The Strange Case Of The De-Selected Professor

DAVID FISHER’S EXCELLENT ARTICLE in the NZ Herald, “PM’s terrorism, extremism expert Prof Richard Jackson hired then dropped” raises a number of disturbing questions. Not the least of these is: Why did the Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet (DPMC) allow its professional judgement to be overturned by a single leaked document, the contents of which damaged the reputation of the man it was on the point of appointing to a sensitive government position?

Professor Richard Jackson had led the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Otago, since 2017. In November 2021 he had applied for, and was on the point of being appointed, Co-Director of He Whenua Taurikura – the National Centre of Research Excellence for Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism (CPCVE). Jackson’s strong academic record in conflict research made him an excellent choice to lead the new centre, the establishment of which had been recommended by the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Christchurch Mosque Shootings.

It was not to be. On the 1 March 2022, just as Jackson’s contract was on the point of being signed, the content of a confidential internal review of the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies was leaked to The Otago Daily Times. The content of the leaked report was unsparing in its criticism of the Centre. What was most noteworthy about the criticisms quoted in the ODT, however, is that they appeared to be focused, almost exclusively, on its alleged failings to meet the University of Otago’s bi-cultural expectations.

The ODT reported that the review “recommended Māori staff be employed, but not until the centre’s culture was ‘considerably improved’ because at present it would be a culturally unsafe environment for new Māori staff.’”

Some hint of the ideological leanings of the review’s author/s may be gleaned from the ODT’s reference to their remarks concerning the Centre’s interest in the histories of Parihaka and Rekohu (Chatham Islands):

“The centre was also criticised for a tokenistic commitment to biculturalism.

“While it received praise for its efforts in starting relationships with the Maori and Moriori communities of Parihaka and Rekohu, it was called out for the narrowness of its approach and for having a poor grasp of appropriate indigenous protocols.

“The strategic inclusion of indigenous groups was a ‘well-known divisive settler colonial practise’, which the centre needed to avoid.”

It is difficult to read such comments without concluding that the review is part of a much larger and destructive conflict between the Centre and those elements within the University of Otago charged with ensuring that there is no deviation from the te Tiriti-centred, iwi-directed, bi-culturally-driven, partnership protocols mandated by the University authorities.

The bitterness of this conflict is made clear in the following excerpt from the ODT’s report:

“It said staff appeared to be of the view the Aotearoa New Zealand Peace and Conflict Studies Centre Trust ensured the continual financial viability of the centre, when in reality, the university was increasingly having to underwrite an operating deficit. 

“Staff also believed they were heavily overworked, while by university standards their teaching workloads were light. 

“The centre was ‘not as special or mistreated as it seems to assume,’ the review said.”

One can only speculate that the Centre, by virtue of its independent source of funding, the Aotearoa New Zealand Peace and Conflict Studies Centre Trust, believed it could hold out against the demands of the bi-culturalists in the University administration.

The fate of Professor Richard Jackson is, therefore, salutary. Clearly, the University of Otago feels obliged to shoot the occasional professor – pour encourage les autres.

Jackson’s rejection by the DPMC is by no means the only peculiar aspect concerning the appointment of the CPCVE’s foundational directors. Fisher’s article setting out the whole, rather odd, story is here.

Even more disturbing, however, is the idea that the DPMC’s strategic coordinator for counter terrorism in the National Security Group, Andy George, and National Security senior policy adviser Julia Macdonald, who sat on the selection panel, appear to have allowed a document positively reeking of academic rancour to de-rail the appointment of Jackson.

Did it not occur to these public servants that somebody, somewhere, might have it in for the man they were about to appoint, and that the leaking of the “confidential” internal review might have been intended to bring the appointment process to a shuddering halt? As persons closely bound up with this nation’s security, did they not feel obliged to dig deeper into the whole affair? Were they not struck by the near perfect timing of the leak? Were they not in the least bit curious about how the leaker knew when to make the document public? Wouldn’t they like to have known who it was who was passed-on that presumably confidential information?

After all, the direction taken by the CPCVE in its quest to prevent and counter violent extremism in New Zealand is a matter of no small importance. Indeed, our national security may well hinge upon the direction in which the new directors – Professors Dr Joanna Kidman and Paul Spoonley – choose to look for those most likely to launch terroristic violence against their fellow New Zealanders. If, for example, the Co-Directors decide to focus on white supremacist groups and Islamophobes, is it possible they might miss the emergence of other potentially violent extremists?

In the event that a National/Act Government emerges from the 2023 General Election, and within the first 100 days of coming to office abolishes the Three Waters Reform and the Māori Health Authority, is it not likely that the country’s political temperature will spike? And if David Seymour’s proposal to enshrine the meaning of the Treaty of Waitangi in law becomes law, and then progresses towards a national referendum, would not the nation’s fever rise still higher? Can the National Security Group, in need of all the help it can get to prevent and counter violent extremist acts, have confidence that the CPCVE will be bringing its attention to bear equally on furious groups of Māori ethno-nationalists?

It would be comforting to believe that the identification of potential violent extremists by the CPCVE will in no way be influenced by ideological factors, and that the New Zealand taxpayers who are footing the bill for its investigations can be absolutely certain that the people charged with preventing and countering extremism are not themselves extremists. Surely, that would have constituted a key aspect of the National Security Group’s brief from the DPMC?

And yet, the disturbing question remains: Was the person, or persons, responsible for leaking the “confidential” internal review of the Centre for Peace & Conflict Studies worried that if Professor Richard Jackson became Co-Director of the CPCVE, he might feel obligated to investigate all potential threats to the peace and tranquillity of New Zealand?

Is that why it was so vitally important that his appointment should not proceed?


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