Press Release – The Nation
‘THE NATION’ SIMON POWER Interviewed by SEAN PLUNKET Sean After just 12 years in Parliament, a man who many thought would go on to lead the National Party is calling it quits. Simon Power came into politics as an MP very much in the National Party …‘THE NATION’
Interviewed by SEAN PLUNKET
Sean After just 12 years in Parliament, a man who many thought would go on to lead the National Party is calling it quits. Simon Power came into politics as an MP very much in the National Party tradition, he talked up his values of thrift, hard work, free enterprise, and reward for risk. Since then the high flying minister who’s ranked fourth in John Key’s cabinet has brought in major reforms to many of his portfolios. So his decision to resign in November has come as a shock to many, including the Prime Minister.
Well Justice Minister Simon Power joins us now. Why?
Simon Power – Justice Minister
Well I’ve had 12 years in politics.
Sean But only three years as a Minister.
Simon It’s how you spend the time while you’re a Minister, and I was lucky enough to have around me very good team of staff I have with me in my Beehive office now, probably the best in the Beehive in my view, who have been able to help me plan in a way that when we came to office I was ready to hit the ground running, across a variety of areas. I remember the first day I met the justice officials. They said to me what are your priorities? I was able to hand them over five or six drafted bills and say get cracking on these. Having a plan and executing it in your time in government in my opinion is more important than the length of time you’re in the role.
Sean Some might say you’ve done in three years what other ministers would take three terms to achieve because of that – if you like that work programme.
Simon Well I’m not sure about that other than to say, preparation is 90% of the battle in politics, 10% is delivery, and you have to have done the work to be able to execute at the other end. And look I’ve had a Prime Minister in John Key who has given me enormous freedom, and that’s something I’ll always be extraordinarily grateful for.
Sean We look simply in the Justice portfolio, the amazing changes that you have steered through there. We mentioned some of them, legal aid, defence of provocation, the Kahui law, the offender levy, cartel behaviour, Family Court changes, a move perhaps towards an inquisitorial system. Where did the blueprint for all those changes come from because it certainly doesn’t seem to have come dare I say from the lawyers themselves, or perhaps indeed the judges?
Simon No I think it’s fair to say that perhaps some members of the judiciary and the legal profession have had a different view of where law reform should head. When I first became the Minister the overriding message I received was that in order to fix the justice system to reduce the time frames that people had to wait and the costs involved, all you need to do was build more courthouses and appoint more judges and then everything would be fine. Clearly that’s the advice all of my predecessors received, because that’s what they did and actually nothing changed.
Sean And would you say that was because of the vested interest of officials who proffered that advice?
Simon Well I think it was probably more because of the fact that nobody was prepared to say well let’s start with a clean sheet of paper and say if I was entering the justice system as somebody who is there through no fault of my own, a witness, a victim, a juror, or for that matter a defendant who is innocent, what would I expect the justice system or the court system to look like. So not take it from the point of view of those who are used to the system, of the lawyers and to a lesser extent you know the judiciary who I’ve got a very high regard for. The truth is the politicians job is to shape the system so it’s contemporary and just simply saying but that’s not the way we’ve always done it, relying on tradition and precedent is the most important thing in the justice system. I just don’t buy it, otherwise we’d still have pistols at dawn, as we did you know many hundreds of years ago.
Sean Has your interaction with real New Zealanders involved in the justice system shaped your views on what reforms were necessary?
Simon Yeah it has. Where it’s appropriate I’ve taken the time to meet individually with some people who have had interactions with the justice system, victims of crime who have gone through the justice system. Never when their matter was before the courts, I’m very particular about those things. But often after their matter had been through the courts, and actually just quietly sitting down and listening to their experience of how the court system worked, and I can remember vividly coming back to my office, cleaning off the white board and saying well let’s start from their point of view and work the way through that system.
Sean Now I know that the one family you did meet with was the family of Sophie Elliot.
Simon Yeah I did meet with the Elliots.
Sean When was that?
Simon That was well after Mr Weatherston was sentenced. My memory is it was somewhere towards the start of 2010.
Sean But prior to his appeal?
Simon That’s right.
Sean Okay, and why did you decide to do that?
Simon Look, that case had a profound effect on the way that I viewed the justice system, and in particular the way victims of crime were dealt with by the justice system, and I’ve since read Mrs
Elliot’s book. I can remember banging into her walking across a crossing in Wellington when the matter was before the Court of Appeal. I wasn’t able to say anything to her just simply because of being the Minister of Justice while the appeal was being heard.
Sean Did you want to say something to her then?
Simon Well of course you do. You know there’s a human side to all of this that actually impacts on the way policy is made, and the truth is, those people who find themselves in the justice system through no fault of their own, they don’t have a voice. Now some people in the profession would say that by allowing victims more of a say, more of an opportunity in the justice system, you are in effect making the process too emotional, you interfere with a dispassionate assessment of the facts as it were. I just think that’s rubbish.
Sean So who approached you post trial, post conviction for Weatherston, was it you approaching the Elliots or did the Elliots come to you?
Simon They’ve written to me over a period of time, as many many victims of crime do, asking what the government’s going to do to change the system to make it better, and I’ve quietly gone off and met with a number of those people over time.
Sean So did you go down and see them at their home?
Simon I did.
Sean And did you see the room in which …
Simon No, no I didn’t.
Sean What did you talk with them about?
Simon I didn’t say a lot. I sat there and listened to what they had to say about the processes, and I’ve done a similar thing with other families as well, and you know the trick here is to make sure that it’s not the institutions and the system that form your view, that you’re prepared to go off and hear first hand how some of these things haven’t worked for people, and that’s something where appropriate and at the right point in the process, I’ve done from time to time and I think it’s the right thing to do, and I think the danger of being in government, in a job like mine, for two long is that you are easily distracted by what officials and the institutions are telling you about how the system works.
Sean So was that meeting with the Elliots that really drove the changes to the defence of provocation for you?
Simon No, that had already occurred by the time that I’d met with them, and that had been in the pipeline for a long long time.
Sean Okay, so how did that meeting inform your views on other things?
Simon Well that and other groups that I’d met with around that time affected perhaps the views that I had on things like victim impact statements and the government’s moving to legislate in that area will be tabling a bill before the parliament rises at the end of this year on exactly that point, on interactions between the Parole Board and victims. We’ve created a new Victims’ Centre in the Ministry of Justice. We’ve used the offender levy money to create an enormous range of new benefits that are available to victims in the justice system, particularly around issues of sexual violent, which I found that community very passionate and very driven in interacting with the government over its concerns about the way witnesses are treated by the justice system.
Sean You met with Louise Nichols?
Simon I have over time met with her and the wider group, a group called Tour Nest(?) who have been a community representative of women who have been subject to sexual violence.
Sean You’ve also had to deal with some people wrongly convicted and there has been compensation in the time of this government for people who have been convicted and imprisoned for crimes that they did not commit, or have been wrongly treated by Police. Are you also prepared to meet with them, hear their stories?
Simon Yeah look I did. I met with Mr Knight and his colleague who were it was found, wrongly imprisoned for a crime they didn’t commit. The Crown had to offer an apology and compensation for those crimes, Mr Knight and Mr Johnson. I said to the officials well we should meet with these guys and apologise face to face, and I’m not sure that it had been done in that way before, but the truth is the system, and I represent the system, I represent the Crown, had got it wrong, and these people deserved the courtesy of sitting down and eyeballing me and telling me how the system had got it wrong and me apologising to them.
Sean I mean I can see officials and clerks of courts rolling their eyes at what they’re hearing now, a Minister who wants to get involved and emotionally connect with people involved in the justice system.
Simon Well you know, too bad, and the reason that I say that is, you have to understand that there’s a very human side to these processes, and actually I think if it’s created a precedent where the Crown has to meet with people who have been wrongly imprisoned to offer that apology, that’s a good thing, because the system doesn’t always get it right.
Sean You say you’ve done, and by your own admission you’ve done an awful lot. How much use has it all been, and I look in particular the Financial Markets Authority and no one is suggesting that that wasn’t long overdue, and I know you yourself have suggested that perhaps the system was already there, it just wasn’t being exercised in the right way. But isn’t that particular area of law reform somewhat after the fact the horse has pretty well bolted for many mum and dad investors who’ve lost the lot in dodgy finance companies?
Simon It is later than would have been preferable, that’s dead right, but the truth is by the time we’d come in in November 2008, they’d lost about six, just over six billion dollars’ worth of New Zealand investors’ money. That figure’s now at about 8.3 billion. We had to create an environment where there was better oversight. Would it have happened if those oversights that we’ve changed around financial advisors, the Financial Markets Authority, corporate trustees, auditors etc, had been in place? Well I can’t say definitely it wouldn’t have happened, but what I can tell you is there would have been a lot bigger hurdles for those public issuers to leap. They would have had to go through a lot more hoops to make those products available and I’m confident that the current system would have captured many of those, as the system exists now, on the way through.
Sean And to a certain extent the proof of that pudding’s going to be in the FMA isn’t it? We don’t quite know yet what the next scheme’s gonna be?
Simon No, but the beauty of the new powers that we’ve given the FMA is that they cannot now design a product which is specifically done to avoid securities law. We’ve given the FMA a power to deem a product to be a security for its oversight, which Blue Chip and others were literally able to craft products, largely in property syndicates to avoid securities legislation, and we’ve plugged that hole.
Sean Alright let’s talk more broadly, the adversarial system versus the inquisitorial system that I know you’re very keen on. You haven’t really achieved if you like complete structural change there, would you have like to have if you’d had more time?
Simon Yes I would have, yes I would have, and I still have a way to go on that, I’m not letting it go until right at the last minutes. So anybody that things I’m going to cruise through until November, that’s not going to be the case at all. When you sat back and thought about, particularly with children, and victims of sexual violence, how the court system treats them when they’re giving evidence, I can to the view first of all that can’t be a good process for getting decent evidence out of people, waiting 16 months to have your evidence cross examined when you’re a child. I mean I don’t know about you but if you asked me what I was doing last Wednesday I wouldn’t have a clue, let alone if I was seven years old and asked what were you doing 15 months ago when the alleged perpetrator came into your room. So I actually think there is room for evidence to be taken in chief and crossed, very early in the process, videotaped and then used in the trial so the child can get on with their life without having to reappear in the court system later on.
Sean There’s every likelihood though that you won’t get those changes through into law before the election isn’t there?
Simon That’s true.
Sean Okay, we look at alcohol, liquor reform, which has been another issue you’ve been battling with. Are we going to see that passed into law before then?
Simon You’ll certainly see progress on it. It’s not due to come out of a Select Committee until 30 August. The House lifts on 6 October, so you know there will be progress but it’s unlikely it would get all the way.
Sean Yeah but that’s essentially a no then. So why are you leaving with business unfinished given that reform is your thing?
Simon Well um in the end I made a decision on the night of the 2008 election that I was going to do one further term. So I always knew what time frame I had, and I’ve prioritised the work according to what I most wanted to achieve early on. We’re never going to be able to tick every single box on the way out.
Sean But you could have with another three years?
Simon Well I’m perfectly confident that whoever the next National Minister of Justice or Commerce is, they’ll complete the work because I know the Prime Minister’s very supportive of it.
Sean On liquor pricing, minimum pricing you were keen on, are you gonna get that through, is that gonna be…?
Simon That work is making really good progress outside of the Select Committee. I’m expecting that report shortly and I’m not ruling out regulating to get that information, but the retailers have been very constructive with my officials in presenting that information to them. That’s very much on the cards.
Sean I look at liquor reform and I dwell on it a little because one of the things, or one of the stories going round is that you’ve refused to meet liquor lobbyists in the process of going through that reform, which seems to be quite different from agreeing to meet the victims of crimes or people who have had problems with the justice system, and lobbyists are very much being talked about at the moment. Do you trust real people more than you trust lobbyists, and do you think lobbyists have too much influence?
Simon Yeah I do trust real people a lot actually. I think look I knew there was always going to be in any liquor reform process, accusations of undue influence from both sides about how was getting in to see the Minister and who wasn’t. So literally I didn’t see anybody up until the point that the Law Commission delivered its report. I met with everybody that wanted to meet with me. When it went to Select Committee I will meet with nobody and I haven’t met with anybody on any side of the debate since it went to a Select Committee, so that those accusations couldn’t be made.
Sean You don’t apply that across all your portfolios?
Simon Well no I don’t, because that issue in particular was always going to be one where the accusations you’re seeing flying at the moment were going to come.
Sean You say you’re confident whoever replaces you should National win the next election, and as we said the polls look like they could well do. Do you have confidence that there are other members of the National caucus, or a future National cabinet that will take the same approach as you. Do you think Judith Collins would take the same approach as you have?
Simon Oh I’m sure and I think that there’s a huge amount of depth both in the cabinet and in the caucus, a lot of people with a lot of interest in this area. As I say ultimately those are matters for the Prime Minister, but he has given me enormous freedom to get on and do this work, probably more freedom than most ministers would have been given in this situation, and I’ll always be very grateful to him for letting me have that opportunity,.
Sean So you would be happy for those portfolios and those reforms to be continued by say Judith Collins?
Simon Well look who continues them is a matter for the Prime Minister, I’d support whoever the next Minister of Justice.
Sean Well I asked you, would it be okay if it was Judith Collins in your book?
Simon Sure, but that’s not a choice for me to make.
Sean No, obviously not. I guess the choice you do have to make is what the next job is and you have been stoically quiet on that and saying nothing. Do you have another job? Are you waiting for the right time? Or is Simon Power on the market?
Simon No, I’m talking to a few organisations at the moment, haven’t made a decision, and once I enter private life it’s going to be private Sean.
Sean Will that role be one of reform and change, will you come into whatever the new job is with a list of priorities and sit down with your executive team and say we’re gonna do this this this and this?
Simon I think you can probably say that.
Sean Alright. Do you think you leave the National Party with a hole in its ranks, you were the fourth ranked Cabinet Minister in what has been a relatively successful National administration?
Simon No I don’t. I think look the one thing that I’ve learnt over 12 years is that people like me are pretty dispensable to the process. What’s not dispensable is ideas, and ultimately ideas matter in politics more than the people who deliver the policy, because ideas always endure in politics, people don’t, and that’s why it’s really important to put the ideas front and centre.
Sean Would 50 be too old to come back into politics. I was just trying to crunch some numbers. What age would Simon Power be if he has a successful private sector career and decided to come back. Would you consider that at the age of 50, to come back into politics after you know?
Simon Well look I think it’s very unlikely, but I did say at the time I was going to retire, that I wouldn’t close the door, but I’ve gotta be honest and say I think it’s a miniscule possibility.
Sean Alright electoral reform is also up and you’ve taken an interest in that, and you mentioned in your maiden speech, you mentioned about Bruce Beatham of course who was a former MP for Rangitikei from Social Credit and Bruce Beatham was an advocate for proportional representation.
Simon He was.
Sean Are you happy with the system of electoral law we have?
Simon Well this is – I’m not trying to skirt the question here Mr Plunket but is the person that is overseeing the referendum actually out of a 122 MPs, I’m probably the only person that doesn’t get to have a view on this. I’ve gotta make sure that I’m not leading the public or being seen to lead the public in a particular direction. We promised the referendum and we’ve delivered the mechanism to start that process. I mean Bruce Beatham is a fascinating case. In 1996 when my predecessor Denis Marshall was running in Rangitikei he still got 4,500 votes in Rangitikei so he was still a player right up until the mid 90s, in fact made my seat quite marginal in 1999.
Sean That’s right he did too. Have you enjoyed the last 12 years? Has it been everything you expected it to be, or is there something left undone?
Simon I’ve loved every minute of it. I’ve loved every minute of it, but that’s a good time to go. That’s a really good time to go. Look it hasn’t always been easy. I mean obviously between 2002 and 2005 was a pretty tough time, but actually what you saw during that time in National was the bonding of ten or eleven key people, who once we had 05 and then 08 the team was really well cemented. There’s a good mix of highly experienced former ministers, and new younger characters with a bit of a different view on some issues. That all makes for a great melting pot of ideas, and the Prime Minister really does run the thing like a chief executive. He has four or five senior line managers who he just lets get on and do the job, and it makes a huge difference to the way the government runs.
Sean Simon I thank you very much indeed for you time today, and best of luck for the future, whatever that might hold.