Glad to be nation's most-sued person

By Claire Trevett

Thirty years after he first began to hanker for it, Christopher Finlayson has reached his goal of becoming "the most-sued person in the realm".

The former lawyer recalls first being interested in the post of Attorney-General when Jim McLay was appointed to the job in 1978. Mr Finlayson was then a student at law school and chairman of the Karori Young Nationals.

"I've always thought it was a really interesting job. As I've got involved in law more and more, you see that the poor old Attorney-General is the most-sued person in the realm and you see the sort of responsibilities he or she has.

"It's an ancient office and it has huge responsibilities. I regard it as, frankly, the highlight of my career to get the job."

Now 51, he gave up the chance to become a Queen's Counsel by pursuing that dream - entering Parliament in 2005.

Yesterday, he was also sworn in as Minister for Treaty of Waitangi Negotiations and - an added bonus for the arts patron - as Minister of Arts, Culture and Heritage.

He has also become the only second term MP on National's front bench in Parliament.

Yet while the front bench is prime real estate for most politicians with ambition, Mr Finlayson is more sanguine. Where he sat in the debating chamber was of secondary importance to the portfolios he was given.

Ahead of him lies the goal of completing the Treaty claims process, a job he says he will pursue with vigour. A former lawyer for Ngai Tahu in its negotiations with the Crown, he was astonished at the lack of progress made on settlements under Labour until Michael Cullen took the portfolio.

He credits the rapid progress in the past 14 months to Dr Cullen and intends to keep that momentum going to meet National's policy of settling all historical grievances by 2014.

It's a hefty workload; two claimant iwi are in pre-negotiations and 12 are in negotiations for agreements in principle. A further 12 are awaiting finalised settlement agreements.

To get through it, National's policy includes boosting resources for the Waitangi Tribunal to allow it to sit fulltime, streamlining its processes, appointing independent "facilitators" to advise iwi and speeding up legislation.

Although the details are yet to be sorted through, Mr Finlayson is also likely to have a role in the review of the Foreshore and Seabed Act - a law he has previously described as discriminatory and unfair - and of the Maori seats, promised under National's agreement with the Maori Party.

Those razor gangs on state spending needn't think they will be wielding the axe anywhere near his arts and culture portfolio. He points out National had made "a very clear undertaking" to maintain current levels of funding.

"I think there is a general understanding of the importance of arts and culture to New Zealand. I think there is also a clear understanding that these are tough economic times and the arts will suffer. In fact, they already are suffering, because sponsorship is tailing off. So people needn't worry about that at all."

An advocate for constitutional convention, Mr Finlayson says he has a "pragmatic rather than an emotional view" on republicanism. His own view is that "the time will come" for New Zealand, especially given Australia's move in that direction under the Rudd Government.

"I'm very loyal to the current monarch but I'd be in the camp that says on the demise of the Queen there will be a number of countries in the Commonwealth that will be reviewing their constitutional arrangements and that's probably a good thing. If so, it won't be an anti-British thing. It's just New Zealand's evolution as a country."

Mr Finlayson is also likely to be involved in any review of electoral finance laws after his party repeals the Electoral Finance Act, although the exact plans are "something the Cabinet will have to look at".

"What I really disliked about that act was this notion of third parties, that the public and representatives of the public were some kind of interlopers into the political game which was really for the politicians.

"I found that profoundly offensive. We are the servants. It's the public's electoral system."

It was also "atrociously drafted". For the law reform fanatic who has worked for 30 years to become the Attorney-General, that is perhaps its worst sin of all.

- NZ Herald

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