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James Richard Allan Stevenson, 1947 - 2018

By Chris Barton

Jim Stevenson died in Auckland on 3 September 2018 aged 70. In a diverse and distinguished career, he combined service in the fields of law, government diplomacy, regulatory reform, civil service with an abiding love and support of artistic endeavour. During a significant period of change in New Zealand he was instrumental behind the scenes in guiding the reforms of the Fourth Labour Government. His ferocious intelligence and much-noted work ethic were evident in his work on deregulation and competition policy, particularly in the field of telecommunications deregulation where, as lawmaker and litigator, he engaged with both sides of the so-called level playing field.

Photo of Jim Stevenson
Jim Stevenson.

Born on 31 October 1947, and educated at Auckland Grammar School, Jim graduated from Auckland University with a Bachelor of Arts in 1968, a Bachelor of Law 1971 and was admitted to the Bar in 1975. His long association with the arts began in 1971 when he became the first chair of the New Zealand Students Arts Council. In this position, he toured many rock bands nationally and organised ground-breaking university tours by the Australian Dance Theatre, the New Zealand Ballet Company and the Four Poets Tour featuring Alan Brunton, Denis Glover, Sam Hunt and Hone Tuwhare.  He was also active in student politics from 1966 as the Societies representative of the Students’ Association where he organised extraordinary social events including a legendary medieval-style banquet.

Jim developed a close friendship with poet Alan Brunton and co-edited with him the first issue of the literary magazine Freed. He played a significant support role for the avant garde theatre company Red Mole founded by Alan Brunton and Sally Rodwell in 1971. In the 1970s he supported his wife Jenny Stevenson in the establishment of the Dance Centre in Wellington and in 1987 became the co-founder with Jenny of the Wellington Performing Arts Centre, offering tertiary level and community classes in dance, singing and acting.  It was sold to Whitireia NZ in 2009, when Jenny and Jim jointly received the Absolutely Positively Wellington Award for contribution to the city and community.

During the time of WPAC’s operation Jim offered several personally-funded scholarships to Māori and Pacific Island students. Other artistic interests have included writing the constitution for the national dance advocacy group DANZ and becoming a founding Executive Member. Jim also became Chairman of the Auckland Ballet Trust and Auckland Ballet Company and was the long-standing Chairman of the Mudra Dance Company, for which he received the Samman Award in 2014.  In recent years, he assisted and advised the Hawaiki TU Haka Theatre Company.

Jim’s professional life began in 1970 when he joined the Trade and Industry Department and rose rapidly to the positions of First Secretary, Commercial and Trade Commissioner with postings to New Zealand Embassies in Washington DC, Tehran and Paris. He was involved in crucial negotiations for meat, dairy and wool trade access in the Middle-East, America and Europe and was in Teheran immediately after the 1979 Iranian Revolution led by Ayatollah Khomeini which overthrew of the Shah of Iran and put an end to the Persian monarchy.

That posting lasted just six months. Three weeks after Jim and Jenny arrived in Tehran, American diplomats and citizens were held hostage for 444 days after a group of Iranian college students supporting the Iranian Revolution took over the US Embassy. As the crisis deepened movements by embassy staff were restricted to Tehran city and New Zealand officials were instrumental in helping six Americans escape.  After the Embassy was compromised, the New Zealand Ambassador made the decision to return to New Zealand and Jim was in charge of smashing the communication equipment with a huge mallet. Jenny was hosting a party for diplomatic wives when Jim rang and told her not to say a word but once everyone had left to quickly pack a small bag as they would be leaving that evening. After a circuitous route to the airport and a nerve-wracking wait in the departure lounge they were able to board a flight for London.

From 1986 Jim held Assistant Secretary positions at the Department of Trade and Industry and provided advice to Ministers of the 4th Labour Government on deregulation and competition policy. He was known for his contributions to Commerce Act 1986 and the Fair Trading Act 1986 and for his involvement in the radical changes to regulatory environment arising from corporatisation of Government trading departments.  He was closely involved in supplying policy advice on telecommunications, postal services and broadcasting.  In his role as General Manger, Communications for the newly named Ministry of Commerce he was involved in the sale of frequencies on the radio spectrum and the establishment of Māori  radio.

In 1990 Jim transferred his expertise in public policy to the private sector, joining New Zealand’s leading law firm Buddle Findlay, where he became Senior Partner, Board member and Chairman of Partners.  In 1991 Jim also became a Member of the Broadcasting Commission and was instrumental in devising the funding model for NZ on Air, of which he became Deputy Chairman.  He was also responsible for establishing Access Public radio.

At Buddle Findlay he managed major competition law cases, including the drawn out Telecom Corporation of New Zealand Ltd v Clear Communications Ltd argued in the High Court, the Court of Appeal and at the Privy Council in London.  He established an international reputation in the field of privatisation of government enterprises through working with Asian Development Bank & World Bank government projects in Mongolia, Samoa, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Vanuatu.  He contributed to international publications on privatisation policy, authoring the New Zealand chapter in the Sweet & Maxwell (UK) publication on telecommunications law. He has represented New Zealand and spoken at numerous forums and seminars on regulation issues and has been a conference speaker for the International Bar Association. His public service contributions were recognised when he was awarded a New Zealand Commemoration Medal in 1990.

In his retirement Jim became a social historian documenting his own and his wife’s family history and heritage.  He also earned the deep gratitude of the many people he helped by bringing his considerable research skills to bear in the pursuit of uncovering the truth. He will be remembered for his singular wit, as a devoted, supportive husband, father and friend who was compassionate, gracious and generous to a fault.  Whatever he was dealing with at the time he put aside to listen, to advise, to help. He is survived by his wife Jenny, his daughter Sarah, two sons Richard and George, and two grandchildren, Teddy and Kingston.

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Last updated on the 27th September 2018