Liberal leader's public apology after defamation suits

Victoria's opposition leader has issued a public apology after settling two high-profile defamation cases brought against him by activists.

British activist Kellie-Jay Keen and Australian Angela Jones, along with former Liberal MP Moira Deeming, each sued John Pesutto in the Federal Court, claiming he damaged their reputations following a March 2023 rally.

The Let Women Speak event was gatecrashed by a group of masked men who performed Nazi salutes.

British anti-transgender rights activist Kellie-Jay Keen
UK activist Kellie-Jay Keen said Mr Pesutto's apology was "an amazing step" for Australian women. (Mick Tsikas/AAP PHOTOS)

Ms Deeming, Ms Keen and Ms Jones claimed Mr Pesutto defamed them by suggesting in the aftermath they were associated with far-right extremists including neo-Nazis.

Mr Pesutto issued a formal apology to Ms Keen and Ms Jones on Friday morning.

"I have never believed or intended to assert that Kellie-Jay Keen and Angela Jones are neo-Nazis," he wrote in a statement.

"I agree with them that genuine community concerns regarding women's safety and access to single-sex spaces, services and sport warrant meaningful public discussion.

"My comments may have been misunderstood as conveying that I believed this to be the case, I apologise for any hurt, distress or harm that has occurred."

Mr Pesutto was hesitant to expand on the apology to reporters on Friday morning but said it came after "reasonable discussions".

"I was consulted on the drafting of this statement but it's there for everyone to see. They are my words," he said.

"I have paid no damages. There was a small contribution to costs, which is very normal.

"I have made contributions to the legal defence; others have made contributions as well."

Ms Keen said she "graciously" accepted Mr Pesutto's apology in a statement posted to YouTube.

"It's such an amazing step for Australian women that today, more than yesterday, they are a little safer speaking about the unthinkable things that are happening to them," she said.

"I think what this apology will do is it will give women just a morsel of comfort that actually they do have a right to speak about this quasi-religious authoritarian cult known as transgenderism."

Ms Jones also thanked Mr Pesutto for his apology.

"I hope we are entering a political climate where women can advocate for the reinstatement of our sex based human rights, and sex specific safeguarding, equitably and without misrepresentation or intimidation," she wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

A file photo of Moira Deeming
Moira Deeming was expelled from the parliamentary Liberal Party and is now an independent MP. (Joel Carrett/AAP PHOTOS)

Katherine Deves from Alexander Rashidi Lawyers, who represented both women, said they were pleased at the "favourable" outcome.

"They look forward to moving on with their lives and continuing their fight for women's sex-based rights," Ms Deves told AAP.

The Liberal leader previously said he would vigorously contest all three defamation proceedings.

Now his only defamation fight remaining is against Ms Deeming and is scheduled to go to trial in the Federal Court in September.

The first-term MP was expelled from the parliamentary Liberal Party after taking part in the Let Women Speak rally in March.

Ms Deeming issued several defamation concerns notices to Mr Pesutto, alleging he publicly accused her of being a Nazi sympathiser and used the claim to bully and threaten her with expulsion.

Mr Pesutto denies he accused the now-independent MP of being a Nazi or having Nazi sympathies.