Hon Christopher Finlayson QC shares with us the reason why he entered politics, the inspiration behind his popular new book, Yes, Minister, his views on co-governance, and a third book in the pipeline.
Almost 17 years ago on 17 September 2005, you were elected to Parliament. Why did you enter politics?
That's a very good question because I always thought that I would either be a back room person or end up on the bench because that was certainly where my career was going. I got the opportunity to stand – I was given a very high ranking on the National Party list and decided to do it because I was very interested in some of the areas where I was so privileged to be a minister for a long time.
But it’s important to say I'm not a political lawyer, I'm a lawyer who was in politics for a number of years. I’m first and foremost a lawyer, and now that [political] part of my life is behind me, the purpose of these books is to reflect on that period but I want to get on with the practice of law.
Yes, Minister is your second book since leaving politics. What was your inspiration for writing this book?
This is the second of what I hope will be three books written by me. The first book dealt with treaty settlements because I was the Treaty Minister for nine years. This book is a sketch of my time in parliament but the more I got into it, the more I felt it was important to explain the office of Attorney General and the important role the Attorney has to ensure that the business of government is conducted in accordance with the rule of law.
A lot of people seem to think the role of Attorney General is similar to that of the Minister of Justice but that’s wrong, so an important part of the book is to examine that issue.
I also briefly touch on my other responsibilities in my nine years in government, particularly as Minister in charge of the intelligence services and also Minister of Culture and Heritage.
You have discussed competence or lack thereof, in politics and have said that people don't necessarily celebrate competence. How would you address this lack of competence?
I think in the case of the National Party, and I can only talk about that party, it can be addressed through the list. There was a concerted effort in the mid 2000s to attract people like our former ambassador to the World Trade Organisation, Tim Groser. Tim had been a very senior official in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He had also served as ambassador to Indonesia and he was a person who was an obvious choice for the trade negotiations portfolio. So the idea is to get qualified people who are prepared to come into parliament for a period – not make a career of it – but do a couple of things and then move on.
The other thing I'm very much a supporter of is term limits. After you've been in there for fifteen years, you take a compulsory three-year sabbatical. If you want to come back after that, well and good, but I think it’s important that people not regard politics as a profession but as something they contribute to for a period.
When you look at local government and I suppose also central government, you see an increasing and alarming disinclination to get in there and do your bit for the community. It’s particularly apparent in the local body elections this year. If people know that they can go in, do a job and then get out, I think that will encourage greater involvement.
You’ve spoken about co-governance and how the term ‘co-government’ is unrelated and misleading, and that 'treaty partnership' may be a better term when discussing and debating co-governance. In your view, how should New Zealanders be engaging in this conversation about co-governance?
Well I think the important thing to emphasise is that we are not talking about co-government. There is one sovereign, there is one Crown. That does not mean to say the Crown cannot share responsibility in certain areas with iwi, particularly when there is a deep interest on the part of iwi in the particular subject matter.
The co-governance work I did was related to the environment – a mountain, a river, a lake – where there was very special importance to the iwi in the area, and there's no reason in principle why the government should make all the decisions about the environment. Why not involve the local iwi – so that is why I think perhaps a better term would be a ‘treaty partnership’, which in many instances, though it doesn’t have to be, arises out of treaty settlements.
If we can clarify the difference between co-governance and co-government then we will be in a better place. I think there are some people who are attempting to confuse the two concepts and it’s not particularly helpful, it’s inflammatory.
In your maiden speech in parliament you said that the signing of the treaty deal with Ngāi Tahu in 1997 was the highlight of your legal career. Today, looking back at your diverse career and experiences across both law and politics, what would you say is your career highlight?
It was a great honour to appear for New Zealand in the International Court of Justice. That’s when I intervened on behalf of New Zealand in the case involving Australia taking Japan to court over whaling in the southern ocean. That was a once in a lifetime opportunity.
I suppose it would be wrong of me to single out a particular settlement I did because all settlements are important, regardless of whether or not they’re large or small. There are a number of very significant events in the context of the treaty negotiations portfolio. For example, the apology of Parihaka in June 2017, the settlement with Whanganui River Iwi, the settlement with Tūhoe.
Can you tell us more about this third book you’re planning to write?
The third book will build on some of what I’ve said in this one, which will hopefully be a collection of essays edited by me involving others who have held the office of Attorney General in other parts of the world.
In 2010 I met the now Secretary General of the Commonwealth Baroness Scotland. At the time she was Attorney General for England & Wales. She established what has become known as the Quintet of Attorneys General – Attorneys from New Zealand, Australian, England & Wales, the United States and Canada met on an annual basis to discuss important issues.
During my time I met a number of very impressive colleagues who have had to make some tough decisions as Attorneys General and I am approaching them to see if they would be interested in participating in this project.
Yes, Minister is available in bookstores across the motu, or you can purchase online.