Amicus Curiae: Look At Me Now – New Zealand’s Response to Celebrity Domestic Abusers

Eugenia Woo, leading contributor

Last week, Immigration New Zealand announced that Chris Brown would be unable to enter New Zealand in December for his world tour performance. The R&B singer was refused permission to enter the UK in 2010 because of his felony assault conviction sustained in the attack of his then-partner, Rihanna. INZ spokesman Marc Piercey stated that one of the reasons why Brown was unable to enter New Zealand was because of how immigration policy treats those who have been denied entry elsewhere. In order to gain entry despite his criminal charge, he would have to obtain a special visa granted at the discretion of INZ.

New Zealand has a history of denying entry to overseas celebrities because of criminal charges associated with violence. Mike Tyson, famous World Heavyweight Champion boxer, was turned away more than once in 2012. Even though Tyson criticised the decision of the authorities to revoke his visa because of his rape conviction, the significant opposition to him entering the country was unflagging, with Prime Minister John Key calling the initial decision to give him a visa a “marginal call” and expressing public disapproval, along with members of Women’s Refuge, for honouring in any way those with convictions for violence against women.

Fast-forwarding to this year’s incident with Chris Brown, National MP Judith Collins was adamant that the singer was not welcome at all in New Zealand, and said on the Paul Henry Show that he could “bugger off” because New Zealand already has its fair share of abusers. The consensus from public interest groups and anti-abuse advocacy groups such as White Ribbon was that banning Brown from New Zealand was in the best interest of the country. White Ribbon spokesman, Rob McCann, mentioned an important point regarding those in a position of prestige and fame – young people are likely to admire them and may emulate their behaviour, so taking a lenient stance on violent stars would only send the wrong message. He added that he thinks it is “important for our youth that the Government says [domestic violence] is not OK.” Women’s Refuge chief executive Dr Ang Jury expressed a similar sentiment, emphasising the importance of abusers being held accountable and having to acknowledge that their behaviour has long-term consequences.

New Zealand’s treatment of overseas celebrity offenders has been consistent and punitive, which is arguably the appropriate stance to take against those who have committed serious violent offences, especially ones concerned with violence against women. Despite our tough stance on people like Mike Tyson and Chris Brown, however, New Zealand still has one of the highest rates of domestic violence in the OECD. A few years ago, New Zealand had the highest rate of abuse of women in the OECD as ranked by UN Women. On the question of famous offenders in our own backyard, there have been a variety of high-profile cases involving sports stars with convictions similar to Brown and Tyson. However, the response to those offenders has been comparatively lenient.

In 2009, prominent sports broadcaster Tony Veitch admitted to a serious domestic violence charge and was sentenced merely to supervision, community service and a fine. In court, he admitted to the most serious charge of injuring with reckless disregard, related to when he kicked his then-partner after an argument until her spine fractured. The charge of injuring with reckless disregard carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison in accordance with s 189 of the Crimes Act 1961. Four years after his conviction, he went on to interview Kiwi league players at the World Cup in Britain. He was re-employed by The Radio Network, and had his old job back within a year. Various public figures have expressed their support for him, including rugby coach Sir Graham Henry, who believed that he was “unfairly treated by an over-the-top media”. When comparing the zealous condemnation of overseas celebrity offenders to local figures who commit similar crimes, there seems to exist an eagerness to forgive the latter, and a clear discrepancy in the treatment of the two groups.

Another famous offender in the sports scene in New Zealand was Julian Savea. He was charged with assaulting his former partner, but ultimately avoided conviction after committing to completing a police-recommended anger management course and undertaking to publicly apologise to his victim. The charge was withdrawn in court after the police diversion that Savea completed. Notably, he had acted as an anti-violence spokesman the year before for Te Rito Wellington Family Violence Network. At the time, Women’s Refuge had also expressed disappointment that the New Zealand Rugby Union had allowed Savea to play immediately following the assault, and had not condemned family violence publicly. The NZRU was criticised for minimising the violence in Savea’s circumstances by instead choosing to focus on the stress and pressure that sportspeople face, and Hurricanes captain Conrad Smith also glossed over the issue when quizzed about it. There has long been a connection between the sports world and interpersonal violence, and while New Zealand was quick to address the issue of role models and acceptable behaviour with Tyson and Brown, there has yet to be that kind of reciprocity for violent, local celebrity offenders.

At the time of Savea’s offending, former All Black Jeff Wilson suggested that a way to curb violent offending on the part of sports star was to ensure that they were held more accountable for their actions off the field. Other countries have specialised violence prevention programmes developed for various sporting bodies, including the Australian Football League’s development of policy regarding “creating a safe and inclusive environment for women at all levels of Australian Football”.

While New Zealand has taken a hard-line stance on cases involving overseas celebrities, given the lack of accountability directed towards local celebrity offenders it may be worth questioning the sincerity of the Government’s stance. Perhaps it is now time for us as a country to devote the same scrutiny and eagerness for accountability to our perception and treatment of local violent offenders in the public eye.

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