The final note from Parliament’s Hansard report last week punctuated the win for judges and loss for New Zealand’s law abiding citizenry; “debate interrupted”.
The issue is the mortally-wounded Register of Pecuniary Interests of Judges Bill which its sponsor Dr Kennedy Graham told kiwisfirst in 2011 had considerable support in Parliament. The reporter suggested to Graham support might be equal among the public but none of this would prevent the judge cartel in New Zealand from killing the Bill.
Early on, few informed souls expected the Bill to get by Attorney General Chris Finlayson. Clever Chris instead welcomed the Bill, then turned it over to the Law Commission which proceeded to turn the inquisition on judicial transparency into a forum on judge-defined guidelines for conduct.
At the time the Bill was proposed, New Zealand’s judges long had formal guidelines for judicial conduct, but these guidelines were secret! When High Court Judge Geoffrey Venning was caught ruling against opposing interests to his forestry tax avoidance investments, his successful defence was he was unaware the guidelines existed. When Northern Marianas Islands Chief Justice Miguel Demapan embarked on a study of judicial ethics in the Pacific region, New Zealand was the only country not prepared to share its judicial code of conduct. Supreme Court Judge “Sir” Peter Blanchard, on behalf of Chief Justice Sian Elias, demanded strict confidentiality before sharing them with the remote island nation.
In August 2012, 210 NZ judges, in joint submissions formally opposed Graham’s honourable bill, calling it “unnecessary”. Careful not to call it a bad concept in law, the black-robed ones decreed the risk to judges’ privacy was not offset by any benefit to the public or justice. The Law Society and what passes as the New Zealand Bar dutifully towed the Judges’ line despite this position flying in the face of similar law in the United States, as well as the International Foundation for Election Systems which advised, “Although judges often balk at the invasion of privacy that disclosure of their private finances entails, it is almost uniformly considered to be an effective means of discouraging corruption, conflicts of interest, and misuse of public funds.”
Karma and redemption being concepts which occasionally happen in corrupt bureaucracies, former NZ Supreme Court Justice Bill Wilson, who was forced to resign in 2010 after revelations he ruled in a case where he had a pecuniary interest with counsel, wrote the sole submissions in support of the Bill. It is no coincidence Wilson was also the only submitter who had nothing to lose. Graham will forever be watching his back now that he is too old to get another gig overseas.
Members of Parliament have been dropping like dominoes ever since the judges lifted their robes and showed their testicles in opposition to the Bill. New Zealand First MP Denis O’Rourke captured the tidal shift at the second reading in Parliament: “In my first reading speech I said that we needed to show an effective means of avoiding conflicts of interest for judges and that I could not see how that really could be achieved without legislation. However, having participated in the select committee process and having heard the submissions, including written submissions from the judges themselves and submissions from several others, especially the Law Society and the Bar Association, I now think differently, and New Zealand First will now not support the bill.”
Wink, wink. Cower, fold. Party after political party. Even Graham lost the justice portfolio while his bill was pending. Some Green Party secretary in a windowless corner closet with no phone is now in charge of the shadow portfolio on justice in New Zealand. Surprisingly, it still is the most dynamic in support of justice principles, but who knows or cares?
Dr Graham, who had the misfortune of spending time away from New Zealand during its formative corruption years, never lost his flair for diplomatic brown-nosing even if it meant eating his own shorts. His introduction to the Second Reading of his proposed bill proved quintessential sheep-like, with a subservient bow which might embarrass the Queen as too patronising, now saying the curiae “recognised that the bill had the constructive aim of assisting the judiciary in the execution of its duties” and “I wish to acknowledge the Attorney-General for his constructive approach to this issue.” Yeah, right. The Bill the judiciary and the A-G unanimously shat on.
Back door Finlayson also spoke. “blah, blah, blah and thank you.” Check the Hansard link above for Finlayson’s actual blah for blah.
Somehow, Poto Williams, a new Labour MP working on her thesis on ‘Pacific Women Leadership’, did not let her ignorance on the issue prevent her from stealing center stage. After an introduction which began, “thank you very much for assisting me in learning how to take a call in the House”, Ms Williams spoke and spoke, then closed with, “Thank you. There are only a couple of minutes left to go, so I will see us through to the end here. What I am suggesting is that we have already got District Court judges who are under some pressure in terms of workload. The possibility is that this process of requiring judges to state potential conflicts of interest could add potential delays to the court process.”
A quick learner of great “potential” she is.