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John-Edwards-FishHead-20140519_DSC9675Lamb­ton Quay and Feath­er­ston Street are a study in con­trasts. There’s some won­der­fully well turned out people down this end of town, quite hap­pily clad in four-fig­ure suits and the sharpest of shirts and ties. And then there’s the non-office types, who keep this quarter fed and con­nec­ted; the cour­i­er drivers, the guys put­ting down the new fibre cables, the aston­ish­ingly hard work­ers who run the food bars and sushi shacks around here. And some­where in between the pea­cock­ery of the young thrusters, and the prac­tic­al­ity of the ser­vice work­ers, there are the civil ser­vants, much maligned by the talk­back callers and the com­ment­at­ors who feed off them, get­ting on with the quiet busi­ness of keep­ing the wheels turn­ing, per­form­ing all those myri­ad unglam­or­ous tasks that Mike Hosk­ing would squeal about the loudest if they were not done.

John Edwards, our still new­ish Pri­vacy Com­mis­sion­er, sits pro­foundly and squarely in this lat­ter group. He is a quietly spoken man, soberly dressed in a plain grey suit, white shirt and dark tie, and with the build and demean­our of an ever so slightly pug­na­cious half-back. He is — in short — exactly the sort of per­son you might walk past every day in Lamb­ton Quay, who by their out­ward demean­our could be in charge of the pho­to­copy­ing, or tasked with keep­ing whole branches of gov­ern­ment hum­ming. 

The Buzz­cocks changed my life,” he says. Instantly, I am smitten.

Edwards grew up in the Tarana­ki, mainly. He was a dili­gent but — in his own words — “unex­cit­ing” stu­dent, who non­ethe­less did well enough to be accep­ted into law school at Vic­tor­ia Uni­ver­sity. He says inner-city Wel­ling­ton life in the mid-1980s suited him just fine. There was good music at a couple of down­town pubs, and a pint of beer was neither a second mort­gage nor yet an occa­sion for craft beer snob­bery one-upman­ship. And — in the years before the rise of the prop­erty developers — inner-city Wel­ling­ton was still a place where you could find a cheap flat and pretty much have the streets to your­self over the weekend.

Wel­ling­ton city, its bands and the impor­ted post-punk — The Buzz­cocks espe­cially —he could hear on Radio Act­ive every day were enough to nip in the bud Edward’s brief dal­li­ance with adoles­cent Chris­tian­ity, and to give him a love for a decent chord and a well-spat lyr­ic that remains to this day.


It’s clear that Edwards enjoyed his stu­dent life immensely. But it’s just as clear that he remained a hard work­er. We’ve a mutu­al friend work­ing in his office. Let’s call him ‘Charles‘, since that is his name. We’ve each known Charles for well over 20 years.

We used to have great con­ver­sa­tions on the foot­path out­side parties,” says Edwards. “I was always just leav­ing as he was arriving”.

John-Edwards-FishHead-20140519_DSC9687            “That’s prob­ably why he works for you now, and not the oth­er way around,” I joke.

He laughed at that, but I swear he gave a thought­ful little nod as well.

For hol­i­day work — and, all jok­ing aside, this prob­ably says more about our Pri­vacy Com­mis­sion­er today than the remin­is­cences about Gis­borne Gold and The Gor­dons ever will — Edwards worked in Mt Cook Nation­al Park, build­ing and main­tain­ing tracks.

And I very much like the fact that this ex-law stu­dent, occa­sion­al habitué of punk gigs at Bar Bodega, den­iz­en of Suzy’s cof­fee lounge, and now guard­i­an of our leg­al right to pri­vacy, has also par­ti­cip­ated in alpine res­cues, and has climbed Aoraki/Mt Cook. Twice. 

After gradu­at­ing, I moved back to New Ply­mouth for a while, and I got a job with a loc­al law firm there, which seemed like a good step. But most of what I was doing was con­vey­an­cing, basic­ally arran­ging for the move­ment of big chunks of land. And, well I wasn’t ter­ribly good at num­bers for one thing, which made me a bit of a liab­il­ity with the trust account­ing… and it just wasn’t excit­ing me. It didn’t feel like what I’d got into law for.

So I applied for a job with the Office of the Ombuds­man. Back then, if you made a request under the Offi­cial Inform­a­tion Act, and it was denied you, then you could make an appeal to the ombuds­man. There were two ombuds­men at that stage, and I was help­ing them with the reviews, and I found some of that fas­cin­at­ing. I was there for three years, and then the Pri­vacy Act came along, and one of the things the Pri­vacy Act changed was the way in which the Offi­cial Inform­a­tion Act was used.

Pre­vi­ously, your right to access your own inform­a­tion was a part of the Offi­cial Inform­a­tion Act, but the new Act carved it out, and put that right into the Pri­vacy Act. And that Act — to all intents and pur­poses — led to the cre­ation of the Office of the Pri­vacy Com­mis­sion­er. That gave a prop­er frame­work to the pro­tec­tion of cit­izens’ pri­vacy. Before that, it had been over­seen by sev­er­al dif­fer­ent gov­ern­ment depart­ments, but hav­ing an offi­cial Pri­vacy Act, and a Pri­vacy Com­mis­sion­er, meant that every gov­ern­ment depart­ment from then on would have set guidelines for what they could and couldn’t access. They couldn’t just sleep­walk into these vast databases.

So I asked the first Pri­vacy Com­mis­sion­er if I could give him a hand set­ting up his office. The idea was that I could offer spe­cial­ised advice on inform­a­tion law, which is everything to do with free­dom of inform­a­tion, intel­lec­tu­al prop­erty, all of that… and that seemed to work out pretty well.”


We talk for a while here about the admir­able pres­ci­ence of the Pri­vacy Act. Back in 1992, when the legis­la­tion was being draf­ted, the dangers of inform­a­tion stored digit­ally — acci­dent­ally being revealed to parties who had no leg­al right to that inform­a­tion — was hardly front-page news. The UN had already warned of the threat to per­son­al pri­vacy posed by new tech­no­logy. But New Zea­l­and did some­thing slightly dif­fer­ent to the rest of the world. Rather than simply write new legis­la­tion to cov­er digit­al inform­a­tion, we took the oppor­tun­ity to look at our entire pri­vacy frame­work, and then set up this new office to over­see the whole sec­tor. We lead the world in this, and our pri­vacy mod­el has been adop­ted by sev­er­al oth­er countries.

But as Edwards says, the huge bulk of what the Office of the Pri­vacy Com­mis­sion­er does is below the sur­face. By the time there is a com­plaint to invest­ig­ate, fail­ures have already occurred. Much of the commission’s work is advising and edu­cat­ing depart­ments and organ­isa­tions on how nev­er to be the cause of a com­plaint at all.

John-Edwards-FishHead-20140519_DSC9680            The Fish­Head pho­to­graph­er arrives, which means I’ve been here an hour already, and we haven’t even touched on what I most want to talk about. Edwards is happy to go through the ‘pre­tend I’m not here’ charade while Clive gets the shots he needs, and then I spend the last minutes ask­ing Edwards about the work he did on behalf of a large group of ex-psy­chi­at­ric patients.

It was a sin­gu­lar moment in our his­tory,” he says. “Quite inde­pend­ently I came across three or four cases of quite hideous abuse. It was a time in the 1990s when a whole cohort of ex-patients had reached a stage where they could ration­al­ise what had happened to them, and they were ready to speak out without some of the shame, and the ter­rible lack of empower­ment that had been with them since the 1970s. I was just a prac­tising law­yer at the time; I had my office in Wil­lis Street. And, well, my broth­er was one of those ex-patients. He had kept it all bottled up, but by the mid-1990s he was finally ready to talk. I went through his file, and that pro­duced some of the most com­pel­ling evidence.”

There’s a pause here, as I take in what Edwards has just told me, and, I guess, as he turns it over in his mind again. He takes a moment, and car­ries on.

And by coin­cid­ence, I was doing some work for the Depart­ment of Cor­rec­tions, and they had someone who was pre­par­ing a file, and anoth­er col­league of mine was act­ing for someone, and then lit­er­ally dozens of people were com­ing for­ward. I star­ted to put it all togeth­er and cross-ref­er­ence stor­ies from people who hadn’t spoken to each oth­er in dec­ades, and there was a remark­able degree of cor­rob­or­a­tion. I knew then that we were tack­ling some­thing massive.”

Around this time, Edwards was inter­viewed by Radio New Zea­l­and, and as a res­ult of that, and oth­er media pub­li­city, the floodgates opened. The ori­gin­al case had been against Lake Alice Hos­pit­al, in the Ran­gitikei, but it would grow to encom­pass patients from all of New Zealand’s ‘men­tal institutions’.

Edwards and oth­ers com­piled a port­fo­lio of cross-ref­er­enced cases, some of which stretched back to the 1950s, which was presen­ted to Bill Eng­lish — the Min­is­ter for Health at the time — who, in Edwards’ words, and to English’s etern­al cred­it, said “We’re not going to hide behind leg­al­it­ies on this, this is hor­rif­ic, and we’re going to act on it.”

About 200 former patients received sig­ni­fic­ant com­pens­a­tion and the Con­fid­en­tial For­um for Former In-Patients of Psy­chi­at­ric Hos­pit­als was set up, chaired by future Gov­ernor Gen­er­al — and an Edwards ment­or — Sir Anand Satyanand. After nearly a year of entirely pro bono work, Edwards moved on from the case and returned to his prac­tice. It is a remark­able story, but Edwards tells it briefly, and with abso­lute modesty.

From that time on, I know that Edwards has charted a spec­tac­u­lar career path; that he has a fam­ily; that he lives in Mt Cook (the sub­urb, not the nation­al park); that he has two chil­dren with his part­ner Sarah; and that his dad wrote the ship­ping news for the loc­al Tarana­ki news­pa­per. I know all of that. But what I’m think­ing about, as I take the lift back down to Feath­er­ston Street, is that this utterly unas­sum­ing man star­ted a pro­cess that immeas­ur­ably bettered the lives of hun­dreds of our most vul­ner­able and des­per­ate citizens.

And he likes The Buzzcocks.

Graeme Tuckett

Graeme lives on the Kapiti Coast. He fits bouts of writing, broadcasting and business ownership between his many and varied leisure activities.

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