IN COMMITTEE : Deja Vu

The reverberations from TVNZ’s appearance before the Privileges Committee continue to echo, with the legal experts now discoursing upon exactly what might have been fair response by the corporation when it found its CEO speaking “too frankly” before the Finance and Expenditure Select Committee and what may be considered acceptable in the future.
While they are about it, they might also consider the precedents; in particular the 1872 investigation by Committee of Privilege of Johnny Martin, colonial scallywag.
Martin had arrived in Wellington in 1841 without brass razoo to his name and started work as pick and shovel man. Eventually he borrowed £1500 for piece of Central Otago land. And that may have been the last ever to be heard of him, had it not been exactly where Gabriel Read hit pay dirt in 1861, triggering one of the world’s great gold rushes. Martin himself never found gold but as natural trader he made pretty penny from those who poured into the district.
His first fortune secured, Martin returned to Wellington and promptly bought up most of what we now know as Taranaki Street in today’s central city area. This he would develop and sell, multiplying his money many times over.
Not everything he touched turned to gold however. He underwrote the building of Government House and when the builder failed Martin was left to finish the job finding himself £7000 out of pocket. No matter, he would petition Parliament to make good his losses.
In the late 1860s Johnny Martin decided that the south Wairarapa beckoned. He bought handsome run near modern-day Martinborough and settled in, seemingly determined to upset the Wairarapa’s established squattocracy.
His first target was young Edward Riddiford who was struggling to make go of his family’s over-extended estates. Almost 25,000 acres were being put up for sale by the government at seven shillings and sixpence per acre (50 percent above the going rate). This Riddiford was disinclined to pay. Since the ruling ethos held that the land was his by right, and since he owned all the land surrounding, he decided to simply wait until the price came down.
In doing so he miscalculated. Martin met the asking price, promptly putting the land back on the market for £500 more than he paid. year later Riddiford had no alternative but to borrow small fortune and buy his land back. By then Martin’s mind was on his petition to Parliament for the recovery of his losses on Government House.
In this he counted on the unswerving support of Wairarapa’s elected representatives. In the event, one of them voted against the proposal, and the petition was lost. The dissenting vote was cast by John Andrew, major run holder to the north. Martin vowed revenge.
As luck would have it, 3400 acres of land previously leased by Andrew came up for sale. Again that land was unusable by anyone other than the station owner. Martin now boasted that he would do to Andrew what he had earlier done to Riddiford. The upshot was that the Lands Board decided that the matter of who would be given the right to purchase the land would be decided by drawing lots. If either party demurred from this arrangement, the other would automatically win.
Andrew had to either leave his fate to chance or face losing huge slice of his property – or so it seemed. However this time it was Martin who had misjudged his man. Andrew was one of the most brilliant and well educated New Zealanders of his time and he had deep knowledge of something that his adversary probably didn’t even know existed – parliamentary privilege.
Andrew saw that there was breach involved in Martin’s threatening utterances. Parliamentary privilege had developed from the 17th century struggles between Monarch and Parliament and guaranteed the right of Parliament to conduct its business without interference from the Crown, the Courts – or the likes of Johnny Martin.
Andrew took his case direct to Parliament, knowing that his colleagues would take dim view of Martin’s threats. Committee of Privilege was convened and found that breach of Privilege had indeed occurred. Martin was ordered to appear before the House and he appeared, confessed that he had said that he would make Andrew pay for his vote in the House, tendered his apologies and withdrew. The ensuing debate determined that the apology had been insufficient and Martin was told that he would not be discharged until he stated he had forfeited all claim to the disputed land.
TVNZ’s appearance before the Privileges Committee was not an exact parallel to that of Johnny Martin, but it came close. TVNZ also threatened citizen with retaliation for the role he had legitimately played within the Parliamentary process. Like Martin, it too found itself dragged before Privileges Committee – in bewilderment – for having offended against conventions of which it was seemingly unaware. And like Martin, it too apologised, only to have the representatives of the day conclude that that the act of contrition had not gone far enough.
As they say, those who forget the lessons of history are condemned to relive them. The Privileges Committee’s final report to Parliament on the TVNZ case is expected shortly. M

Julie Collier is editor and publisher of Select Committee News.

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