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Critic and Conscience of Society Award winner holds those in power to account

12 May 2023 | news

For the vital role he has played in contributing analysis and academic expertise to areas of public interest, the winner of the 2023 Critic and Conscience of Society Award is Dr Dean Knight, Associate Professor of Law at Te Herenga Waka Victoria University of Wellington.

Dr Dean Knight (left) with Emeritus Professor Pat Walsh

Sponsored by the philanthropic trust the Gama Foundation, the annual award worth $50,000, recognises an academic’s role under the Education and Training Act 2020 to act as the critic and conscience of society.

Dr Knight’s expertise and public comment has consistently provided insights on the operation of government, promoted the proper use of power and encouraged accountability by those in power.

From questioning the lack of transparency of local authority meetings, to advocating for the establishment of New Zealand as a republic, Dr Knight has never shied away from complex issues of public importance.

Throughout his career, particularly over the last two years, Dr Knight has spearheaded major debate within areas of public law that has resulted in real shifts in government policy.

While his commentary has focused on law and the legislative process generally, he is also an important and trusted voice on specific issues faced by the New Zealand public in recent years; most notably the legality of the government’s Covid-19 lockdowns, and the proposed entrenchment clause in the Water Service Bill (Three Waters) legislation.

Dr Knight was the first person to raise concern after a proposed constitutional entrenchment of the mode of water service delivery in the Three Waters legislation was unusually adopted by the Committee of the Whole House, without notice and without adequate scrutiny.

Entrenchment refers to a reserved provision in legislation, where more than a majority in Parliament is required to overturn that part of the law.

“Adopting the proposal to entrench struck me as contrary to our constitutional traditions, and carried major risk of compromising the protocols that govern other important entrenched provisions,” said Dr Knight. “The concern being that this may lead to entrenchment being weaponised politically.”

As a result of Dr Knight’s intervention, and the commentary that followed, the government moved to remove the entrenchment.

In a statement to the Standing Orders Committee, Dr Knight said, “I think it’s helpful to think about our constitution as an ecosystem. It’s in a delicate state of equilibrium, conditioned by a mix of laws, rules, convention and practice. Adding in something almost alien when nobody was quite expecting it risks upsetting things – especially those important conventions protecting our electoral infrastructure.”

Dr Knight was also a crucial voice in the early days of the pandemic. His considered critique of the Covid-19 legal response identified both the virtues and drawbacks of specific rules and modes of regulation. Shades of his suggestions were often seen in subsequent iterations of the rules.

Established in 2017 by Grant and Marilyn Nelson, the Critic and Conscience of Society Award is designed to offer encouragement to academics to speak out on important issues. Previous award winners include Professor Janet Hoek (2022), Professor Alexander Gillespie and Associate Professor Siouxsie Wiles (2021), Professor Michael Baker and Associate Professor Anita Gibbs (2020), Professor Andrew Geddis (2019), Professor Ann Brower (2018) and Dr Mike Joy (2017).

On receiving the Critic and Conscience of Society Award for 2023, Dr Knight says, “Part of the joy of being a university scholar is the invitation, mandated in legislation, to act as a critic and conscience of society. Aotearoa New Zealand, as a small democracy, needs informed, trusted and fearless voices in the important civic conversations that help shape community life and ensure our nation is wisely governed. That's especially so with the noise that often clouds public debate nowadays. The analysis and commentary from academics builds on our other work as teachers and researchers, allowing us to bring unique and rigorous perspectives to those conversations. It’s an honour to receive an award that recognises that role and to receive support to continue that work in the future.”

Applications for the 2024 Critic and Conscience Award will open in November 2023. The award is administered by Universities New Zealand – Te Pōkai Tara. It is not necessary to be nominated and academics can apply via an online form.

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