Under pressure: Kiwi elites feel the heat

by Graham Adams / 04 April, 2018
Opinion.

From left: Sir Bob Jones, a protest march against Russell McVeagh in Wellington and NZDF’s retiring chief, Lieutenant-General Tim Keating. Photo credits: Katie Scorcher and Getty Images

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The winds of change are blowing.

March was a cruel month for the nation’s elites — whether in law, the police, the military, or business. There is a spirit of insolence abroad. There were demands for heads to roll. Petitions. Marches.

In one month, calls were made for the Police Commissioner, the Defence Force chief, the Privacy Commissioner and Air NZ’s chair to step down.

In mid-March, hundreds of students rallied outside the Wellington offices of mega-law firm Russell McVeagh to demand an end to sexual harassment in the workplace. A week later, the Minister for Women, Julie Anne Genter, suggested older white men on company boards might want to move aside to make way for a younger and wider range of talent.

 

The month ended with a 68,000-signature petition presented to Parliament to strip Bob Jones of his knighthood. 

This is not exactly May 1968, when the War Generation was forced to cede some power to rebellious youth after violent demonstrations and riots in France and elsewhere, but the Establishment in New Zealand is under pressure nevertheless, in our own quiet antipodean way.

In fact, we are pretty quiet even about the existence of an Establishment. So much so that, just three years ago, Dame Lowell Goddard, QC, could tell the British Home Affairs Committee, with a straight face, that we didn’t have one

As part of vetting her to head the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, and keen to find someone who would interrogate their own elites fearlessly, the committee asked if she considered herself part of the Establishment”.

Justice Goddard replied: We don’t have such a thing in my country.”

A first-rate comic talent, she was obviously skilfully riffing on the long-defunct notion of New Zealand as a classless society and it must have worked because she got the job. But whether our elites are termed the “Establishment”, “Old Guard” or the “boss class”, they are certainly taking a beating at the moment.

The month began with the continued flogging of Russell McVeagh, and reports that all the nation’s law schools had shed their ties with one of the country's premier law firms — unlovingly dubbed “The Factory” — as it became the whipping boy for the sins of greedy, entitled, professional males everywhere. 

The firm appeared to be completely blindsided by the attacks, which is perhaps why it has been so inept in dealing with the fallout of the sexual harassment allegations, responding at every turn in a narrow, legalistic way. This approach undoubtedly works in a court of law but doesn’t play very well in the court of public opinion, and especially not when it has been fired up by the #MeToo movement.

Next in the gun was the NZ Defence Force. It was forced to admit that the locations of the photographs in the book Hit & Run by Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson published a year ago were, indeed, accurate, contrary to what it had said at the time

The NZDF’s chief, Lieutenant-General Tim Keating, had cast doubt on the veracity of the whole book — which alleged the SAS botched a raid on two isolated Afghan villages in 2010, including killing innocent civilians — by claiming there were “major inaccuracies” in it, with the main one being the names and location of the villages.

And so, inevitably, Stephenson called for Keating’s head.

A few weeks later, on April 3, Keating announced he wouldn't seek reappointment at the end of his term on June 30. He insisted his departure was not linked to the allegations in Hit & Run or anything to do "with the recent spurious publicity” about the raids on the villages. Presumably, it also has nothing to do with the looming inquiry into the SAS’s actions either.

Hot on the heels of the NZDF’s admission (which Keating now asserts was not an "admission"), the Independent Police Conduct Authority ruled that the police vehicle checkpoint in October 2016 targeting members of Exit International was illegal. Act MP David Seymour immediately called for the Police Commissioner to resign

That may have seemed to be an overreaction but when the report is read alongside the police response to it, it is thoroughly alarming. Apparently, nine of the Commissioner’s staff involved — including an Acting District Commander and an Area Commander — either didn’t understand the law governing the rights of police to stop citizens going about their business or if they did, they were happy to break it.

It was also clear from the report that it is not uncommon for police to illegally use roadblocks primarily for gathering intelligence.

The IPCA report certainly hasn’t done the police’s reputation any favours and extensive remedial law courses seem to be indicated for much of the force. The illegal checkpoint also exposes the police to claims for compensation for arbitrary detention.

In late March, Kim Dotcom, the nation’s best-known resident computer nerd, was awarded $90,000 in damages after he took a breach of privacy case to the Human Rights Review Tribunal. It ruled that the former Attorney-General Chris Finlayson broke the law by withholding private information the government possessed that Dotcom had asked for. 

Dotcom called for the Privacy Commissioner to resign and said he would launch a private prosecution against Chris Finlayson and former prime minister Sir John Key. 

Unfortunately, the award of damages was just another dismal chapter in the long extradition saga that has repeatedly shown the government and its agents to have acted illegally. The public has taken little interest in the legal manoeuvrings so far but it certainly will when Dotcom’s claim for $6.8 billion in compensation from the Crown for the summary closure of Megaupload is heard.

The claim, filed in the Auckland High Court in January, weighs in at nearly 3.5 per cent of GDP and at some point the public will be forced to consider exactly who in the former National-led administration put so much taxpayers’ money at risk for the dubious purpose of helping Hollywood neutralise Dotcom. 

However, it was the calls by the Regional Economic Development Minister, Shane Jones, for Air NZ’s chairman to step down and its CEO to stay out of politics that captured the most widespread attention during the month. They followed his demand that the airline look after the interests of provincial New Zealand better, sparked by the closure of flights to the Kapiti Coast. 

At first, Jones’ call was dismissed as outrageous and insolent and just another example of him shooting his big mouth off but then he started to get support from regional leaders. Suddenly opinion shifted in his favour.

In fact, Jones couldn’t have picked a better time to demand justice for the little guy on the Kapiti Coast. Days later, Barack Obama arrived in New Zealand on a whirlwind tour that consisted of playing golf with John Key and an invitation-only dinner for the nation’s elite. Air NZ was one of three sponsors that ponied up $500,000 to bring him here. It was a love-fest for the entitled.

The visit sadly turned out to be an expensive vanity project for Sir John Key that failed to deliver even a single tweet from Obama telling the world how wonderful New Zealand is.

So far, Key hasn’t had to weather a petition to strip him of his knighthood, unlike his fellow knight Bob Jones. The petition, presented at Parliament on March 27, was in response to a column Jones wrote for NBR, suggesting that Waitangi Day should be replaced by Maori Gratitude Day when Maori could show their appreciation for European immigrants, including cleaning their cars and bringing them breakfast in bed.

Personally, I thought it was so clearly tongue-in-cheek (and so clearly daft) that it would pass unnoticed — especially when it was published for the limited, right-leaning readership of NBR. But it created a fierce storm about racism on social media that led to the petition being widely circulated.

Jones will keep his knighthood, of course, but perhaps what is most pertinent is that the offending column is no longer available on the NBR site and Jones is no longer willing to write for the publication.

Change — quiet or otherwise — is definitely afoot. 

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