Debate about what constitutes racism has been at the centre of day three of Sir Bob Jones’ defamation case in the Hight Court in Wellington.
Sir Bob, one of the country’s richest people, is suing filmmaker Renae Maihi for defamation, accusing her of calling him a racist, the author of hate speech and saying he was unfit to hold a knighthood.
Ms Maihi started an online petition in 2018 calling for Sir Bob to be stripped of his knighthood after he wrote a controversial National Business Review column.
In it, he called for Waitangi Day to be replaced with ‘Māori Gratitude Day’, arguing that without British immigration Māori would not be alive today. The property tycoon said the column was harmless joking and the start of a satirical series about gratitude days.
Ms Maihi’s lawyer Davey Salmon played Sir Bob a series of historic television clips.
In the clips, Sir Bob made comments about Māori being a “primitive race”, having “no investment mentality” and being responsible for their own impoverishment.
Mr Salmon asked him if he was aware that describing pre-colonial Māori as primitive in nature is controversial. Sir Bob replied, “Why… there is always people that disagree with everyone.”
In a video clip from 1990, Sir Bob said the “European coloniser in this country has at all times been enormously sympathetic to the colonised race”.
Today, Sir Bob stood by that view and said they were treated “extraordinarily well” compared to other more brutal colonial environments.
Mr Salmon asked Sir Bob if he was aware that it’s a racist view to suggest Māori are better off from colonisation. “I can’t stand this bandying around racist,” replied Sir Bob.
The defence put it to him that his understanding of what is and isn’t racist in 2020 is not up to date.
“No, I would say the opposite,” said Sir Bob.
“You would say you’re deeply in touch?” asked Mr Salmon.
“Absolutely,” Sir Bob replied.
Jon Johansson gives evidence
Later in the day, the Deputy Prime Minister’s chief of staff Jon Johansson gave evidence in support of Sir Bob, who he described as “New Zealand’s pre-eminent absurdist” and a “superb emblem of freedom”.
The former political scientist has been friends with the rich-lister for nearly 20 years and said “racist is one of the last words I’d use to describe him”.
Mr Johansson said Sir Bob was “utterly colour-blind” and takes a “desegregated view of race relations”.
Under cross-examination, Mr Salmon analysed Mr Johnasson’s take on former National Party leader Don Brash’s controversial Orewa speech about race relations.
Mr Salmon asked Mr Johansson if he thought a political leader using negative racial stereotypes was racist.
“I’m just not willing to concede I would. I would call it what you just did: 'using negative racial stereotypes'. Why would I need to look for a term outside of that?” said Mr Johansson.
Mr Davey said Mr Johnasson had in his career analysed language and formed the view that it was racist, but today seemed “very reluctant to a name a number of things as racist”.
Mr Davey asked Mr Johansson if the hypothetical statement “Māori culture is inferior to Western European culture” is racist.
“Well, I’d say it absolutely lacks nuance,” said Mr Johanssson.
“And it’s racist?” asked Mr Salmon.
“It is definitely in that direction, yes,” said Mr Johanssson.
Mr Salmon asked if that was a gentle “yes,” to which Mr Johansson replied, “I’m sorry, mate, I just don’t live in absolutes.”
Mr Johansson said his reading of Sir Bob’s writing was informed by his personal friendship with him, and he couldn’t separate the person from the words.
“If all one did was concentrate at the exclusion of the man himself and just his words I think we would all want to hang him,” said Mr Johansson.