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Crime

From Parliament to prison: How an Aussie politico ended up in a Kiwi remand cell

Ethan Griffiths
By
Ethan Griffiths

Open Justice multimedia journalist, Bay of Plenty

Ten years ago, Tio Faulkner was rubbing shoulders with politicians.

Working as a political operator in Australia's capital, Faulkner worked as the right-hand man of then Australian Capital Territory opposition leader Zed Seselja, now a federal senator serving as a minister in Scott Morrison's Government.

Faulkner worked his way to the top of the Canberra circles, eventually being elected the president of the territory's division of the Liberal Party - now the ruling party of Australia.

He was dubbed a "power-broker" and a "campaign mastermind". He was rubbing shoulders with party leaders, heavyweight party donors, and both former and eventual Prime Ministers.

But just eight years later, the former Canberra beltway dweller is sitting in the remand unit of a New Zealand prison.

Next week, Faulkner is set to be sentenced for constructing his own private "park" by pushing thousands of kilograms of concrete and reinforced steel into Tauranga Harbour in an attempt to extend his own land - all without consent.

The reasons for the reclamation work vary depending on who you ask. Witnesses who presented evidence in court testified that Faulkner had told them he wanted to build his own private park.

Faulkner claimed his status as tangata whenua permitted him to alter the foreshore around his land. Photo / Supplied
Faulkner claimed his status as tangata whenua permitted him to alter the foreshore around his land. Photo / Supplied

Faulkner's defence was that he was protecting his property from the threat of rising seas as a result of climate change. He was entitled to do what he wanted with the harbour in front of his land, he says, due to his status as tangata whenua.

The conviction

The saga surrounding Tio Faulkner began in 2019, when a Bay of Plenty Regional Council officer conducting aerial surveys over Tauranga Harbour spotted a plot of coastal land jutting out of the Matapihi Peninsula that had not previously been recorded on any map.

The council officer noted the discovery, and passed it on to compliance officers who responded by visiting the property a few days later.

At the time of the inspection, the platform extended about 15m into the harbour and was about 30m wide and 2-3m deep. The platform covered close to 1000 square metres.

Also of concern to the officers was a piggery located next to the fill site, with animal faeces running freely into the harbour.

Faulkner told the officers he held a resource consent, issued by the "Tangata Whenua Wealth and Resource Management Authority" - a group not recognised in any resource management legislation.

An abatement notice was issued on September 4, 2019, ordering Faulkner to cease reclamation of the foreshore.

A month later, a search warrant was executed at the property, where it was discovered further material had been deposited into the harbour and the reclamation had been extended.

Another warrant was executed on November 4 and an additional abatement notice was issued instructing Faulkner to cease the discharge of pig effluent into the water.

The run-off from Faulkner's piggery flowed directly into Tauranga Harbour. Photo / Supplied
The run-off from Faulkner's piggery flowed directly into Tauranga Harbour. Photo / Supplied

During a visit on January 28, Faulkner issued council officers with a handwritten trespass notice and locked the gate providing access to his property.

On August 13, a year since the first discovery of the work, enforcement officers again executed a search warrant on the property and found the piggery still in operation, with runoff continuing to flow into the harbour.

The regional council later filed eight charges - four surrounding the reclamation of the land, two relating to the runoff of pig effluent and an additional two relating to the failure to provide personal information to an enforcement officer.

In an eight-day trial held in last July, Faulkner chose to represent himself, presenting a variety of defences for the earthworks.

Those defences included suggesting the works had been carried out for the purpose of erosion protection, according to the court judgment.

A document shared with the court, provided to council officers by Faulkner during a 2019 search, listed the reason for the earthworks as "mitigation for effects of global warming".

However, two witnesses who gave evidence to the court said Faulkner had told them he was wanting to build an area "similar to Memorial Park" near Tauranga's CBD.

At the conclusion of the trial, Judge Prudence Steven reserved her decision for a number of months, before eventually finding Faulkner guilty of the six charges relating to the reclamation and effluent discharge in November.

The additional charges of failing to provide requested information were dismissed.

The man himself

A quick Google search of Faulkner brings up a plethora of results.

According to property records seen by Open Justice, Faulkner is recorded as a trustee for a significant number of properties around the Matapihi area of Tauranga - a large peninsula predominantly covered in Māori land.

According to the internet, he has also delved into a spot of acting, advertising himself on a New Zealand webpage targeting film and television producers looking for extras.

But Faulkner is most known for his involvement in Australian politics, where he built himself a reputation at a pace not comparable to many.

It's not known exactly when Faulkner made the move to Australia.

He arrived and quickly and worked the room. He was always present and engaged. He sort of came out of nowhere really.

Senior Liberal Party source

Believed to have been raised in New Zealand, online profiles suggest Faulkner jumped the Tasman in the late 1990s, quickly associating himself with Liberal Party members in New South Wales.

According to archived internet sites, Faulkner ran for a federal seat in the 1998 election - a contest he lost.

He appeared to then be employed by Warrane College - a student accommodation facility within the University of New South Wales.

Faulkner ran again for the Liberal Party in 2004, this time in the state elections for the NSW electorate of Maroubra.

After two unsuccessful campaigns, Faulkner made the move to Canberra, again associating himself within Liberal Party circles in Australia's city of power.

According to a number of Canberra sources who agreed to speak with Open Justice, Faulkner secured his first job as a political advisor to Vicki Dunne - a member of the ACT legislature, who eventually went on to become Speaker.

reclaimed_land_OL
reclaimed_land_OL

It was during this period that Faulkner was spotted by then-ACT opposition leader Zed Seselja, a young up-and-coming politician with his eyes firmly set on federal power.

Seselja quickly employed Faulkner to work as his director of electorate affairs.

While working for Seselja, Faulkner made a name for himself within the halls of power, often being found at networking meetings and engaging with outside community groups.

One source, who covered the work of both Faulkner and Seselja closely, said his rise to the top ranks of the party came incredibly swiftly.

"He arrived and quickly and worked the room. He was always present and engaged. He sort of came out of nowhere really."

Another source, who worked with Faulkner during his time with the Liberals, said his role was as senior as it got.

He was rubbing shoulders with people like Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison. He was at the very top, coming to federal executive meetings at Menzies House.

Senior Liberal Party source

According to the Australian newspaper The Age, Faulkner, alongside Seselja's brother-in-law, "were the masterminds behind the Liberal's stunning election success" in 2012, where the party won the popular vote and claimed a record number of seats in the ACT legislature.

It was the name he made for himself as a liberal party staffer during that time that led Faulkner to be elected to the position of President of the Canberra Liberals - the official ACT wing of the party.

The role is the most senior within the Liberal Party on a state level. Current Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison also served as the president of the neighbouring New South Wales Liberal Party wing around the same time as Faulkner.

Tio Faulkner was once rubbing shoulders with Australian Prime Ministers. Now he's in a New Zealand prison cell. Photo / Canberra Times
Tio Faulkner was once rubbing shoulders with Australian Prime Ministers. Now he's in a New Zealand prison cell. Photo / Canberra Times

As president of the ACT wing, Faulkner was within the party's top circle of leaders. He would attend the quarterly governance meetings of the party alongside federal leaders, often sitting next to people such as Malcolm Turnbull, Tony Abbott and Julie Bishop, with current PM Scott Morrison also around the table.

"He wasn't just a local committee member coming along to monthly meetings, he was at the centre of the operations of the party."

Faulkner stayed close with Seselja, going on to work closely on his 2013 federal campaign.

When Selselja was eventually elected to the federal senate less than a year later, he was thanked by the new senator during his maiden speech, having formed part of the "formidable political team" that secured Seselja's election.

Tio Faulkner dumped thousands of kilos of concrete and rebar into Tauranga Harbour.  Photo / Ethan Griffiths
Tio Faulkner dumped thousands of kilos of concrete and rebar into Tauranga Harbour. Photo / Ethan Griffiths

Once the task of electing his former boss was complete, Faulkner chose to step down from his role as president of the ACT Liberals.

His service with the Liberals complete, Faulkner opted to remain involved in Australian politics, going on to found the Marriage Alliance - one of Australia's largest anti-same-sex marriage groups.

The return

According to sources close to Faulkner, he made his return to New Zealand in the mid-2010s.

The story upon his return to New Zealand is remarkably similar to that of his time in Australia; he quickly became engaged in the affairs of the Matapihi area, becoming a well-known figure within this time within the Māori community.

In 2014, he became involved in an eventual High Court challenge to the council's plans to build a pipeline in the Matapihi area, representing the same trust which he now serves on.

During this period, sources say he became a proponent of a radical form of Māori sovereignty, subscribing to a view that as tangata whenua, there was no jurisdiction over himself, or his ancestral land.

Work on the construction of Faulkner's "park" is understood to have been initiated at some point in late 2017. The rest has been well-traversed.

Currently, Faulkner remains held in custody at Spring Hill Prison in Hampton Downs, awaiting his sentencing set to take place at the Tauranga District Court on Wednesday.

A prior date for sentencing was set down for earlier this month, however Judge Steven could not proceed with sentencing as Faulkner had failed to meet with a probation officer to determine his financial means to service a fine or reparation order.

Faulkner said he had not yet met with a probation officer as he intended to appeal his conviction in the High Court.

As a result of not doing what was required ahead of the first sentencing date, he is now in custody waiting to learn if his crimes will land him a jail sentence or fines.

According to Faulkner, his time behind bars while he awaits his day in court has been a blessing, not a curse.

"I am very grateful to [the judge] for giving me this experience behind bars, and I'll be thanking her for that, because it will add to my memoirs," he said during his last appearance.

The book of Tio Faulkner's tumultuous life is one that as yet, remains unfinished. If ever published, it will be a memoir most certainly worthy of a read.