Legislative Assembly for the ACT: 1997 Week 8 Hansard (28 August) . . Page.. 2642..
MS TUCKER (continuing):
First, on the matter of the right of free debate on matters of public importance, the threat of an action against me arose in response to press statements I made on 27 June and 10 July 1997 about a deal entered into between ACTEW and Yallourn Energy. The announcement was made the day after we finished a sitting period before the longest break in the year. I had no alternative but to voice my concerns immediately in the media. Among other things, my press release said that the carbon dioxide emissions from Victorian generators, burning brown coal, are on average about 40 per cent higher than New South Wales generators using black coal and that the move makes the ACT complicit in Australia's reprehensible stand internationally against uniform binding greenhouse targets. I also expressed a view that the agreement contravened the legislation which established ACTEW as a corporation. The legislation sets out four principal objectives, one of which relates to ecologically sustainable development, and puts all the objectives on an equal footing.
On 10 July I received a letter from Dr Sargent, in his capacity as chief executive of ACTEW Corporation, referring to these comments in the media. Dr Sargent said that my comments were incorrect because the operation of the national electricity market does not permit distributors or retailers to define the source of the electricity which they purchase. He said that, because I had claimed that ACTEW had breached their legal responsibilities and in his opinion this could not be substantiated, my statements constituted a defamation against the directors of ACTEW. In a later letter Dr Sargent also showed that he was wanting to sue me for other statements I made about the cost to the community of green power options. Dr Sargent demanded an apology, and in a later letter from his lawyers a form of wording for that apology was suggested.
The threat of action against me is, I believe, an attempt to gag debate on an issue of great public importance. What is particularly interesting is the fact that the threat was made only personally to me and not to any media outlet. That only confirms my belief that this was an attempt at personal intimidation or a SLAP suit, as it is known in the United States. SLAP stands for "strategic litigation against protesters". It is a very common tool used by big business to gag protesters of all kinds in the United States. In Australia it is called a stop writ. According to House of Representatives Practice, the purpose of a stop writ is not to bring the matter to trial but to limit discussion of the issue. It is an alarming trend and has huge ramifications for democracy. I can let members know that it was successful for a while.
The work of members of this Assembly is public and confronting in many ways. However, threats of legal action such as this mean that you suddenly realise that your whole personal family situation is put at risk. I do not have the income or assets to fight such a case. I doubt whether many members here would. There is, of course, the partly paid off family home, but that is about all there is. My family have said that they support my standing up against this type of attempted intimidation, so I am making it very clear to Dr Sargent that I will not be intimidated. If he does choose to follow this threat up and issue a writ and I have to defend myself, I will.