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Self-confessed Slavophile and the majestically driven Ministerial Mini

05 September 2019 - By Jock Anderson

When Christopher Finlayson told his parish priest nothing would give him greater pleasure than to be rid of his television set, the priest cautioned the lawyer about falling into the sin of pride. 

“I don’t have a television,” says Christopher. “I gave my television to my parish priest about 25 years ago. I remember we were joking about it. 

“I said nothing would give me greater pleasure than to get rid of it and he said he would hate me to fall into the sin of pride.” 

NameChristopher Francis (Christopher) Finlayson QC
BornWellington.
Age63.
Entry to lawGraduated BA (Latin) and LLM at Victoria University of Wellington. Admitted in 1981.
WorkplaceBankside Chambers, Auckland.
Speciality areaA wide variety of work: "I try not to be pigeon-holed into one area".

A former National MP, Attorney-General and Government Minister, Christopher returned to the Bar this year after retiring from 14 years in Parliament. 

He was Attorney-General throughout the nine years of the previous National-led government.

Christopher began his legal career with Brandon Brookfield and Bell Gully, before establishing barristers chambers in Wellington in 2003. He became a Queen’s Counsel in 2013.  

Photo of CF

“My final cases before I went into Parliament involved acting for the English Attorney-General to stop a former New Zealand SAS soldier who had gone to the SAS in the UK, from writing a book, and for the Sisters of Mercy in a case about alleged historic abuse in an orphanage.” 

He was elected to Parliament in 2005 and became Attorney-General and Minister for Treaty of Waitangi Negotiations in 2008. He retired from Parliament in January 2019 and joined Bankside Chambers in Auckland. 

In the course of his career Christopher has served on a number of professional bodies including the New Zealand Council for Legal Education, the Rules Committee of the High Court, the New Zealand Council for Law Reporting and a number of New Zealand Law Society committees.  

He also continues to serve on numerous cultural and arts-related organisations and trusts. 

“My late father Ronald, who came from Dunedin, was an importer and my Mum Pam, whose father was the chemist in Karori for 40 years, was a home-maker. She gave up work in order to concentrate on looking after the family. Mum turned 90 on July 6, and we are all very proud of her. She insists on living alone and not succumbing to old age.” 

One brother, Michael, lives in Southland, another, Simon, coaches tennis in Germany and his sister Donna lives in Wellington. There are no other lawyers in the family. 

Plodder on the golf course

“I try to get to the gym two or three times a week and have developed a real interest in the last decade or so in golf. I’m a good honest plodder and try to play at Royal Wellington Golf Club as much as possible. I also love Paraparaumu and Waikanae courses and play out there in summertime. 

“I was a useless sports person. I used to say to Mum that I inherited her sporting skills and eyesight. 

“I was never particularly good at rugby. I started off life – believe it or not – in the Onslow Super Midgets at the age of four and gave up rugby at Marist St Pat’s in the B team at the age of 19. I just did not enjoy rugby. 

“Even today I love cricket and have a great interest in the sport. But I think rugby in this country is totally overblown and assumes an importance which it does not deserve. I watched the latest Air New Zealand safety video [in which the airline changes its name to Air All Blacks] and groaned. So predictable and boring and I think there are a lot of people who think like that but don’t like saying it.” 

A single man, Christopher has a life-long interest in the arts and culture, and also served as Minister of Culture and Heritage. 

“I have always enjoyed the Symphony Orchestra and Circa Theatre. Many years ago I received a call from someone in the Ministry of Culture asking if I would like to go on the arts board of Creative New Zealand. 

“I joked to my namesake Chris Finlayson, who is a muralist in Nelson, that maybe they asked me thinking it was him. But I got involved. That board is now no longer because I abolished it when I was the minister. It was the funding wing of the Arts Council and as such I was involved with a whole range of things, including the authors’ fund. 

“I became chair of the Arts Board in 1998. We established the Berlin Writers’ Residency, got New Zealand represented for the first time at the Venice Biennale, and all sorts of things. 

“When I went off that board I went on the String Quartet Trust Board for a while. Then Arts Access Aotearoa. Then went into Parliament. 

“When we went back into Opposition I was invited to go on the trust board of Chamber Music New Zealand. I’m a trustee of the Adam Foundation, which was established by Nelson-based philanthropists Denis and Verna Adam. 

“It supports the national youth orchestra and has just donated $4 million to the Nelson School of Music. I went on the boards of the Dance Foundation and the Sergeant Art Gallery Trust Board, in Whanganui. 

“Then I got involved in the Dunedin-based Archibald Baxter Memorial Trust, which is to preserve the memory of Archibald Baxter and those who were conscientious objectors in World War 1. 

“A memorial is planned to be built in Dunedin for him. It’s an important part of our history that needs to be remembered, and I have always thought these guys were very badly treated and they needed to be remembered. 

“You just don’t remember the battles and the generals, you’ve got to remember those who opposed. The proposal originally was to establish a memorial in Anzac Avenue but the RSA objected. I think now it is going to the Botanical Gardens. 

“It is good to get back in these voluntary organisations and do one’s bit.” 

Speech and drama beat the piano 

“Looking back I wish I had studied the piano but my parents sent me off to do speech and drama and it was one of the best things I ever did. I have my Licentiate of Trinity College London in speech and drama and that was where I developed my particular talents. 

“I acted in the usual stuff through school and college, but nothing too serious and I have no favourite plays. I’ve always been a supporter of the secondary school Shakespeare competition. 

“I can’t think of any particular acting role I have played and can’t think of a part I would like to play. 

“I have been lucky with travel and had sabbaticals from Bell Gully in the early years. When I went to Rome for a Latin course in 2001 my partners thought I was a bit mad. 

“I had various refresher courses in France over the years. In 1990 I had a sabbatical and went off to Russia and Germany. I was in Germany the day Checkpoint Charlie was removed. 

“And I have been to Germany and Austria a lot. My brother is there and I like going to Salzburg as often as I can. I was there in late January for the Mozart Festival. 

“I am a great lover of the countries that made up the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. It’s probably my favourite part of the world. 

“I’ve been through much of southern Europe, the United States and Canada. Earlier this year I gave a speech in Tahiti on the rule of law and kicked myself that I hadn’t been there before because it is stunning. 

“A few months later I went over to Noumea [New Caledonia] and gave a similar speech. The moral of the story is you don’t need to travel far to see things. 

“I’d like to get out to French Polynesia again and would love to get to Pitcairn, but it’s very hard to get there. 

“My favourite place in New Zealand without a doubt is Nelson. Every two years there is the Adam Chamber Music Festival. It is a world class chamber music festival. 

“The Nelson School of Music has been renovated and strengthened. Concerts are either there or at the Cathedral. 

“When we look at our tourism offerings the three Ns - Nelson, New Plymouth and Napier - need to be given a lot more prominence in my view. All three are fantastic. 

“A lot of people think my favour composer is Mozart but I’m always balancing up between Mozart and Beethoven. I’d have to say, in that period, after a great deal of agonising and reflection, Beethoven wins by a whisker. 

“But, and it’s one of those very odd things, that almost equal billing with him is the person I regard as the most interesting composer of the last 150 years and that’s Dmitri Shostakovich. I just love his music.” 

Tortured music 

“I have a great interest in Russian history and culture. I’m a bit of a Slavophile. So I appreciate Shostakovich’s contribution which recounts everything from the 1905 revolution, the 1917 revolution, the siege of Leningrad, and the monumentally fantastic Fifth Symphony

“It’s not what you would call relaxing music, it is tortured music but it reflects the century that Russian experienced. 

“My interest in Russia began when I was a kid. My family never had the money to go away for holidays or things like that, so I used to wander off to the Khandallah public library and sit down and read things. 

“I’m sure I started reading something on the Romanovs and that led on. You know how something becomes a spark and then I got into a whole lot of Russian history and became more and more interested in Russia. 

“Looking back now how it is a country of such monumental significance and yet I suppose it could be so much more successful, but then it seems to take one step forward and two back. It is an amazing country. 

“I don’t read enough fiction, I readily confess. I have a tendency to go to history. I think history is probably one of the most underrated subjects. 

“If more people read history many of the problems of the world not be repeated. It’s an old cliché but would anyone have invaded Iraq if they had known the history of the Middle East? 

“My interest in New Zealand history was accentuated by my time as Minister for Treaty of Waitangi Negotiations. To begin to understand what really happened in this country there are things which you and I were never taught when we were young. 

“I don’t think we need to bash ourselves up, we just need to get the objective facts out. What happened in Parihaka [in 1881] no-one really knew, I think there was almost communal suppression of memory. But I think it is very important to look at those things.” 

57 channels (and nothin’ on) 

“I don’t have a television and there’s nothing on TV that interests me. If I want a dose of humour I’ll go to YouTube and dial up Yes, Prime Minister, or something stupid like Hogan’s Heroes. But there’s nothing on TV that amuses me. 

“I’ll go and see films, it depends on what is on at the art house cinema, The Penthouse in Brooklyn, Wellington. Some of the cheapest films are the best. 

“Last year I recall that amazing film The Journey about Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley – with Colm Meaney and Timothy Spall. Brilliant, utterly brilliant. It was utterly inspiring. 

“The last thing I saw at Circa Theatre, for about the third time, and didn’t understand it any better, was Waiting For Godot. I like to get to Shakespeare once a year. Circa have had some wonderful translations of French plays over the years. It is a very good theatre and has made a profound contribution to drama in this country. 

“I have no pets but I’m a great lover of cats, but because I go away a bit it seems a bit cruel to leave a cat to its own devices. 

“There’s a café at end of my street and the next door neighbours moved away and took the cat with them. The cat kept coming back. He would hang around the café and everyone adored him. 

“When he was killed by a dog off its leash last year everyone was shattered. If you can win the favour of a cat you are doing very well. I’m also a great lover of Jack Russell terriers. One day I wouldn’t mind getting a dog but not yet. 

“I drive a sporty little BMW 220i. Since I left Parliament and when I go to town from where I am, I get the train these days, I’ve become something of a choochoo-ologist. 

“When I was a Minister my self-drive car was a Mini Cooper S. I hooned around town – rather, I drove majestically around town – in that. 

“I wouldn’t mind having dinner with Shostakovich to try to get inside some of his works. And I would love to have dinner with Richard Nixon, who is probably one of the brainiest people to occupy the presidency and there was enough material there for quite a few psychologists. 

“Someone once said about him: ‘Richard Nixon is the kind of politician who would cut down a redwood tree and then mount the stump and make a speech for conservation’. 

“Who else? Cicero [Marcus Tullius Cicero, Roman statesman, orator, lawyer and philosopher]. I read a biography of him once and the reviewer said he talked his head off. There wasn’t anything that Cicero didn’t know. He was a big mouth. 

“And president Harry S. Truman. I have appreciated him more and more as time has gone on. He once said you get a lot done when other people get the credit. 

“I tried to apply that as much as possible and take as much of the politics out of things as you can so when I was doing the Intelligence reforms I tried to reach out across the aisle so you can get the broadest possible support for the legislation. Because if you want to be a purely political being you are not going to get that stuff done. 

“I don’t really cook all that much, and have almost completed the transition to a complete pescatarian. I love fish, so we would probably have poached fish of some description. I don’t like beef anymore and went off pig products years ago. Lamb is still in there but it’s got to be well cooked. To the extent I eat meat I’m a slow food aficionado.”  

A lawyer in politics 

Christopher has described his time in Parliament as not being a politician but being a lawyer in politics. 

“My time in Parliament was an extension – another manifestation of my legal career. 

“Ultimately, I wasn’t as successful as a lot of people are because I’m not really a political being. 

“I would have no other career. I’m pleased I’ve been in public life, I didn’t really enjoy it all that much, but I’m pleased it’s over. 

“I retain a strong interest in various issues. The reason I stayed in Parliament a bit longer than I intended to was because my member’s bill about reforming the law of contempt of court was plucked out of the ballot. And I was happy to work on that. 

“The minute my back was turned Nick Smith tried to take out the stuff about scandalising the court and so I got pretty annoyed about that. But it was all successfully sorted out because a species of scandalising the court has been put back in the legislation. 

“I find the political games that are played to be just tiresome. I don’t really care about the feelings of individual judges but I care a lot about the administration of justice.” 

“Would I have done anything differently? I’m disappointed some of the things I very much wanted to finish in the culture world weren’t pursued after I left the office. 

“The screaming example was an idea to have a Te Papa North. I was very keen, and I worked very well with the former mayor of Auckland, Len Brown, on the idea to have it in Manukau. 

“It would be a storage facility for Te Papa, because one always worries that too many of its treasurers or taonga are stored in Wellington. 

“I was keen to work with the local iwi and Pacific community to develop a Melanesian and Polynesian art part of Te Papa in south Auckland. 

“Some people in Auckland asked why it wasn’t to be by the waterfront, and I said a great city doesn’t have two museums, it might have four, and something might happen on the waterfront in the fullness of time. 

“That’s something I wish I could have pursued because I was very keen on that. But it has been made clear it won’t be proceeding and I think that is a mistake. 

“I also think the commemorations of the First World War have been very important and I was keen to get hold of the old Dominion Museum building in Wellington and would have loved to have seen a war museum there. 

“A war museum is an anti-war museum. We need to recount the history of conflict in New Zealand from pre-European days through to the modern era so that people understand the conscientious objectors, understand why it was necessary to fight World War 2 and why World War 1 was a disaster. 

“I was on top of that portfolio but I foolishly, in retrospect, suggested to John Key that he give it to someone else. 

“I was also keen to push the programme - Sistema Aotearoa - supported by the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra to encourage kids in south Auckland to play classical music. It’s really taken off and it’s very important. It’s done so much for those kids and needs and lot more government and community support. 

“The culture and heritage portfolio may not a big one in terms of money but it is a very important tonal portfolio for the country.”

Over a long career in journalism Jock Anderson has spent many hours in courtrooms and talking to members of the legal profession. He can be contacted at jockanderson123@gmail.com

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Last updated on the 6th September 2019