Liberal councillor Julie Passas has been ordered to pay $11,213 to a fellow party member after loudly accusing him of beating his wife at a Liberal Party AGM four years ago.
Supreme Court Justice Stephen Campbell handed down the decision on Friday morning, describing Mrs Passas as a “well-known stirrer” and pointing out that in political circles people are often happy to dish it out but not take it.
The dispute unfolded at the Dolcissimo restaurant in the Sydney suburb of Haberfield, where about 30 people gathered for the annual Summer Hill State Electoral Conference AGM on the evening of March 29, 2016.
Robert Balzola, who was the president of the Five Dock branch and at the meeting as a scrutineer, alleged that in the course of the meeting Mrs Passas and Anthony Raciti, a party member and the owner of the restaurant where the meeting was held, made comments suggesting that he was a criminal who beats his wife.
He sued for defamation, and on Friday morning Justice Campbell found Mrs Passas did defame Mr Balzola and ordered she pay him $10,000 plus interest.
But the judge upheld Mr Raciti’s defence that he was responding to an attack by Mr Balzola, who accused him of being “part of the mafia” and spending Liberal Party funds on the restaurant.
Justice Campbell rejected Mrs Passas’ evidence that she had whispered the comment to friends, finding she had said them “loudly and deliberately enough for anyone close to hear over the din of the meeting.”
Mr Balzola has twice been charged with assault offences against his ex-wife. The first charges in 2008 were dismissed under the Mental Health Act, and the second in 2010 were dismissed by a magistrate. He had an AVO taken out against him over the 2008 incident, which was later revoked.
“It was a serious matter to accuse someone of perpetrating domestic violence,” Justice Campbell said, but he added Mr Balzola’s reputation would have suffered “temporarily” and the comments were only made to a room of about 30 people, many of whom didn’t hear them.
“The reality is that Mrs Passas’ statement was made in the heat of a rowdy acrimonious political meeting attended by a limited number of individuals in which milieu the trading of insults is often likely to pass as no more than an exaggeration of the cut and thrust of political exchange,” Justice Campbell said.
“It seems that in this circle Mrs Passas was a well-known ‘stirrer,’ or perhaps worse, which probably diluted the credence afforded charges emanating from her. Of course, in such an environment many individuals are happy to give personal offence as a form of political discourse, even if they are not so keen to receive it.”
The relatively small damages award of $10,000 was not meant to “trivialise” the matter or impose a Pyrrhic victory, Justice Campbell said, but rather merely reflected the “modest” harm suffered by Mr Balzola.
Mrs Passas said “not really” when asked if she had any comment.
“Who is not disappointed if they lose something?” she told NCA NewsWire. ”Even if it‘s your handbag, your shoes.”