Speech to the 25th Anniversary of the Law School moving to Old Government Buildings

Thank you very much for the invitation to speak briefly to you all today.

I’ve been thinking about Hon Kiritapu Allan a lot in the last couple of weeks, particularly today. Kiri and I were at law school together here. When she became a MP in 2017 I said hello to her at a function and she said oh yes Chris, I remember you, we were at law school together. She said “I was the rebel from the East Coast who sat down the back. You were the right-wing loud mouth who sat down the front.”

I take issue with the charge of being right-wing but not the loud mouth bit.

This is a beautiful building and it was a pleasure to study here. I was reflecting yesterday that when I first came here in 2003, the law school was just 7 years into its tenancy. Almost all of my time here was in the first half of the anniversary we’re celebrating here tonight, which I find startling.

This place is special for a few reasons. The building itself is stunning and has been lovingly restored. There is a real sense that you are walking across our legal and political heritage as you walk from tutorial to lecture. History is in the pores of the building and it is impossible not to feel it as you study here. As a history student, I loved it. And I have to say, as a MP who’s had some responsibility for government projects (at least in opposition), I shake my head in wonderment at the fact that it took just 22 months to build!

But the most special element of the OGB is its location. I doubt there is a law school focused on public law better placed in the entire world. The High Court, Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court within a stone’s throw. The Legislature across the road and the Beehive right beside it. It can’t be bettered.

I studied here for two reasons. The first reason is that my mother made me. She was in the first profs class here in 1996 just before the law school moved in. The second is the location – right at the fulcrum of public power in New Zealand; the heart of government and the home of democracy and the rule of law.

I got my first introduction to real politics here – not just the faux politics of the student union – by wandering up to Parliament between lectures and watching Question Time. The first real debate I watched live in Parliament was the Prostitution Reform Bill of 2003.

The speeches were moving, passionate, incredible. Parliament at its best and frankly, a quality of debate that Parliament very rarely has. I’ll never forget being in the gallery as the then Speaker Jonathan Hunt announced the votes. Ayes 60, Noes 59, Abstentions 1, the motion is agreed to. The place went bananas and I sometimes wonder if that’s the day I decided I wanted to be an MP, even if I didn’t know it yet.

I really enjoyed my time here but at times it wasn’t easy. The Victoria University of Wellington Debating Society was a big part of my life at university and it would be fair to say that sometimes debating took precedence over 8.30 lectures.  I remember Bill of Rights used to be one of those 8.30 classes on Thursdays and of course debating practice was always Wednesday nights; half of which was spent actually debating and half of which was spent at the Bristol pub on Cuba St. Bill of Rights was always a tough ask the next morning particularly when Professor Claudia Geiringer was grilling me on Baigent’s Case.

Wellington being the way it is, I was reminded of those Bill of Rights classes the other day when Professor Geiringer turned up to the Privileges Committee to make a submission on the government Bill establishing a declarations of inconsistency regime. I’d written about the subject here at law school and then summer clerking at Crown Law, and here I was considering the matter properly as a law maker. It was slightly surreal.

I tried to do it all in my time down here at the OGB – T-shirt night; tutoring; mooting; the Law Students’ Society; witness examination; wine and cheese evening; client interviewing; law honours; debating – and I didn’t always succeed. I spent most of September and October 2007 practically living in the public law tutors’ office and Jenna (who I should note is now my wife) used to wake me up in the morning with coffee as I desperately tried to finish 25,000 words of writing in a month whilst everything else was going on around me.

That writing has produced two funny subsequent moments in Parliament though.

The first relates to a Bill in my first term as a MP. Labour had a Member’s Bill in the House to lower the 5 percent threshold in MMP. National was opposed and as a new backbencher I dutifully mustered what I thought were powerful arguments opposed to the legislation, in favour of the 5 percent threshold. The government duly won the vote and at the end the sponsor of the Bill Iain-Lees Galloway then took a point of order.

He moved “I seek leave to table a document titled Representation vs Stability: The Five Per Cent Threshold in MMP, written by one Christopher Bishop, which advocates for removing the party vote threshold altogether.”

Another piece of writing helped me get a job at Parliament in the first place. I applied for a job in the National Party Research Unit and passed the first stage. The second stage was an interview with about four MPs, one of whom was Dr Nick Smith. He asked me what I had been studying at law school and I mentioned an interest in defamation law (by the way that has come in handy in the last couple of weeks).

Now at the time it would be fair to say Dr Smith had had a few legal troubles. His eyes lit up. “Ah, wonderful. I’ve had a few issues recently with that” he said. “Yes I know” I said. “I actually wrote about your case for one of my Honours papers, and basically I argued you were in the right.”

“When can you start?” was his reply.

I sometimes ponder if I’d be a MP today without studying the law. Possibly the answer is yes but I suspect I wouldn’t be a very good one. Drafting Bills, reading legislation, pondering submissions, problem solving, critical thinking, it’s all at Parliament and it’s all from law school.

Public law, which was my real passion at law school, is intrinsic to nearly everything I do on a day to day basis. I worked out about halfway through law school that I wasn’t going to be a commercial lawyer. Property law interested me but only to the extent that it related to the foreshore and seabed, the issue du jour for most of 2003 and 2004. Corporate insolvency bored me to tears. The things that got me excited about the law was legislation, judicial review, Bill of Rights, the criminal law, freedom of speech, defamation, papers about our constitution.

For me, it was all about Ngati Apa, the Lands Case, Hosking v Runting, defamation law, our constitution, the reserve powers, the royal prerogative, Parliamentary privilege, and all the rest.

Most law students hate the socratic dialogue method. I loved it. Kiri Allan was right, I was a bit of a loudmouth. The amazing lecturers I had would probably agree and I suspect Trevor Mallard would agree too (although I’ve never been kicked out of Parliament yet).

What’s interesting, when I think about back, is that the things that excited me at law school are still the things that excite me today. And that’s a tribute to the quality of lecturers I had here, the scholarship in the faculty, and the environment in which I studied.

I studied under some amazing professors – Matthew Palmer, Claudia Geiringer, Dean Knight, Steven Price, David McLauchlan, John Prebble. I’ve stayed in touch with a few and probably should stay in touch with more.

I look forward to returning to the 50th anniversary in 2046. I doubt I’ll be an MP but I suspect I’ll still be interested in politics and public law, and I have this law school to thank for that.