What Maurice Williamson’s shock tells us about domestic violence

In defending himself against allegations of misusing ministerial authority, Maurice Williamson said of the domestic violence charges against Donghua Liu:

He had been “shocked” at the charges because Liu had required a clean record to get a New Zealand visa.

The logic is this: Liu needed a clean record to get a visa, Liu had a clean record ergo Liu couldn’t be the kind of person who commits violent acts against the women in his family. But the logic isn’t built on good foundations.

To get the basic poor assumption out of the way first, a clean record tells you only one thing: that a person has a clean record. It indicates a certain comparative level of lawfulness, but it’s not definitive proof that a person has always been law-abiding or well-behaved.

The more insidious assumption is this: that you can just tell if a person is violent or abusive by looking at them, their police record, and the size of their investment in New Zealand.

Domestic or intimate partner violence is a huge problem which is consistently under-reported or not treated seriously by law enforcement (especially if the accused abuser is rich or famous).

Even when it’s unavoidably brought to public attention, no excuse is too outrageous. Remember Charles Saatchi arguing that choking Nigella Lawson in a restaurant was just a ‘playful tiff’?

What we see in Maurice Williamson’s shock, and his subsequent behaviour, is a the reality of our general attitudes to domestic violence. Like the idea that domestic violence cases aren’t clear-cut crimes the way burglary or murder is. Or that a wealthy person with a clean record should get a stronger presumption of innocence, unlike the great unwashed.

In the meantime, the PSA have released more research into the impacts of domestic violence on workplaces:

Over half of the more than 1600 Public Service Association union members surveyed reported some experience with domestic violence, and 26 per cent had direct experience of family violence.

… PSA national secretary Brenda Pilott … had heard of a case where a government department was reluctant to give an employee time off work to attend a family court hearing about the welfare of her children.

When a senior government minister like Maurice Williamson thinks it’s appropriate to act the way he has, we can’t be surprised that domestic violence is a widespread, under-appreciated problem in New Zealand.

Todd Barclay’s real problem: naïveté

There are those – like today’s editorial writer at the Dominion Post – who think that working for the tobacco industry at all is indefensible, and pretty much rules you out of seeking public office.

But I think Todd Barclay, and his political patrons, have committed a far worse crime: being a bit bloody naïve about how his professional background was going to play.

It doesn’t involve any specialist PR knowledge to figure out that a young man whose CV contains the words “Phillip Morris” is going to be criticised, if not downright attacked, for working for an industry which is generally perceived as having caused, and tried to cover up, the deaths of millions of its customers.

The obvious answer was to play by the Steven Joyce/Judith Collins rules and come out swinging. Take a leaf from the (first half) of Thank You For Smoking. Tobacco is a legal product! The industry has worked hard to ensure users are aware of the risks, but what about freedom of choice, eh? Todd Barclay has proven experience in a multinational industry! He doesn’t do things because they’re popular, he does them because he believes in freedom of speech. Every company has a right to representation!

And throw in some snide digs at the fun-hating Green Party. Try to paint Labour as hypocrites. Declare that your enemies are just jealous that they don’t have a bevy of young up-and-comers to refresh the ranks.

It’s not perfect. It’s an argument better-suited to an ACT party candidate. And it isn’t particularly believable. But it isn’t meant to be. Once you’ve worked for Big Tobacco you’re always going to wear nicotine stains.

And it probably wouldn’t have been too clever to trumpet such a philosophy while the country’s in the midst of a panic about legal highs.

But overriding all that, in the interests of Todd Barclay’s street cred, it also wouldn’t have looked so utterly out-of-touch.

Instead of being a Gerry Brownlee-esque “I make the hard decisions and won’t apologise for it, you simpering leftie schmucks” figure, Todd Barclay has let himself be painted as a vacuous, uncertain empty shirt from day one. He’s taken the John Key approach – make hand-wavey feel-good statements and hope no one pays close attention to the disaster capitalism behind the curtain –without Key’s unnerving middle-New-Zealand appeal.

There was never going to be any getting around the fact Todd Barclay is a tobacco man. National’s options were to rule him out as a candidate; figure out how to make his weakness a strength, at least so the voters of Southland can convince themselves their votes aren’t being taken for granted; or look like utter numpties who can’t predict a story and can’t manage bad news.

Given their history in government, it’s baffling that they went with Option 3.