Editorial: David and Goliath

by Listener Archive / 03 January, 2013
Justice Minister Judith Collins seems to have forgotten that New Zealanders have a deeply ingrained sense of fair play.
David Bain
David Bain, photo John McCombe/NZPA

One of the bonuses of having such a long Christmas break in New Zealand is the chance it gives us to catch up on some reading. Whether the weather is glorious or ghastly, the one activity that will always bring satisfaction in the new year is catching up on those books that have sat beside the bed for far too long.

Understandably, many of us choose escapism at this time of year – a light, unchallenging read that matches our mood. But it is also a great time to get stuck into those more difficult tomes that are often put aside when work – or life in general – is too busy and stressful. Those who prefer the former category might be surprised to learn that Justice Ian Binnie’s report into David Bain’s claim for compensation for his imprisonment for the murder of five members of his family fits the bill rather nicely.

Thankfully, Justice Minister Judith Collins eventually realised that keeping the report secret was untenable, and it is now publicly available on the website of the Ministry of Justice*. At 193 pages, it is not exactly a quick read, but it is elegantly written, and easy to digest. It should be required reading for anyone tempted to express an opinion on the matter.

The Listener has previously pointed out that it would be repugnant to many people if Robin Bain were to be pronounced posthumously guilty of the murders while his son was given the benefit of the doubt. Justice Binnie has gone even further than that, declaring David “factually innocent”. Not only has he suggested that Bain be compensated for the 13-and-a-half years he spent in jail, but the esteemed former judge has gone so far as to suggest “serious wrongdoing by authorities”. In particular, he has pointed the finger at “acts and omissions of the Dunedin Police”.

Even Bain’s supporters agree that Binnie has made some mistakes. At least that is the view of Bain’s first defence lawyer, Michael Guest. But Guest does not go nearly so far as former High Court judge Robert Fisher QC in dismissing the entire report, which he was asked to review. Inevitably, there will be those whose belief in Bain’s guilt will remain unchanged once they read the report. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Collins had made up her mind even before she opened it. But such is the power of Binnie’s arguments that some members of the public have now changed camps.

Former MP Rodney Hide has noted that “it’s hard having a deeply held prejudice overturned”. And as Sir Bob Jones has pointed out, the court of public opinion is not necessarily resolute; there was a time when many people believed that Arthur Allan Thomas was guilty of the Crewe murders, for example.

For that reason, Collins appears to have taken a major gamble by coming out so strongly against the report. Her arrogant dismissal of Binnie’s conclusions may be winning her fans for her fearlessness, but it has also betrayed a breathtakingly arrogant streak that is disconcerting in someone who is so obviously ambitious. She appears to have forgotten that New Zealanders have a deeply ingrained sense of fair play, and one suspects she was surprised by a recent Herald-DigiPoll that indicated strong support for following the report’s recommendations.

In 2003, Collins told the New Zealand Herald that one of her heroes was the German general Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. In the same interview, she also revealed that she had recently read Rudy Giuliani’s book on leadership.

A decade on, she still appears to have leadership very much on her mind. But someone should tell her that there is more to being a leader than having a spine of steel. As any fan of crime writing knows, plots have a tendency to take strange turns. But perhaps it is time the Bain saga came to an end.

* bit.ly/VBDWGB
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