One of New Zealand’s top lawyers slams Queenstown Lakes District Council legal advice muzzling local election hopefuls.
Wellington QC Hugh Rennie – a media law and elections expert – says he disagrees with advice that effectively warns candidates to zip their lips over the controversial Queenstown Airport share sale.
Rennie says candidates are free to speak – despite the warning to them this week from QLDC lawyers Mactodd.
The Mactodd missive tells candidates they risk “contempt of court” because the partial share sell-off to Auckland International Airport is being challenged in the High Court.
Rennie: “I disagree. I can think of no way in which a responsible statement on a public issue which expresses the position of a candidate during an election period could be a contempt merely because a judicial review is before the High Court.”
Mayoral candidate Vanessa van Uden last week told Mountain Scene she was “under instruction [from QLDC management] that we’re not to speak on the airport at all”.
About 20 people who turned up to a pre-council meeting public forum on Monday were shocked to get similar advice from mayor Clive Geddes.
Eventually after legal advice from two Auckland lawyers from Simpson Grierson – also hired by QLDC – the council let members of the public, but not councillors, have their say.
Later the same day, QLDC – a defendant in the pending High Court action – emailed a Mactodd “briefing” to every council candidate, warning: “It is generally considered inappropriate to comment publicly on cases [before the court], and can constitute an offence leading to contempt of court proceedings.”
Rennie – who has acted for former Prime Minister Helen Clark – says if Mactodd’s advice was correct, “it would prevent [Mountain Scene] or any citizen from making a statement about the issue while the litigation is pending”.
Rennie also challenges Mactodd’s advice that speaking out might be “an offence”. It would only be “an offence” in a criminal case, he says.
QLDC-owned Queenstown Airport Corporation announced on July 9 it was selling 24.99 per cent of its asset to Auckland International Airport for $27.7 million.
It also announced AIA had an option to increase its holding up to 35 per cent by June next year, subject to QLDC and public consultation.
Air New Zealand and the hastily-formed Queenstown Community Strategic Assets Group have lodged High Court action over the initial buy-in against QAC, QLDC and AIA.
Ex-mayor Warren Cooper is aghast at QLDC’s legal advice to candidates: “It should be impossible for any thinking person to be required to contemplate participating in a local government election with the major issue being out of bounds for discussion.”
Two lawyer candidates are also critical of the advice.
Russell Mawhinney calls it “very intimidating” and “scary”.
“It’s unfortunate because people aren’t going to find out where people sit on that issue, not publicly anyway.”
Simon Stamers-Smith: “It would seem to me that it is an endeavour to muzzle us and I’m not quite sure why.”