He was also, back in the day, a successful defamation plaintiff, taking damages of $162,173 and more than $1 million in costs from Fairfax over a series of articles by Kate McClymont which had labelled him as, well, corrupt. When Eddie finally went down after his long career of poisoning the governmental well with his cartoonish venality, Fairfax stood vindicated -- and still $1,162,173 (plus its own legal costs) poorer. You don't get it back.

Don't blame Eddie though, he was only pursuing Australian political tradition. Our MPs are the world's most litigious and, if you've ever wondered why the media's constant calls for urgent reform of our defamation laws are consistently ignored by our parliaments, then an exploration of the record of politicians suing media organisations for defamation might give you a clue.

While they routinely clothe themselves in the conceit that you need a thick skin in politics, our representatives are notoriously quick to reach for the lawyers when they don't like what they read. Bob Hawke remains the champion, having sued pretty much everyone in his career and collecting an impressive collection of payouts.

Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen also sued everything that moved, filing more than 20 suits. His entire cabinet at one point memorably jointly sued the opposition leader for calling them all corrupt. Which, really, they were.

It continues. Sophie Mirabella recently won her case against a regional newspaper which suggested she had pushed the independent MP Cathy McGowan out of a photo opportunity. The Benalla Ensign has learnt an expensive lesson in editorial vetting.

Never far from political sensitivities, the defamation temptation is confronting Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young right now. Her fellow Senator, David Leyonhjelm, having spent much of last week in and out of Parliament "slut shaming" Hanson-Young as she has described it, might as well be wearing a "Sue Me" T-shirt right now. Will she take the legal bait?

Two broader questions arise: why do politicians sue? And should they be so easily able to?

Three reasons to sue

Firing off a defamation suit is as simply done as it is later regretted. I advise all putative plaintiffs to have a drink and play with the dog for a bit before pulling the trigger.

The calculus for whether to sue is far more complex than tends to be contemplated.

There are three reasons to launch a claim: to protect/restore one's damaged reputation; to get monetary damages as compensation; and to shut the conversation down. Each should be considered carefully.

Of course, you never get your reputation back. Liberace successfully sued a magazine for calling him a homosexual. Apparently he considered that a slanderous thing to suggest. Rebel Wilson has a verdict against Woman's Day for calling her a liar (about her age among other things), but has she achieved anything other than propping up its circulation?

Defamation damages are capped these days and the economic equation makes no sense. They are hellishly expensive cases to run, with no pot of gold at the end.

The benefit of hindsight

Consider Joe Hockey: he sued Fairfax for calling him a "Treasurer for sale" and won. However, because the court found that only the headline posters had defamed him, while the article itself had not (the substance of what Fairfax said was true), he was only awarded $200,000 plus 15 per cent of his legal costs. He ended up presumably out of pocket and looking like a bit of a thin-skinned goose.

For Hockey, the benefit of hindsight would probably have said don't sue. But nothing in the outcome could not have been foreseen with sufficient accuracy to guide him away from litigation, if it had been properly thought through.

The reality of most defamation claims is that there are too many variables which the plaintiff can't control, to make it a sensible thing to do.

Which is not to say that suing is never the best strategy. There is certainly one situation in which a politician, or anyone else with a public reputation to protect, might choose to do it. That's where they're guilty of what's been alleged. I can think of several highprofile men who ran defamation claims against their accusers, and it has been quite the right tactic.

Look at it this way: if you're the "victim" of allegations of very bad wrongdoing, and it looks like (or you know) there's more to come, then shutting down the conversation is a pretty good idea. Launching defamation proceedings may achieve just that.

Call it the "chilling effect".

Defamation balance is wrong

In our ongoing debate about free speech, Australia's overly restrictive defamation laws are at least as problematic as any national security law. In the US, politicians just can't sue at all. In the UK and Canada, the available defences are far stronger. In Australia, the only viable defence for media is truth. The qualified privilege defences have been more or less neutered by judicial interpretation.

So, if they can't prove that what they alleged is true, they lose.

When the allegations rely on whistle-blowers or victims, the media is hostage to those people being believed. It's an impossible conundrum.

A properly robust political system requires a much wider free space for testing the accountability and integrity of our elected representatives (and other public figures) than our defamation laws currently allow. We have the balance wrong.

Should Hanson-Young sue?

Senator Hanson-Young, like any politician contemplating a lawsuit, will hopefully consider these wider issues in addition to the specific questions confronting her. Should she sue?

Will it achieve something meaningful? Will it shut Senator Leyonhjelm up? Hard to say but, if any politician ever had a just cause for defamation proceedings, then she is top of the list.