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Gordon Campbell: the lack of accountability on Philip Smith

Gordon Campbell on the lack of accountability over the Philip Smith case

In New Zealand, accountability is an exotic creature rarely glimpsed at ministerial level, or among senior management. The flight to Rio by the paedophile /murderer Philip John Smith/Traynor is no exception. Oh, a couple of foot soldiers at the operational level in Corrections have been sacrificed. But higher up the chain of command? Not so much. The principle that those at the higher political/managerial level have a share of responsibility for the functioning of the system just does not seem to exist.

No one is advocating a lynch mob reaction – heads must roll! – but when no-one at all in power suffers any negative consequence for the series of lapses of the magnitude that was revealed in yesterday’s official report into the Smith/Traynor case….well, lets just say it does nothing to dispel public cynicism about the huge salaries that these people are paid. The burdens of high office must rest a little lighter when you know there’ll be no blowback if and when you totally screw up.

Within the official report are a raft of recommendations and measures to dealing with the adequacy of information disclosure, sharing and matching between State sector agencies (including border sector agencies) that should apply in future to those persons who would be expected to remain in New Zealand by virtue of their status in the criminal justice system.

Why does this sound a bit familiar? Well, there was a ministerial inquiry in 2011 into how convicted child sex offender Te Rito Henry Miki managed to get back onto the teacher rolls. Apparently, he did so simply by changing his name – reportedly, he had 53 aliases – and then used that new identity to get fresh documentation and a teaching job. Easy peasy.

Yet somehow that 2011 inquiry and its many, many recommendations did not stop Smith/Traynor – also a child sex offender – from getting away with much the same thing, largely because the recommendations made in 2011 to Education Minister Hekia Parata were evidently not acted upon. Incredible, really. The Miki inquiry included a number of proposals meant to cope with identity issues, name changes, documentation, and the notification of relevant agencies, such as:

Part 3, Recommendation 5: The Inquiry recommends that you [ie. Parata] refer the issue of notification of name change to the appropriate Ministers with the proposal that urgent consideration be given to require the Office of the Registrar-General to notify any registered change of name to the Passports Office, Customs Department and the Immigration Office of the Department of Labour and the appropriate protocols be put in place to govern the process.

Smith of course, wasn’t changing his name, but reverting to his real name. Still the principles of cross-referencing aliases and the sharing of information between agencies dealing with (a) offending and (b) document provision were the same. Now, another inquiry is trying to re-invent the same wheel. Lets hope they get it right this time.

Well, that Chris Brown case just won’t go away. On RNZ this morning, the support being shown to Brown by Dame Tariana Turia and several other prominent women who have long shown public support to the female victims of violence was queried.

Several questions were put to Turia, who needs no-one to speak on her behalf. However, since the questions were left unanswered – Turia said she didn’t know about the incidents being referred to by RNZ interviewer Kim Hill – perhaps it may be useful to add to the record.

Question : Are you not aware of his ongoing record of criminality ?

What ongoing record of criminality? Chris Brown has not been prosecuted for or convicted of a criminal offence since the original felony assault conviction in 2009, for which he served his five years probation and community service. The most serious incident since was a 2013 altercation when two women wanted their photo taken with Brown and when he refused, he and his entourage got involved in a fight with the boyfriends of the women. This was treated by Police as a misdemeanor ie, it was not criminally prosecuted.

Question He didn’t get into a nightclub brawl, he didn’t punch and threaten to kill Frank Ocean and call him a faggot ?

No one, including Ocean, knows who called him a faggot. This incident began when Ocean confronted Brown at the MTV awards, and claimed that Brown had stolen his parking space. Subsequently, Brown offered to shake hands. Ocean refused. Brown punched him. Brown’s crew then struggled with Ocean and someone in the melee – Ocean said later that he did not know who - used the ‘faggot’ word. The ‘threaten to kill’ element was the comment made by Brown during the course of the argument that “ We can bust on you too.” [Yeah? You and whose army?] Ocean did not press charges, either criminal or civil.

Question : He wasn’t charged with battery in Maine?

No. He wasn’t charged with battery in Maine. This refers to an incident earlier this year in which – the Police report says - a man playing on a basketball court claimed to have been punched by Brown during an argument, and by a member of his crew. Brown’s spokesperson claimed that Brown had not been involved in any altercation, but that “ an unruly man” had tried to enter a basketball court adjacent to Brown’s hotel room, and to which Brown had invited friends. The man had been evicted. He did not press charges, and the Police dropped their investigation.

All along, no one who supports Brown getting a visa to perform here has claimed that he is a saint, or even that he is a likeable person. True, there is a lot about the overt sexualisation of popular culture and the lyric content of popular music that is objectionable, and that many people do not like. Yet making Brown the scapegoat for such concerns is neither fair, nor particularly healthy. Not when as Turia said, other people who have committed domestic violence and/or who have far worse lyrics in their music have been allowed into New Zealand, no problem.

None of us know Chris Brown. But….who has had direct experience of violence from Chris Brown? Rihanna. What she said in 2013 after choosing to recommence her romantic relationship with Brown, several years after the 2009 assault seems relevant:

"When you add up the pieces from the outside, it's not the cutest puzzle in the world. You see us walking somewhere, driving somewhere, in the studio, in the club, and you think you know. But it's different now. We don't have those types of arguments anymore. We talk about shit. We value each other. We know exactly what we have now, and we don't want to lose that….He's not the monster everybody thinks. He's a good person. He has a fantastic heart. He's giving and loving. And he's fun to be around. That's what I love about him – he always makes me laugh. All I want to do is laugh, really – and I do that with him."

Surely, she should be recognised as having some agency here. Especially given that Rihanna also declared she would walk away if Brown showed any hint of his previous violent behaviour towards her again.

"He doesn't have the luxury of fucking up again," she says. "That's just not an option. I can't say that nothing else will ever go wrong. But I'm pretty solid in the knowing that he's disgusted by that. And I wouldn't have gone this far if I ever thought that was a possibility. He made a mistake, and he's paid his dues," Rihanna adds. "He's paid so much. And I know that's not a place he would ever want to go back to. And sometimes people need support and encouragement, instead of ridicule and criticism and bashing."

The Queen of 1989.

There’s been a lot of to and fro in the media about the merits – or lack of same – in the Ryan Adams cover version of the Taylor Swift album, 1989. To my mind, the real queen of 1989 was the lovely and almost unknown Syd Straw, whose “ Heart of Darkness” is still a pretty interesting song, addressed to a friend with depression. (I’m not sure though about the wisdom of the line that guilt trips the depressed person. ) Great backing here by Dave Alvin of the Blasters.

And why was this other fantastic Syd Straw song – with Michael Stipe on backing vocals - never a hit ? You have a lot to answer for, 1989.

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