But the sought after deterrence will only work if initially suspicious looking coincidences - such as a $101,000 donation being followed by the grant of a government contract - get lots and lots of public attention. It's not enough that a donation-reward relationship is visible in theory; it must be actively and energetically policed in practice

So Andrew Little is absolutely right when he says he had a "constitutional obligation" to make a song and dance about the issue. As leader of the opposition, it is his job to "speak out fearlessly" on matters like this - not simply because he wants to take the PM's job for himself, but rather because the whole system of governing accountability and clean public processes depends upon him (and other opposition MPs) doing so.  

There's then two problems. First, it's very, very difficult to raise questions about the propriety of some donor-government relationship without implying that the individual donor may have acted corruptly. 

And second, you can't know what is an innocent relationship (such as the Hagamans' company had with the Government) and what is not an innocent relationship until after its been scrutinised. You can't then gee up the public interest in such matters necessary to attract such scrutiny without using language that involves some rhetorical flourishes and breathless excitement.

 Hence such public statements on the matter from Andrew Little:

Today’s revelations about the Scenic Hotel Group and its resort contract in Niue stink to high heaven following its dodgy deals with SkyCity and the Saudi sheep deal.

Of course, when it turns out that the claim is wrong and that actually there was no untoward relationship between the donation and the subsequent contracting decisions, the use of this sort of language leaves egg on their maker's face. His (or her) political judgment can and should be questioned. And the maker really ought to put their hand up, say they got it wrong, and apologise for any wrong imputations (as Andrew Little eventually did - a bit too late, in my opinion, but there you are.)

But to attach potentially bankrupting legal liability to such (in hindsight overblown) statements seems to me to be an undesirable public policy move. It would demand a sort of careful parsing and trimming that would undermine the important function of speaking out on possibly corrupt public dealings.

Does that then mean that individuals like the Hagamans who choose to shower a political party with their largesse may end up as collateral damage in our war on bad government? Well, sort of. I actually doubt that by the end of the saga many people in New Zealand really did think any the worse of the Hagamans. And if there was anyone who did so, they most probably were Labour Party tribalists who were more affronted at the fact of the gift to National than anything else. 

But saying all thay ... yes, the bullet must be bitten. Insofar as there is any tradeoff between public accountability and private reputational interests, my sympathies lie with the former. And so I'm happy that Andrew Little walked out of court without any liability for his statements on this matter.

 (Having read all of this, can I now suggest you have a listen to Ursula Cheer's discussion of the legal issues in the case on Morning Report?

Update: Or, even better, Marcelo Rodriguez-Ferrere on The Panel)