Disarray in the CWA as former branch secretary Marion Collier sues for defamation

Things have gone sour for the Wellington branch of the CWA. Photo: Christopher Pearce
Things have gone sour for the Wellington branch of the CWA. Photo: Christopher Pearce

In the bucolic setting of Wellington in central NSW, all was not well in the local branch of the Country Women's Association in 2015.

Disagreements over the receipts for toilet rolls and whether too many had been ordered, and whether suggesting that too many had been ordered in the minutes was hurtful to the people who had ordered them, were a portent of worse things to come.

Former branch secretary Marion Louise Collier was on a warpath that within two years would find the CWA defending itself in the NSW Supreme Court against claims that its alleged defamatory conduct had caused her unnecessary stress, breathing problems and reduced her quality of life.

As criminal trials and corporate disputes proceeded in the adjoining rooms at Darlinghurst Courthouse on Wednesday, Justice Christine Adamson heard lengthy testimony about the car pool arrangements of the Wellington CWA branch, the post office boxes to which letters were delivered and lengthy asides about the "very old lady" who spent part of one meeting outside in a wheelchair.

Mrs Collier cross-examined her ex-husband on his involvement with the local theatre group before Justice Adamson interrupted.

"I just don't see how it assists your case or harms your case by putting evidence on the activities of the amateur theatrical society in Wellington," Justice Adamson said.

Mrs Collier claims that letters sent by email in 2016 carried the defamatory imputations that she had been disrespectful, derogatory and discriminatory to members of the CWA Wellington branch, that she had been hostile and bullying, that she had made insulting comments about public figures, resisted attempts at mediation and refused to accept decisions.

According to her statement of claim, she has suffered further hardship from being expelled from the branch.

"The plaintiff has been subjected to not being able to participate in any CWA activities, such as her previous roles as handicraft officer, international officer, secretary, group social secretary, group vice president and committee member for the south Pacific Area Conference," the statement said.

This had impacted on her self-esteem and standing within the community of Wellington.

The CWA is defending the action on the basis that the claimed imputations are substantially true.

In a 2015 email to the branch president, Mrs Collier wrote: "You were a hopeless secretary and you are a hopeless president and treasurer, congratulations you have a 100 per cent failure rate."

Mrs Collier was appointed branch secretary in September 2014, although she told the court that she had been a reluctant recruit because she did not fancy the prospect of working with the president Tanya Cameron.

"I didn't think Ms Cameron was the clean potato she thought [she was]," Mrs Collier said.

But the court heard that she ran into conflict with the other office bearers over the minutes, book-keeping, bathroom conversions, who was the prime interjector in meetings and the expenditure of petty cash and she was removed from the position after 13 months.

When the petty cash limit was raised by $10, another branch member accused Mrs Collier of fraud for spending up to the limit.

Mrs Collier then devoted two paragraphs of one secretary's report to the inappropriateness of the same member correcting her on the distinction between the Church of England and the Anglican faith.

In late 2015, she was advised by letter that an investigation into her concerns had not identified any major problems and encouraged her to transfer to a different branch where she might feel more accepted.

She told the court on Wednesday the stress of the CWA had caused her marriage to split up.

"I've never gone out of my way to break any CWA rules and I've never been derogatory, disrespectful or bullying to any CWA members," she said.

"The CWA branch has not only defamed me but they've also done some illegal movements in broad terms, without waffling on. There's no rule in the rule book that says if a member doesn't like the minutes they can re-write them."

The hearing continues.