"Was the email entirely false?"
After a week of confusion and farce, the basis of Pauline Hanson’s legal challenge to the result of the NSW state election collapsed in the Supreme Court on Tuesday afternoon.
Pauline Hanson’s barrister asked a series of questions of Sean Castle, the Toongabbie schoolteacher whose actions had precipitated the legal challenge, which quickly made it clear that the emails at the centre of the court case were entirely false.
Hanson had launched a challenge to the result of the election of members of the NSW Legislative Council after narrowly losing the race for the final seat to Nationals candidate Sarah Mitchell in early April.
She based her claim on an email forwarded to her from someone named Michael Rattner. Rattner claimed to be a construction worker in Toowoomba whose girlfriend worked at the NSW Electoral Commission (NSWEC).
The email purported to show a conversation between two senior NSWEC officials discussing how as many as 1200 Hanson ballots could have been sorted into a blank pile. If this was true it would be enough to narrowly overturn the result and cost the Nationals’ Sarah Mitchell her seat.
The case was always very flimsy. A large number of Electoral Commission staff in many locations across the state and in the central counting centre would have needed to conspire to dispose of such a large number of ballots. While it isn’t implausible that a handful of employees could let political prejudice get in the way of their duties, it seems impossible that this would occur on a scale sufficient to dispose of 1200 ballots.
There were many other flaws with the case. An affidavit by a Hanson scrutineer, supposedly providing evidence of NSWEC malpractice, instead shows staff acting quickly to remedy an error. The affadavit also demonstrates that the scrutineer did not understand the counting process.
Other legal documents showed that Hanson’s legal team did not understand the process either, which resulted in them questioning figures which made perfect sense to anyone who knew what process the NSWEC had used to count the ballots.
The case began to unravel last week when the star witness didn’t appear in the Supreme Court. It emerged that neither Hanson nor her legal team had met the supposed construction worker, and had relied on phone calls, emails and a Facebook page to verify his story.
On Friday, Sean Castle admitted to being Michael Rattner, but in the Supreme Court on Tuesday, Hanson’s legal team found it hard to extract any confession from him in the witness box. Eventually a certificate was issued by the judge protecting Castle from his testimony being used in a prosecution on a possible charge of producing false documents.
Castle confessed that he did not have a girlfriend who worked at the Electoral Commission, that he had fabricated the emails at the centre of the case, and that he had contacted Greens MP Jeremy Buckingham. Buckingham had received calls from a person claiming to be a Daily Telegraph journalist discussing Pauline Hanson’s case.
The question at the centre of the case has now been resolved but it remains very unclear what motivated Castle to create the hoax. Was he a supporter of Hanson who mistakenly thought his actions could help her; or an opponent looking to humiliate her? Why he did what he did is a question that may go unanswered.
For now Castle appears to be most worried about the prospect of future criminal charges. While the charges would be relatively minor and prosecutors may not want to bother, the hoax did cause a Supreme Court case which cast doubt on the legitimacy of the NSW electoral process and defamed senior NSWEC officials.
The case also reflects very poorly on the judgement of Pauline Hanson and her legal team. It is now clear that they launched the case without ever meeting their star witness. The legal documents are also riddled with inconsistencies and confusion about the electoral process.
Hanson now faces the prospect of having to pay approximately $100,000 in court costs for the Electoral Commission, Jeremy Buckingham and Sarah Mitchell. While Hanson’s lawyers clearly look to blame Castle for their spectacular failure, due diligence would have made it clear that there was little credible evidence for the case they were pursuing. Hanson is likely to pay dearly for this decision.
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