A federal court judge has accused James Ashby of being “evasive” during his evidence in a defamation trial between his boss Pauline Hanson and former One Nation senator Brian Burston.
Ashby, Hanson’s longtime chief of staff, was called to give evidence on Tuesday over his role in what Burston claims were a series of allegations of sexual harassment made against him on social media, in interviews and in a text to his wife, Rosalyn.
One of Burston’s key complaints in the case is a speech given in parliament by Hanson on 12 February 2019. Burston claims the speech, subsequently published on Hanson’s Facebook page, was defamatory because it alleged he “sexually harassed staff in his office” and “behaved disgracefully” by “improperly dismissing” his employees.
Although Burston was not named in the speech, his lawyers say he was identified by a number of people as the target of the speech once it was posted on social media.
Ashby conceded during his evidence on Tuesday that he wrote the speech for Hanson after a number of discussions with two members of Burston’s staff who subsequently accused him of sexual harassment.
But when he was pushed by Burston’s barrister, Bruce McClintock SC, on whether he knew the speech would be taken as an “attack”, Ashby insisted it was “truthful” and that he had avoided naming the senator.
“The speech identified the issues that staff were having within that parliament and within a certain senator’s office,” Ashby said.
After a long back-and-forth, Ashby’s answers prompted a rebuke from the judge presiding over the case, justice Robert Bromwich.
When Hanson’s lawyer, Sue Chrysanthou SC, said she had “a problem” with one of McClintock’s questions, the judge replied: “I have a problem with the answer.”
“The interpretation I take Ms Chrysanthou is that he just doesn’t want to answer the question,” Bromwich said.
“He has not answered the question Ms Chrysanthou, [it is] as plain as day he has not answered the question.”
Describing Ashby as appearing “highly intelligent”, Bromwich said “my perception is he doesn’t want to answer it”.
“I’ve written the word ‘evasive’ on my notebook,” Bromwich said.
Saying he didn’t “want to appear evasive”, Ashby then conceded he intended for the speech to be “a shot across the bow” to Burston.
Saying he was “deliberate not to name anyone”, Ashby said the federal parliament had “a history, and I am well aware of its history, of the behaviour of not just Mr Burston but a number of other elected MPs and senators that has been disgraceful towards [their] staff”.
“That speech was deliberate, not only did it fire a shot across the bow of Mr Burston, though it did not name him, [it was also] a warning to others as well.
“If i really wanted to attack Mr Burston I would’ve named him because the senator [Hanson] would’ve had parliamentary privilege to name him.”
The court has previously heard that in the months after he quit One Nation to join the United Australia party, the relationship between Burston and his former party became increasingly hostile, to the point that then Senate president, Scott Ryan, intervened to ask them to stay away from each other.
But the two men continued to exchange hostile text exchanges, including messages in which Ashby told Burston to “fuck off”, and labelled him a “sad man” and an “idiot traitorous cunt”.
On Tuesday Ashby described Burston as a “serial text pest” and insisted that he had tried to avoid his “antagonistic” approach.
When Ashby insisted the antagonism was all one way, McClintock replied: “You don’t think calling my client a ‘traitorous cunt’ shows a level of antagonism?”
“You can laugh all you like, I didn’t find it funny, I didn’t find his approach in his texts or the comments he would make in hallways appropriate, Mr McClintock,” Ashby said.
“He was terrible in his texts, he was antagonistic, he was goading, he was a raft of different things. I can pull out a thesaurus and use a bunch of other descriptive words. Your client is no angel.”
The court has previously heard evidence that Ashby and Burston were involved in an altercation inside parliament on the night after the speech, which ended in the senator smearing blood on the door of Hanson’s senate office.
Burston has accepted that he did wipe his bloodied hand on her office door but he said he had “no memory” of the event until he saw it on CCTV later.
The confrontation, which occurred after a Minerals Council dinner, occurred when Ashby began filming Burston and his wife asking about “the sexual harassment claims”.
Burston told the court that during the confrontation he pushed Ashby, who he claimed “took a swing” at him, which he said glanced past his ear.
On Tuesday Ashby categorically denied attempting to hit Burston, and said that while the senator was “a very unhappy chappy” he was not trying to provoke him during the incident.
Hanson is arguing the video of the speech posted on social media did not identify Burston, but that the claims of sexual harassment were substantially true and were supported by evidence from two of his former staff members who gave evidence during the trial.
The court has heard Burston regularly commented on the appearance of one of his female staff members, said she had “perfect sized-breasts”, and on another occasion gave her a birthday card and $100 note which she alleged he placed down her top. He denied those allegations.
In her closing submissions on Tuesday Chrysanthou told the court it was open to find that Burston had been a dishonest witness, pointing to examples in which she said he had told “lies”.
She pointed to evidence Burston gave in which he said he had signed off “love you” in a text to a staffer because, he said, her mother had been murdered – something she later said was not true.
“He lies and when he’s caught with [evidence] he makes up some fanciful story,” Chrysanthou said.