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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.

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About Graeme Tuckett

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

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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