(First published in The Dominion Post and Stuff.co.nz., April 18.)
I did something a couple of weeks ago that I’ve never done before. I made a request under the Official Information Act.
I suppose it might be seen as shameful, as a journalist, to admit that I’ve never previously had recourse to the OIA, but there you are. I never felt I needed to.
My request was to Justice Minister Andrew Little and asked for information about the appointment of the Chief Human Rights Commissioner, Paul Hunt.
Hunt is in a powerful position to influence laws that could affect the quality of New Zealand democracy at its most fundamental level. We can assume that he will be very closely involved in the fast-tracked review of our “hate speech” laws, which has serious implications for freedom of expression.
Yet prior to his appointment last October, virtually no one in New Zealand, outside a narrow political and academic elite, had heard of him. Even now, he’s largely an unknown quantity. But what we do know about him isn’t reassuring.
Hunt is described as a New Zealand and British national, but he comes from a British academic background. He has made a career in the burgeoning international human rights industry.
His lengthy Wikipedia entry, clearly written by an admirer, describes him as a “human rights scholar-activist” and a professor of law at the Human Rights Centre, University of Essex. He has held senior appointments with the United Nations, including that of rapporteur on the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
“Rapporteur” is a fancy word for a UN official who checks to ensure that member countries measure up to the UN’s high expectations. Readers with long memories may recall that a UN rapporteur, Rodolfo Stavenhagen, was sent to New Zealand in 2005 and gave us a telling-off for our multiple human rights failings.
Countries represented on the UN commission that sent Stavenhagen here included Sudan, Zimbabwe, China and Cuba – nations internationally admired for their unstinting commitment to freedom.
Similarly, Hunt’s fellow rapporteurs 20 years ago included representatives from Russia, Belarus, Cameroon and Egypt, all of which are ranked as “not free” by the international organisation Freedom House. So we may be entitled to feel just a tiny bit sceptical about the credentials of UN officials professing to champion human rights.
But wait, there’s more. When Hunt wasn’t busy polishing his human rights credentials, he was dabbling in British politics.
To be precise, he contributed to a website called Left Foot Forward, which describes itself as “the home of political news and comment for progressives”. Hunt’s writing on social justice issues aligned closely with the policies of the Corbynite socialist (aka “progressive”) Left of the British Labour Party.
Last year, Hunt put himself forward for election to the party’s National Policy Forum. The aim was to “ensure Labour has an election-winning manifesto”. In a pamphlet, Hunt wrote that he could help strengthen and deliver Labour’s “exciting social policies”.
Of course he’s entitled to embrace whatever brand of politics he likes. But at the same time, we’re entitled to ask whether Hunt, a man steeped in British left-wing activism, is the right person to shape New Zealand’s human rights policies.
We’re also entitled to ask whether there was no suitably qualified candidate from a New Zealand background – someone with an intuitive understanding of New Zealand society and unencumbered by imported leftist ideology. This is one of the questions I’ve put to Little.
Many New Zealanders first heard of Hunt on the Tuesday following the Friday Christchurch mosque shootings, when he had an opinion article published on Stuff. In that article he warned of “violent, transnational, neo-fascist ideology” and issued a thinly disguised call for tougher hate speech laws.
He wrote passionately about the importance of protecting tolerance, diversity and equality, but strangely his polemic made no mention of one of the most fundamental human rights of all: freedom of expression.
Hunt certainly wasted no time seizing the moment. The opportunity was apparently too good to pass up. But New Zealanders might have been more impressed if he hadn’t so quickly rushed to judgment about what caused the shootings – which, after all, were perpetrated by someone from Australia – and deciding what, if anything, needs to be done to avoid a repetition.
No doubt Hunt’s CV ticked all the boxes for Labour and even more so for the Greens, but I wonder whether New Zealand First thought to challenge his appointment. The party’s supporters would surely have expected it to.
I also wonder whether the National Party raised even a squeak in protest. Probably not, since the Nats' election strategy for 2020 seems to consist of keeping their heads down and hoping not to be noticed.