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One man's Pacific paradise - From Winebox drama and riots to gun-toting home invaders

19 April 2018 - By Jock Anderson

It wasn’t exactly guns blazing or taking off in a hail of lead but Gordon Davis’ rapid airlift out of the Solomon Islands after an armed invasion of his Honiara digs was tense enough.

In the Solomons as a reform adviser during RAMSI - the regional assistance mission to the Solomons Islands - Gordon was staying at the house of a government financial secretary and economics adviser when the country’s troubled and lawless times reached a nadir.

Gordon Patrick (Gordon) Davis
BornWellington.
Age59.
Entry to lawGraduated LLB from Otago University. Admitted in 1981.
WorkplaceA member of Barristers.Comm Chambers, Wellington.
Specialty areaGovernment administration and litigation.

After an armed home-invasion the trio were airlifted out of the country to safety at short notice.

“I was bunking at their house and most of the noise was about them than me. People were trying to force them to write cheques and all sorts of machinations about money when there wasn’t any.

Photo of Gordon Davis
"I first arrived in the Cooks as a complete stranger and
after 10 years I felt I was part of the Pacific." 

“In the end there was a home invasion with guys with guns. I was upstairs and when I came down they were leaving but warning to come back to do more damage.

“We took off and holed up in the minister of finance’s hotel. It was a very tense time round Honiara. As a result we organised an airlift out in a private plane one of the guys had organised with an insurance company to get us out of trouble.

“We had to take off quietly and hope no one noticed. We drove on to the tarmac, got clearance and shot away to Brisbane. But I haven’t got a story about being chased on to the tarmac guns blazing and taking off in a hail of lead unfortunately.”

The Winebox Inquiry  

All of which was a far cry from the world of a lawyer who spent most of school life in Manawatu, and started work in Palmerston North for sole practitioner Les Goodman, before going to Lower Hutt for a year, then returning to Palmerston North on his own account.

Ongley Ongley and Dean and another firm started “courting” Gordon about going in with them “so we pulled them all together, did a merger and called it Innes Dean, where I was managing partner for about 10 years before going to the Cooks.”

Seeking a new challenge Gordon was appointed Solicitor General of the Cook Islands in 1996 – during the time of the Winebox Inquiry and the associated social upheaval caused by economic and political crises.

“I was required to advise on constitutional challenges and played a significant part in the design and implementation of the country’s economic and public sector reform programme.

“The Winebox affair was certainly interesting. I spoke to former Chief Justice Sir Ronald Davison, who was leading the inquiry, and I thought things went reasonably well. But after an exchange of letters it seemed we didn’t have a meeting of minds after all, which seemed to be the order of the day in those times.”

After just under two years in the Cooks he moved to another part of the Pacific – “I would have stayed longer but the opportunity came up to do some work in Vanuata so I decided to give that a try.”

He worked in Vanuatu as a legal specialist advising on and drafting law reform as part of the country’s comprehensive reform programme.

During this time in 1998 the Port Vila riots erupted and Gordon assisted the Attorney General draft rules of engagement for the paramilitary arm of the police force. He also prepared a range of reform legislation, attended Cabinet and Parliament as an adviser, was a close adviser to the Attorney General “and required to thwart some dubious legal arrangements”.

The riots involved more than 300 members of the Vanuatu National Provident Fund angered by a colourfully-worded Ombudsman’s report which claimed politicians received preferential treatment under the fund’s housing loan programme, which paid out about $US1 million.

“It wasn’t quite as bad as the Ombudsman claimed but it sparked off riots for about a week, causing millions of dollars worth of damage, and was an exciting time.”

He moved from Vanuatu to the Solomon Islands during RAMSI, where he worked with a couple of New Zealanders, one a financial secretary and the other an economics advisor.

Initially aimed at helping the Solomons lay the foundations for long-term stability, security and prosperity, RAMSI is a now solely a policing mission, lead by Australia.

“It was my first real experience of back of the envelope economics.”

Gordon did 10 years, off and on, as a consultant advising on various law reform programmes, including time in Tonga, Samoa and Malawi. “It was interesting and different. I enjoyed the reform work and it was different to legal practice. It made me think what I might like to do with the New Zealand government.

“I first arrived in the Cooks as a complete stranger and after 10 years I felt I was part of the Pacific.”

Earthquakes

Returning to New Zealand he joined a legal practice as a partner and shortly afterwards became a member of the State Services Commission senior leadership team. “As a central agency in the heart of government we became aware of, and were often involved in, managing or advising on critical issues of the day.”

He also served with the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA) and found himself in the unique position of being part of setting it up and then dismantling it. 

Gordon went to the Bar two years ago, practising in government administration and litigation, thinking it was a good way to carry on until he decided to slow down. He also lectures for the School of Government on integrity systems and issues for masters’ classes and visiting international delegations.

“I wanted to be back in the law but now I’m back I’m not so sure it’s as wonderful as I thought it might be.”

Gordon – who was for some time chief legal advisor at the State Services Commission (SSC) and head of the SSC’s integrity advice function – says behaviour revealed in sexual harassment claims sparked by allegations around law firm Russell McVeagh, is not good enough.

“As a male practitioner who has been in practice for a long time I have never seen any of it personally so it came as a surprise to me to understand the depth of it. I’ve never practised in a big firm before.

“I’ve always thought of women practitioners and men practitioners as practitioners of law, as opposed to anything else. It came as a surprise to me. It is certainly not good enough and is appalling. We need to work on some standards.

“When I worked at the SSC and in charge of integrity, it never ceased to amaze me how many times you have to repeat the message, and I’m not sure we have been strong enough in actually putting out a message, repeating it and making sure people understand it. It’s not good enough.”

Law vs the Army

“When I first joined the law there was a calling to a profession - now it seems to be going into a business and business ethics have taken over from the professional ethics.”

Gordon, who has an older brother and two sisters, lost his mother in a fatal car crash when he was 10 and his father, a carpenter and timber products rep, died at 51. “My father was brought up in a generation when you left school and got some work. I was the first one in our family to go past high school to university.

“I looked at what I was good at in high school, looked at the options and what I might be best suited for at university and thought law would suit me.

“My teachers thought I was ideally suited for law but my careers advisor suggested I was suited for the Army.

“I’ve always adhered to the view that, along with the fourth estate, lawyers are one of the few checks and balances we have in society and like the way lawyers can be independent and challenge things.”

He is married to public service consultant Bella Sutherland – who has been leading the change programme from the old Fire Service into a central organisation now known as Fire and Emergency New Zealand.

The couple have four children. Their eldest son, Patrick, who has a law degree but doesn’t practice, is based in Queenstown as an international geo-political risk management assessor for a production company.

Meredith is a senior advisor for Ministry of Environment, Lachlan is a consultant in Sydney, and Katie, who has degree in history and political science, is about to join the police.

“My hobby is our two-acre place in Martinborough where we have vines, olives and a country life. I keep it in order and we are on the way to making our first batch of Spanish-style Roja wine.

“I don’t play golf but liked tramping and used to do mountain banking. When I’m not working on the Martinborough place I take our 12-month old Border Collie-fox terrier cross Scooter for walks.”

As well as being familiar with Pacific countries, Gordon is well-travelled in the United States and South America, including Argentina, Bolivia and Chile. “We took six months off four years ago and travelled through Europe backpacking, a spell on a self-drive canal boat, five days on a Vespa 125cc tour around the central highlands of Spain and walked the Camino de Santiago – the Way of St James – pilgrimage trail.

“I like music but am not musical. I have no special favourites – some classical, reggae and New Zealand music.

“Bella and I go to movies all the time but don’t like action stuff. I’ve seen The Death of Stalin - a little bit disappointing and a bit too slapstick for my liking - The Post and Finding Your Feet.

“I like a mix of reading and recently read Minefields, by a former young Christchurch journalist now based in Australia, Hugh Riminton, and Tim Marshall’s Prisoners of Geography. Foreign correspondent Edward Behr’s Anyone Here Been Raped and Speaks English, is a fascinating book.

“Apart from Martinborough we like holidaying in the Far North, around Hokianga and some of those great beaches. We are keen travellers and tend to travel for holidays.

“I drive a 4x4 Hyundai – the smaller one, not the bigger one.

“I’d like to have Edward Behr as a dinner guest - serve up beef on the bone, Roja, Martinborough pinot, Marlborough Sauvignon and perhaps some Central Otago Pinot.

“There’s no real memorable moment in my career. What stands out is when you get things that are worthwhile over the line. Getting the State Sector Act Amendments 2013 over the line was quite an achievement at the time but they are having another crack at it now. Maybe the current people don’t think much of it, I suppose.

“I think I would have been a print journalist in another life.  A lot of journalists think they are better at the law than lawyers are. Maybe I should have gone into the military or done something with economics.”

Now surveying the legal profession from Timaru, Jock Anderson jockanderson123@gmail.com has fifty years experience as a court reporter and commentator on the profession. Contact Jock if you know someone who you think should be profiled or if you'd like to step up yourself.

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Last updated on the 19th April 2018