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Simon Shepherd interviews Andrew Little

Simon Shepherd: Well, the minister behind that legislation is Justice Minister Andrew Little. He has also recently been in London, where he met with government ministers from the UK, Australia, Canada and America. Part of the agenda – how to ensure suppression orders are not breached as they were by Google in the Grace Millane case. And the minister joins me now. Thanks for your time this morning. What concerns did you raise with your counterparts from UK, Canada and Australia?

Andrew Little: The issue that we had with the Grace Millane case and the fact that Google, through their automated processes, effectively breached the suppression orders over that case, and I simply raised with my counterpart ministers whether they would be interested in exploring the idea that suppression orders issued by New Zealand courts could be enforced in those other jurisdictions. I got a very positive response. They’re very keen to explore that, so I’ve now asked officials in New Zealand to work with officials in those other countries to see whether we can pull something together.

But how would it work? Because they are four different jurisdictions; four different kinds of laws.
I think the idea is that – particularly with suppression orders and given that they are about protecting fair trial rights – ultimately to ensure that victims know that the person who’s harmed them is going to be fully brought to account. We need, in this day and age – where a news outlet on the other side of the world can have their news story picked up and published in New Zealand – to be able to protect the suppression orders that are issued by New Zealand courts. So as we do with other areas, they’re called mutual recognition or mutual assistance, a decision made by a court in New Zealand through appropriate agreement can be enforced in other jurisdictions. I’m simply asking for that to happen in relation to suppression orders.

So have they agreed to just work on it, or have they agreed to enforce the New Zealand suppression laws, or suppression orders in their jurisdictions?
No, we’ve agreed that we’ll set up a streaming work to do that to set that up. As I say, the response was positive. The ministers I spoke to – the home secretary from the UK, the minister for public order in Canada and Peter Dunn from Australia all were quite sympathetic to the view, and Australia’s had their own issues with suppression orders being breached offshore. So they all understood the issue. They’re very keen to help, and we agreed that we’d put officials together to work on developing something.

So this has all come about because of the Grace Millane case. What would have happened in that case if this had been in place?
It would have meant that– Look, it doesn’t– the Google problem doesn’t go away, and I did meet with a global vice president.

We’ll talk about that in a sec.
But what it would have meant is that we could then have gone after the Daily Mail in the UK, which was the source of the story that was published in New Zealand, and we could have brought them to book in the UK.

Okay. You didn’t raise it with the US, who is also part of this five countries ministerial meeting. Why not?
Their arrangements are slightly different; their approach to suppression orders is different. And to be honest, I had a much more limited time with Attorney General William Barr, and I had other priority issues to raise with them– with him, so I didn’t get to it. But it was lower in the order of priority, given their jurisprudence on these sorts of issues.

Okay, so you say that they have a different, kind of, approach to suppression orders, but is it possible to actually work out something with the US? I mean, Google is based there.
Eventually, yeah. I think William Barr was very clear about the issues generally about, you know, outfits like Google and the internet platforms that are now big publishers of news. In the context of what we were talking about there, which was about, you know, internet forums being used as a way to promote terrorism or child sexual exploitation online, he is very firm, actually, that countries have to work together to put pressure on those platforms to minimise the harm that they can cause. All the good they do is one thing, but there is a harmful aspect, and we need to work together.

Has anything concrete come out of this discussion? Will we see anything by the end of the year?
On the issue about suppression orders?

Yes, I think we will. People have got to go away and do the work, but I’m confident now that there is a pathway that we can be hopeful about.

You also met with Google, as you mentioned. Now, are you happier with the way that they’re receiving your criticism over this?
I got a good hearing from Leslie Miller, who was the global vice president who I met with. She undertook to go back to the headquarters and do further work, and there’s no criticism of the local New Zealand representative, but I think she was certainly receptive to the need to make sure that, you know, our justice system is able to have integrity so that we can dispense justice and protect fair trial rights and protect the interests of victims.

Yeah, but you’ve talked about protecting fair trial rights and not being subject to algorithms and machine learning and those kinds of things. I know Google is all about that. I mean, are they willing to change their, sort of, model to the needs of a small country like New Zealand?
Well, I’ve said, look, if they can target, even just amongst New Zealand users of Google, you know, what hotels I might want to go to, what destinations I might want to travel to, I don’t think it’s beyond them to manage their algorithms in a way that understands that–

So if they can target the ads, they can target the suppression orders?
They can target the stories that are suitable for publication.

How are you going to keep the pressure on Google?
Well, I think with the relationships that, you know, we formed with the countries I was meeting with, there is a very clear and cohesive commitment amongst those companies to keep the pressure on those internet and tech and social media platforms for a whole bunch of reasons – for them to get their moral settings right.

Okay. Let’s move on to abortion legislation. So, it passed its first reading with an overwhelming majority. First of all, did those numbers surprise you in the House?
To be honest, they did, yeah. Look, we had done our own assessment of where the numbers would fall; we thought we might have a slim majority. I have to say, once the legislation had been tabled and publicised, the feedback I was getting from all corners of the House was quite positive. So I got a sense, as the week wore on, that maybe these numbers could be quite good. But I was still surprised that it was over 90.

Okay. You were also surprised by Winston Peters this week. He had a referendum, and then he accused Labour of negotiating in bad faith. So how do you feel about that whole relationship now?
Yeah, look, things spun a wee bit out of control. The reality is I had extensive negotiations with Tracey Martin, senior Cabinet minister from New Zealand First. They were constructive; they were good; we arrived at the package; it went right through the Cabinet process. Nothing about referendums was raised, and we got the package out there. Now, I can’t account for New Zealand First’s collective behaviour. The members of New Zealand First I deal with, when I deal with them one-on-one, are excellent, and Tracey is someone who acts with absolute and utter integrity. I absolutely trust her. We’ve forged a good relationship, and we’ll proceed with this legislation. And, look, if New Zealand First wants to put a referendum up, let them put it up. They stand in the queue with everybody else.

Right. But you don’t think it’s got any chance of passing, for a start, do you? You’ve said that.
If I was looking at those numbers, I’d say… You know, I don’t think it’s got much chance, but…

So New Zealand First is just playing politics for its base, and it’s hanging Tracey Martin out as a sacrificial lamb for that?
That’s an interpretation that’s being placed on it. I don’t care to go there. I’m focused on this legislation now. It’s in the hands of the select committee. It’s an excellent select committee – members of all different opinions and from all parties in the House. I think they’ll do a good job.

What does this behaviour mean for the coalition relationships going into election year?
Look, it doesn’t mean anything. We’ve forged a very good relationship. Jacinda Ardern and Winston Peters have an excellent chemistry, in my view. You look at it, and actually, this is a government that has made some very bold decisions, embarked on some bold policies.

Okay, they’ve formed a nice relationship, but in the past, you’ve called Winston a ‘blowhard’ and various other things. So your particular relationship with Winston Peters is what?
Is fine. Absolutely fine. He’s a veteran politician, someone who commands an enormous amount of respect. I work very well with New Zealand First MPs. The coalition relationship has a very good heart.

All right. So, just one thing more on the abortion legislation. The debate seems to have focused on late-term abortion since you announced the legislation. That’s only 1% of abortions. What do you say to people who feel that 20 weeks is too long?
The Law Commission recommended 22 weeks. You’ve even got jurisdictions that have recently enacted changes in New York State and made it 24 weeks. Queensland last year in Australia made it 22 weeks. New South Wales is looking at 22 weeks. 20 weeks is what we are used to here. 98.5%... or, in fact, 99.5% of abortions in New Zealand currently happen within 20 weeks. It’s a very small percentage happen after that, and it happens after that because of extreme threat to the woman or to the foetus, and you’ve got to have that little bit of flexibility. But the extravagant language we get of ‘full-term abortions’ and a woman walking in at 36 weeks saying, ‘I want an abortion’ – it just doesn’t happen. It’s fictional stuff.

Okay. Can I move on to the dispute at Ihumātao? Now, you’ve already said that private land and Treaty settlements – as Treaty minister – is off the table. So how is this going to be settled, do you think?
Well, I have great faith in the Kingitanga and King Tūheitia, who has stamped his imprimatur on the issue. I think as a real expression of tino rangatiratanga is that Māori and all Māori interests are gathering together. The Crown, in my view, has a role to support and to facilitate, but the Crown can’t provide a solution, because the number of stakeholders and those with an interest in that piece of land is extensive, even amongst Māoridom. So that discussion needs to happen. I think the occupiers there, SOUL – they have an absolute passion for protecting the heritage value of the land. I think everybody understands that. But we can’t ignore the legal complications and complexities that go with this in relation to the Treaty settlement programme, in relation to land generally.

So there’s no way that you could buy the land, because that would just open up a can of worms – that is correct?
That would effectively open up 88 settled Treaty agreements, as well as completely change the landscape for about 50 others.

Okay. Justice, Courts, GCSB, SIS, Treaty negotiations and Pike River – they’re all your portfolios. So why are you carrying such a big load in this coalition government?
Well, I deal with the issues that turn up on my desk and deal with that. I’m very satisfied with the responsibilities I’ve got, the support that I have and the progress that we’re making.

And is it that range of portfolios that you would hope to carry on with?
I’m very happy, given the workload I’ve got, the support that I have, the leadership that the prime minister and my senior colleagues are providing. I could not be more content.

Okay. And just quickly – your party’s been the subject of harassment claims, raised by Paula Bennett, actually. You’ve been leader. You’re a senior minister, a senior figure in the Labour Party. Have you been aware of the problems within the Labour Party in terms of treating these kinds of allegations in the past, and are you still aware of that?
I was certainly aware of the allegations that came out of the summer camp and the work that went on for us to reflect on what we needed to do to make our meetings and the way we deal with each other respectful and safer. So it is disappointing to see the news about what has happened more recently. There are others who are taking responsibility for reviewing that and making sure that what we do is correct. No one wants to be part of an organisation that has caused harm to others, and we’ve all got to take an element of responsibility to make sure that we’re doing the best we can to create good, safe workplace cultures.

All right. Justice Minister Andrew Little, thank you very much for your time.
Thank you.

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