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Michael Laws (born 1957) is a New Zealand politician, broadcaster and writer/columnist. He served two terms as a Member of the New Zealand Parliament, representing the National Party (1990 - 1996) and New Zealand First (1996). He was elected as Mayor of Wanganui in 2004 and won re-election in 2007. He is also a Radio Live morning talkback host and a Sunday Star-Times columnist.

Contents

Early life

Born in Wairoa, Laws moved with his parents to Wanganui where he received his pre-tertiary education at Tawhero Primary School, Wanganui Intermediate School and Wanganui Boys' College. (His father, Keith Laws, a schoolteacher, became Rector (Principal) of Waitaki Boys' High School (Oamaru) and then of Scots College, Wellington.) On leaving school, Laws spent two seasons at the Whakatu freezing works before entering University of Otago, where he graduated with first-class honours in history and earned a University Grants Committee Postgraduate Scholarship. He also won an Otago University sporting blue.[1] He later obtained a Master of Arts from Victoria University. During his time at Otago he attracted controversy as a key member of a student organisation that supported the 1981 Springbok Tour. He also became an accomplished public speaker and captained both the New Zealand Universities and New Zealand debating teams in the early-mid 1980s.

National Party Member of Parliament

Years Term Electorate Party
1990–1993 43rd Hawkes Bay National
1993–1996 44th Hawkes Bay National
1996–1996 44th Hawkes Bay NZ First

Having become involved in the New Zealand Young Nationals (the youth wing of the National Party), Laws worked as a parliamentary researcher for National between 1985 and 1989. Most of this time he spent as a senior researcher and press secretary, including assisting the dissident National MP Winston Peters from 1987 to 1989. In the 1987 elections, Laws stood as the National candidate for the Hawke's Bay seat, but narrowly failed to defeat the incumbent Bill Sutton of the Labour Party. In the 1990 elections, however, Laws wrested the seat from Sutton to enter Parliament with a majority of 2,895 votes. In the 1993 elections he retained his seat with an increased majority — despite a significant nation-wide swing away from the National Party.

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Renegade MP

Laws never had a good relationship with the National Party's senior hierarchy. As a researcher he had done much of his work for Winston Peters, whom party leader Jim Bolger looked upon with disapproval. Tensions persisted between Laws and Bolger after Laws became an MP, made worse by Laws' declaration that he would attempt to follow popular opinion in Hawke's Bay rather than National Party policy. Laws voted against his party on a number of issues, joining several other dissident MPs to oppose the economic policies of the Minister of Finance Ruth Richardson. In early 1991 he even organised public seminars designed to avoid his government's new superannuation surtax policies. The Bolger administration later abandoned the surtax, but Laws earned the ongoing enmity of his colleagues for his stance. He also championed the unsuccessful Death with Dignity Bill, which aimed to legalise voluntary euthanasia. The terminal illness of Cam Campion, a fellow dissident in Laws' first term in parliament, prompted this advocacy.

Throughout his parliamentary career, rumours frequently circulated that Laws planned to join a new party. When Gilbert Myles and Hamish MacIntyre, angry about Ruth Richardson's policies, founded the new Liberal Party, they invited Laws to join them, but he declined. Later, when his old boss Winston Peters established the New Zealand First party, rumours claimed Laws had considered changing parties, but eventually decided that New Zealand First lacked the organisation and principle for success. Finally, Laws became involved in discussions with Mike Moore, former leader (1990 - 1993) of the Labour Party, to establish a new centrist party. It did not eventuate, however, with Laws claiming that Moore showed unwillingness to commit to it. In the end, Laws' relationship with the National Party deteriorated to the point where he no longer attended caucus meetings, and he decided to join New Zealand First in April 1996.

The "Antoinette Beck" affair

Laws did not remain in parliament much longer, due to the "Antoinette Beck" political scandal. Laws employed a company part-owned by his wife to conduct a Napier City Council communications poll, in his capacity as a recently-elected (October 1995) Napier city councillor. This contravened the Local Government (Member's Interests) Act, but Laws claimed that "there had been no profit to either company or individuals", and an official inquiry by the Auditor-General confirmed found only a minor and unintentional breach of regulations.

However, Laws' conduct during the matter attracted strong criticism, with Laws misleading the public on a number of issues, and he eventually resigned from parliament. Differing opinions exist over the whole controversy. Laws acknowledges that he did things which he should not have done, but described the scandal as a relatively minor matter which his numerous political enemies blew out of proportion. His opponents paint Laws as corrupt. Official investigations by the New Zealand Police, by the Serious Fraud Office and by the Auditor-General found he had no case to answer. The latter declared that he made "an honest mistake" in not declaring his wife Karen's shareholding in the company that contracted to the Napier City Council to conduct the poll. This poll led to the "Antoinette Beck" affair, so named after a person who did not exist signed off the poll with this name.

Two of Laws' principal antagonists in the Antoinette Beck affair - Napier city councillors John Harrison and Kerry Single - unsuccessfully sued him for defamation, and Laws personally defended himself in the Napier High Court in December 1997. The Court awarded costs of over NZ$200,000 against the joint plaintiffs, and this court victory appeared to re-ignite Laws' public career.

Although he had left Parliament, Laws remained involved in politics, managing New Zealand First's campaign for the general election held on 12 October 1996. He would later write in his political autobiography that the experience resembled nursing a stick of unstable dynamite. Later he served as an adviser to Neil Kirton, who emerged as New Zealand First's leading dissident despite his position as an Associate Minister of Health. Laws' association with Kirton irritated the National Party, which had formed a coalition with New Zealand First. Eventually, the New Zealand First parliamentary leader, Winston Peters, sacked Kirton.

Laws started his own public relations consultancy but eventually became a writer, publisher and newspaper columnist. In 2003 he became a talkback host for Radio Pacific and started appearing in television shows as a writer and presenter.

Mayor of Wanganui

Laws then returned to politics in 2004 by successfully contesting the mayoralty of the Wanganui District Council. He formed and led a "Vision Wanganui" team at the local-body elections, capturing the majority of the Council seats and unseating the incumbent mayor Chas Poynter. Chas Poynter had served as mayor for 18 years but many in the community felt that it was time for change, and on election night Chas Poynter finished third behind Michael Laws and John Martin. Laws gained 43% of the total vote, with voter turn-out at 67% and the second highest for a local body election in New Zealand that year.

Michael Laws saw his victory as a mandate for change. He immediately opened the Council's finance figures to the public, introduced yearly referenda, announced management restructuring and lobbied successfully for a nil rate-increase for the district.[2] The local community newspaper, River City Press, made him its inaugural "Person of the Year" for 2005.

However, Laws' mayoralty generated controversy, with some citizens complaining about derogatory comments he made about some Wanganui residents in the wake of Laws' campaign to cancel an extension to the Sarjeant Art Gallery. An internal committee of investigation in mid-2005 found that he had not breached the council's code of conduct, but his administration remained controversial. He dismayed the local arts community by canning plans for an extension to the Sarjeant Art Gallery while increasing funding for other local recreational facilities - particularly the swimming complex. Nonetheless, his "Vision Wanganui" grouping subsequently won two council by-elections in February 2006.

In August 2006, in his roles as both talk radio host and mayor, Michael Laws caused national controversy for refusing to lower the municipal flag to recognise the death of Tongan king, King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV. On his radio-show Laws described the deceased monarch as "a bloated, brown slug" and referred to the anti-democratic leadership of the Tongan royal family. Some people regarded the comments as an insult to the Tongan community residing in New Zealand, and protests occurred, including a complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority (BSA). The BSA subsequently cleared Laws of any breach of broadcasting standards, and later the New Zealand Press Council cleared columns he wrote on peanut-allergy sufferers and on public-school bans. However, New Zealand Herald readers judged it the "worst insult of 2006".

Despite his controversial style, Laws acquired the reputation of having rejuvenated the "River City" (Wanganui). Both the Herald on Sunday (Feb 2007) and the National Business Review (December 2006) credit him with having raised Wanganui's profile and having had a positive effect upon raising housing prices.

In November 2006 Laws announced he would not contest the mayoralty at the 2007 local-body elections. He said he wanted to spend more time with his family, especially his young daughters Lucy and Zoe, but did not rule himself out of standing for lesser public offices. He had previously announced he had signed a five-year contract with RadioWorks to continue his morning talkback-show on Radio Live.

Laws campaigned vigorously against gangs and in April 2007 campaigned for a Yes vote in a Wanganui referendum to outlaw gang-patches and regalia in the Wanganui district. As a result, the Council drafted a local bill which the Whanganui MP Chester Borrows introduced into Parliament in 2008. Parliament's "Law and Order" select committee considered proposed anti-gang-patch legislation and reported back positively on 24 September 2008. The Bill passed its third reading in Parliament in May 2009 and is law. Local Police report ['Dominion-Post' 24 Nov 2009] that the legislation is having a beneficial effect in policing gangs, while the mayors of Timaru, Whakatane, Opotiki and Palmerston North are reportedly considering similar by-laws.

Citing public pressure, Laws changed his mind about retiring from the mayoralty and on the last day for local-government nominations (24 August 2007) announced he would stand for a second term for mayor and as part of a "reformist" 'Health First' team for the Whanganui District Health Board.

On 13 October 2007, the voters re-elected Laws as mayor with an increased majority; he gained about 50-percent more votes than the next candidate, John Martin, and won 55-percent of the total vote — the first time since 1995 that a winning mayor has gained a majority of the total vote. However, his "Vision Wanganui" team lost its one-seat majority around the council-table, winning five of 12 seats. Laws also won election to the Whanganui District Health Board, as did two of his "Health First" team.

In 2008 he created a new power-sharing plan by making his councilors "mini-mayors" and giving them responsibility for areas of council policy. He also championed the council's successful search for "soft water" for the Wanganui community, describing it as "a personal crusade", and the construction of the Abelard and Heloise water bores at Westmere. The district council has estimated the savings at $240 per household, and the switch-over is planned for late 2009.

Laws returned to the national headlines in 2008 for saying that pit bull owners "look like their dogs" and for labeling pub charity gambling chiefs as "selfish morons" after they protested a council decision to restrict gambling outlets in the city.

In 2009 he championed the right of Wanganui to retain its name and spelling after local Maori, Te Runanga o Tupoho, petitioned the New Zealand Geographic Board to change to the Maori spelling of 'Whanganui' with an added 'h'. The council consequently endorsed his actions and a 2006 referendum showed an 82% support for the retention of the English spelling dating back to 1844 when local inhabitants sought a replacement for the name of 'Petre'.

A referendum concluded on 22 May 2009 found 77% support for the status quo. Over 19,000 Wanganui citizens, 61% of the electoral population, voted.

During September/October 2009, the dispute escalated when Laws was accused of "bullying" school pupils who had written to him, in Maori, asking that he cease opposition to the Maori spelling. He wrote back that they should concentrate on "the real issues affecting Maoridom, especially child abuse and child murder". Most mainstream internet opinion polls, though (TV3 News, YahooXtra, New Zealand Herald), sided with the outspoken Mayor.

And two scientific public opinion polls, undertaken by UMR Insight and TVNZ News in October 2009, also recorded strong national majorities in favour of the status quo.

On 18 December 2009, Lands Minister Maurice Williamson visited Wanganui to deliver the Crown's decision on the spelling of Wanganui City. Crown agencies were instructed by the Minister to progressively move to the use of 'Whanganui' while for others the spelling would be optional - either Wanganui or Whanganui. This pleased Whanganui Iwi but Laws appeared to claim a victory for maintaining the status quo, appearing quite bemused at the Minister's press conference. Laws immediately issued a press release stating that the Minister of Lands had rejected the NZ Geographic Board's decision that the spelling should be 'Whanganui'. This appeared to be an attempt to mislead citizens as to the Minister's actual decision. Laws added the decision essentially meant no change from the status quo - a comment which suggested that he was in denial of the fact that Crown agencies, local iwi and at least a percentage of the city's population would in future be using Whanganui.

Election record

List of elections won/lost in Michael Laws' political career:

Year Election Result
1987 Hawke's Bay constituency (New Zealand Parliament) Lost
1990 Hawke's Bay constituency (New Zealand Parliament) Won
1993 Hawke's Bay constituency (New Zealand Parliament) Won
1995 Napier City Council (council seat) Won
2004 Mayoralty (Wanganui District Council) Won
2007 Mayoralty (Wanganui District Council) Won
2007 Member (Whanganui District Health Board) Won

Other information

Laws has written three books which have sold well - all featured in Booksellers New Zealand's "Top Ten" fortnightly surveys. The first, The Demon Profession, released in August 1998, comprised a political memoir that Laws characterised as an inside view into the real workings of politics. The following year he released a mystery novel entitled Dancing With Beelzebub. His third book, Gladiator - the Norm Hewitt story, became the New Zealand No 1 bestseller over Christmas/New Year 2001 and sold over 35,000 copies.

Laws hosts a nation-wide morning talk radio show on Radio Live, has hosted his own weekly rugby media show on SKY Network Television from 2004 to July 2009, and writes a weekly column for The Sunday Star-Times newspaper which won him the Charles Southwell Prize in 2003. He has also appeared on various "celebrity" and "reality television" shows.

In June 2008, the New Zealand Police prosecuted Michael Laws for contempt of court in relation to a breach of a suppression order on his Radio Live talkback show in December 2006. The Court discharged him without conviction. In January 2009, the Broadcasting Standards Authority rejected a complaint from Children's Commissioner Dr Cindy Kiro relating to alleged unfair criticism by Laws. He has repeatedly derided the commissioner as "the worst public servant in the country." Kiro resigned in March 2009.

Michael Laws has five children - two from previous relationships: James (born 1978) and Rachel (born 1979). He has three children with his partner, Leonie Brookhammer - Lucy (born 2004), Zoe (born 2006) and Theodore (born 2008). They separated in March 2009 but were reunited in August 2009.

In April 2007 Television New Zealand selected Laws to participate in the television series Dancing with the Stars with dance-partner Lauren de Boeck. Prior to the competition he broke a bone in his foot while practicing, but vowed to continue, saying that Wanganui would benefit from the nationwide coverage. In his Sunday Star-Times column he classed himself as "a dancing duffer", and he did not survive the third episode of the competition.

In February 2008, doctors diagnosed leukemia in Laws' 3-year-old daughter Lucy; they gave her a poor prognosis due to other infections.[3] However she survived that initial scare and Laws' mayoral website provides weekly updates as to her health.[3][4] She was readmitted to hospital in March 2009 and spent 22 days overcoming viral infections. Laws has spent time in both 2008 and 2009 on leave from his mayoral duties because of his daughter's health.[5]

References

Laws, Michael (1998). The Demon Profession. Auckland: HarperCollins (New Zealand).   ISBN 1-86950-257-4

External links


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