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Ex-Labor MP to stand trial over alleged blackmail threats

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Former Labor MP Annabel Digance has pleaded not guilty and will stand trial for allegedly blackmailing Opposition Leader Peter Malinauskas, with her arraignment in the district court scheduled eight days before the March state election.

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In unusual scenes in the Magistrates Court on Wednesday, Digance and her husband Greg both pleaded not guilty to charges of blackmailing their former party leader after their push to have their case thrown out of court was rebuffed.

Lawyer Robert Cameron, representing the former state MP for Elder, repeatedly sparred with magistrate Simon Smart, who eventually lost patience with both the accused when they initially declined to enter a plea after their no case to answer submission was rejected.

Cameron had argued that “in our respectful submission no reasonable mind could reach a conclusion of guilt beyond reasonable doubt”, claiming a legal amendment under the former Labor Government made it clear that seeking political advantage could not constitute blackmail.

“We say with the greatest of respect that Mrs Digance, and by extension Mr Digance, have no case to answer,” he said.

The case hinges in large part on two conversations held between Greg Digance and Malinauskas in February 2020, which the Labor leader covertly recorded.

Cameron noted “the discussion between Mr Digance and Mr Malinauskas did not involve any threat of violence”, arguing: “If they contained threats, they were more in the course of negotiations to secure a political advantage for Mrs Digance.”

These were, he added, “namely a favourable preselection for Mrs Digance, as either the number one ticket holder for a job in the Upper House” or a “relatively safe” lower house preselection.

Cameron noted that, as InDaily first revealed in 2017, Digance had “sought to move to the seat of Badcoe” after a boundary redistribution had made her Elder electorate a notional Liberal seat, “but in short found she was unable to do so, so she stood again for Elder in 2018”.

Having lost the seat in that year’s election, Cameron said that at the time of the alleged threats, Digance “was an aspiring politician who hoped she may be able to resuscitate her career in public life”.

He and Smart then quibbled over the nature of the discussion between Greg Digance and Malinauskas.

“She was not asking for a job, she was asking to be nominated, or preselected, for a political position,” Cameron said.

“A safe seat,” Smart noted.

“Relatively,” Cameron replied.

“Number one on the ticket, I think you said,” Smart said, to which Cameron responded: “It’s up to the public to decide who represents them at any particular time.”

That’s an essential part of the political process… that’s part of democracy

He insisted there was “nothing improper or unlawful” about the conversations.

However, Smart proffered that “Mr Digance was at pains to ensure he wasn’t taped… which might draw an inference that he knew that what was to be said was preferably not recorded… and that what was about to occur was wrong”.

“Whether or not that inference is accepted by the jury is a matter for them,” he added.

He queried Cameron’s suggestion that the conversation was a means to finding “mutual agreement”, saying: “It seemed to be couched in terms of demands.”

“Demands are part of the process of negotiation,” Cameron replied, adding: “Negotiation always starts with a demand.”

To which Smart observed: “I don’t think there was anything on my reading of it that Mr Malinauskas wanted – it was one way.”

But Cameron insisted it was “part of the political process of negotiation where someone comes to someone else and says we’d like to have ‘x’”.

He said the conversations were simply “negotiations on behalf of Mrs Digance to secure for her a political advantage… a favourable preselection for the Legislative Council that would give her a good chance of election by the voters of this state”.

“That’s an essential part of the political process… that’s part of democracy,” he said.

But Smart was unconvinced, saying he was “satisfied there’s a case to answer in each instance”.

He then read out the charge and asked each defendant how they would plead, to which Annabel Digance replied: “No case to answer, your honour.”

“I’ll take that as a plea of Not Guilty,” Smart responded.

However when her husband also responded “no case to answer”, the magistrate appeared unimpressed.

“I regard that as a non-responsive answer,” he said.

“It’s not the opportunity to make a statement – it’s the opportunity to answer a question.”

He suggested they consult legal counsel outside the courtroom, with Cameron apologising for his client in their absence.

“You can take it from me that my advice was unequivocal,” he told Smart.

On their return, Annabel Digance pleaded not guilty, while her husband did the same – after first taking issue with the magistrate addressing him by the abbreviated version of his name.

“I’m Gregory, I don’t know why you call me Greg – I’m not Greg, your honour,” he said.

Smart informed him that “that’s how your lawyer has described you”.

The pair will stand trial in the district court, with their arraignment scheduled for March 11.

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