Former Conservative Party leader Colin Craig has failed to overturn a High Court finding that he sexually harassed his former press secretary.
The Court of Appeal has rejected Craig’s latest attempt to unseat a High Court finding in a defamation case he took against former staff member Rachel McGregor, which prompted a counter-claim alleging he had defamed her.
The decision marks yet another failed attempt by Craig to challenge a finding he had “engaged in moderately serious sexual harassment” of McGregor, who worked for the Conservative Party from 2011 to 2014.
The verdict was greeted by Parliament’s Speaker Trevor Mallard, who wrote on social media: “Good does overcome evil in the end.”
Craig has told the Herald he has yet to decide if the judgment is the end of the six-year series of defamation court battles which included an award of $325,000 against the bankrupt blogger Cameron Slater.
And he has said that there might yet be a return to politics. “That’s definitely a door that’s still open to me.”
The appeal by Craig aimed to attack the finding of sexual harassment which the High Court said meant he could not run a defence of truth to McGregor’s counter-claim of defamation.
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It also sought to have the court endorse his claim that statements he made about McGregor were covered by qualified privilege, because he was responding to an attack on himself.
The allegations and claims have played out through several defamation cases that have spent six years in the courts. The cases followed McGregor’s resignation as press secretary on the eve of the 2014 election, then publication by the now-defunct Whale Oil blog of a poem and other material Craig had written to his staff member.
It emerged later McGregor had entrusted the material to NZ Taxpayers’ Union founder Jordan Williams, who passed the material to Slater. McGregor’s departure and claims of impropriety by Craig also became a feature of political machinations inside the Conservative Party.
McGregor became a central figure in the cases and was pulled into court to testify over her relationship with Craig.
This current hearing came after Craig filed a defamation case against McGregor which prompted her to file a counter-claim also alleging defamation.
In the Slater case, and the current case, Craig’s behaviour towards McGregor was found to have been sexual harassment, with one of those findings upheld at the Court of Appeal.
The appeal judges – Justices Stephen Kós, Denis Clifford and David Collins – said Craig’s case asked the court to reach two different findings of fact about sexual harassment “based on two sets of evidence we have found materially consistent”.
“It is not the habit of this Court to speak with a forked tongue,” the judgment stated.
The Court of Appeal said Craig could not have a different result without highlighting “materially different facts established in evidence” at the second defamation trial.
McGregor’s case asserted Craig defamed her by painting claims of sexual harassment as “false”, that she was a “liar”, that the claims had been withdrawn and that she had “victimised the Craigs and was the sort of person who would victimise and hurt a family”.
Craig also failed in his effort to dislodge the High Court’s finding by claiming there was qualified privilege attached to his comments about McGregor – that he was defending himself in a reasonable way against an attack and so could not be found to have defamed her.
The judges said supporting that argument would be “profoundly wrong”. McGregor had not actually attacked Craig, they said, even though the source of the attacks on his character stemmed from information she held.
The sequence of events, the judges said, showed this: McGregor confided in her “believed-friend”, Williams, who then “breaches the confidence (and his own express undertaking) and uses the information for his own political purposes” to mount an attack on Craig.
Craig then “brands the employee a liar and a maker of false accusations” when, said the court, “she is neither”.
The Court of Appeal said McGregor was not the “attacker” or aligned with the purposes of those who launched the attack. It also said Craig could have responded to the attacks without drawing in McGregor, and that when he did so, he “deliberately targeted Ms MacGregor” rather than those who attacked him.
“Mr Craig knew exactly what he was doing here,” it found, saying MacGregor “was not so much caught in the cross-fire, as caught in the cross-hairs, of Mr Craig’s counter-attack”.
This was illustrated through an email Craig sent to his lawyer in 2015, in which he laid out a plan to “issue a statement advising of her performance failures, mental instability and pointing out the big flaws in her claim”.
Craig wrote: “The angle is ‘blackmail attempt fails’ – once you work it through it is a good angle. It will be a media storm of course and we both end up bloodied. In reality though I have nothing left to lose if her claim is printed already …”.
Finally, said the Court of Appeal, Craig’s defamation of McGregor included claims that were “false” and “he must have known there was a good prospect that… his conduct would be found to be sexual harassment”.
Craig said he disagreed with the findings reached by the Court of Appeal and would consult with lawyers before deciding on whether to apply for leave to appeal to the Supreme Court.
“This is a case I would have happily not gone to court on,” said Craig, who filed the defamation action against McGregor that prompted her counter-claim. He said the case he had filed was dormant in the court, had not been served on her and he was intending that it lapse.
On that basis, he said he saw the case that followed as one she chose to pursue – and one he tried to halt by offering a financial settlement.
Craig rejected the “perception” that he was responsible for McGregor spending six years in the court as either a witness or a litigant. “I never called her as a witness. Others did.”
In relation to the other defamation matters, Craig said: “I have no regrets putting Mr Slater out of business. Him and his cronies – I have a dim view of how they thought politics should be played out.
“That’s part of what I set out to do. It’s hard work and it gets messy. Happily, I’ve got out the other end and they all owe me.”
Craig said he still held strongly to the values espoused through the Conservative Party during his time as leader and could not rule out a return to politics.
“I definitely care about the issues and there’s people who want me to get involved. Going through the court cases was something of a side track.”
The verdict was greeted by McGregor’s lawyer Linda Clark on social media with the words: “Somedays are better than others. This is one of those days.”
It was that comment which drew Mallard to respond: “Congratulations guys. Good does overcome evil in the end.”
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