Sean Plunket: Activist or public servant? The Privacy Commissioner must decide

Opinion 05/03/2019

By Sean Plunket, host of Magic Afternoons.

Privacy is an important human right and protecting it is ever more challenging and complex in the digital age.

That’s why we have a Privacy Act and a Privacy Commission.  The Commission costs taxpayers around $5m a year with around $320,000.00 of that being the salary of Privacy Commissioner John Edwards.

Its job, in broad terms, is to receive and resolve complaints about privacy breaches, advise the government on privacy implications in proposed legislation and promote public awareness of our rights and obligations in regards matters of privacy.

From what I’ve seen the Commission does an alright job of that but I and others I’ve spoken to are concerned that the Privacy Commissioner appears to be using his office and funds to pursue and advocate his own personal views.

John Edwards has a personal twitter account @JCE_PC which he curiously describes as the personal twitter account of the Privacy Commissioner.  He’s used it to launch a sarcastic twitter troll on me regarding the then upcoming visit of Dr Jordan Peterson and privately threatened to sue me when I replied by suggesting he shouldn’t be driving.

Such spats aren’t uncommon on Twitter and given it was the pre-Christmas party season I was happy to put it down to high-spirits, but more recent developments suggest John Edwards is either unaware of or blatantly ignoring the convention that public servants who hold judicial or semi judicial positions shouldn’t let their personal views on contentious public issues interfere with their public roles.

On February 21st this year the Spinoff (a bastion of woke identity politics writing) published an article entitled “Transgender Self Identification: why it is a human right.”. The author described as a “Guest” writer was none other than John Edwards, in what the Spinoff described as an opinion piece this was the sub-heading.

In the debate around the right to self-identify, the dignity of the individual should be a cornerstone, writes NZ Privacy Commissioner John Edwards.

In the following article the word privacy didn’t appear once and while there were numerous references to human rights I note that Mr Edwards is the PRIVACY Commissioner not the HUMAN RIGHTS Commissioner.

The piece was clearly designed as a counter to groups who are concerned about the implications of the Gender Self Identification Bill which was then before Parliament (it has now been pulled to allow for proper public consultation) and Mr Edwards used the following words to describe what he thinks of the concerns raised by those groups and individuals,

A small but vocal lobby group has set itself the task of opposing the reform, demanding further consultation and analysis of the potential effects of self-identification on data gathering and discrimination against women.

A New Zealand Herald columnist has summarised what seems to be the core objection, that the measure will allow men to intrude into their spaces:

Under the proposed new law, a man can call himself a woman without ever medically transitioning (most never do) and insert himself in female-only spaces such as changing rooms, women’s refuges, and prisons. Women would have absolutely no legal recourse to challenge such a move.

I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t want to be locked up alone in a cell all night with a hairy, muscly, sex-starved inmate of either gender – but particularly one with his full kit and caboodle intact. Neither would I want my six-year-old niece to see a grown male stranger naked in the changing rooms at her local swimming centre. Why shouldn’t she be able to have a male-free space?

Setting aside the crude caricature, and the assumption of equal access to medical services to assist transition, how real are these fears?

Later in the piece Mr Edwards revealed his own son is transgender.

What’s wrong with all that you might ask. Well nothing if John Edwards wasn’t the Privacy Commissioner, but he is.

I interviewed a representative of “Speak up for Woman”, whom I presumed John Edwards was having a crack at, about the piece. They said they wouldn’t be comfortable laying a privacy complaint with John Edwards because of his public pronouncements about their group.

I made repeated requests to the Privacy Commission for an interview on the matter and was not so politely declined.

In frustration I asked him via Twitter for an interview. He came back with the preposterous deal that if I completed to Commission’s online Privacy 101 course he would give me an interview.  I replied to the effect that was a preposterous suggestion and not one any self-respecting journalist would agree to at which stage Mr Edwards blocked me on twitter.

An Official Information Act request followed and it reveals the extent to which Mr Edwards used the resources and staff of the Privacy Commission to have his personal views on trans gender identity published.

His media officer Charles Mabbett exchanged numerous messages with The Spinoff “editor” Toby Manhire to arrange publication of his opinion piece.   They decided not to include the name of the “Speak up for Women” because it might “give them exposure or oxygen” and one internal critique, I presume from a Commission policy analyst, responded to a quote from the group saying “what the actual f**k call this out more”.

Now John Edwards like any other citizen is entitled to his views on transgender or indeed any other issue but due to his status as a highly paid public servant he forgoes the right to voice those private opinions publicly.

To abuse his position by using taxpayer funded staff and resources to promulgate his personal opinions on a matter unrelated to his official position is even more egregious.

John Edwards needs to front up and explain himself and make a simple decision, is he a public servant or an activist.

Sean Plunket is host of Magic Mornings.