Victoria’s opposition leader, John Pesutto, says he “exhausted every effort” to avoid defamation proceedings before they were filed by expelled Liberal MP Moira Deeming.
Deeming lodged her statement of claim against Pesutto in the federal court on Tuesday, alleging the state Liberal leader launched an “ongoing, relentless and persistent public campaign” that damaged her reputation when he moved to expel her from the party in March.
The move follows months of mediation, which Guardian Australia understands broke down when Pesutto agreed to make a public apology to Deeming but refused her request to rejoin the Victorian Liberal party room.
At a press conference on Wednesday, Pesutto said he “exhausted every effort [he] possibly could” to resolve the matter outside court.
“I won’t go into details of that. All I can say is that [we had] what I thought were very constructive discussions,” he said. “I put forward some proposals but they weren’t accepted and the matter is where it is now.”
Pesutto said he was yet to be served with the material from Deeming’s lawyers, and that he was focused on other matters, including a damning ombudsman investigation into the politicisation of the public service.
“I can give you this guarantee that my total focus last night and this morning has been reviewing and anticipating this report,” he said.
“I’m focused, with my colleagues, on holding this government to account.”
Deeming declined to comment on Wednesday.
Pesutto had moved to expel Deeming from the party in March, after she spoke at an anti-trans rally that was gatecrashed by neo-Nazis, who performed the Sieg Heil salute on the front steps of parliament.
At the time, he claimed Deeming had associated with organisers and speakers at the rally who shared platforms “with people who promote Nazi views or sympathies”, and that she had failed to dissociate herself from them.
The motion to expel her was never put to a vote. Instead, at the 27 March party room meeting, a compromise was reached in which she was suspended from the parliamentary party for nine months.
Deeming was expelled from the party room weeks later, in a motion co-signed by five Liberal MPs, after she threatened to launch legal action against the party and Pesutto.
Pesutto has denied he ever accused her of being a Nazi or having Nazi sympathies.
Deeming was being represented by high-profile defamation barrister Sue Chrysanthou and the author of Australia’s seminal textbook on defamation law, Patrick George.
In the statement of claim, seen by Guardian Australia, Deeming’s lawyers said they will argue Deeming was defamed by Pesutto in media releases, press conferences and two radio interviews he gave in the days after the March rally.
They will also draw upon a 15-page dossier Pesutto’s office circulated to MPs and the media as supporting evidence to expel her from the party room.
Deeming’s lawyers argue 22 defamatory imputations are conveyed by what Pesutto said, including that Deeeming supports, sympathises with or associates with white supremacists and neo-Nazis, and that she is a white supremacist or neo-Nazi.
They argue his “role and status” as the leader of the Victorian Liberal party meant his statements were more likely to be believed.