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Otago academic receives Critic and Conscience Award

03 May 2019 | media

Speaking truth to power is an academic responsibility Otago University Law Professor Andrew Geddis takes seriously.

Over the past few years, Professor Geddis has spoken out publicly on a wide range of issues, focusing on the way in which public power should be exercised and speaking out forcefully when it has been misused.

For that work, the Gama Foundation, a philanthropic entity established by Grant and Marilyn Nelson, has awarded Professor Geddis the 2019 Critic & Conscience of Society Award.

This award was established to encourage academic staff at New Zealand universities to act as ‘critic and conscience of society’—as required under the Education Act—by providing the public with independent, expert commentary on issues affecting the New Zealand community and future generations.

“If universities are to meet their statutory obligation—and it is an obligation, not an elective—they depend on academic staff being willing to lift their heads above the parapet and engage in the cut and thrust of public debate in the way that Andrew has done,” says Professor Pat Walsh, who along with Grant Nelson and Professor Steve Weaver is one of the judges deciding on the award.

“Andrew Geddis has made an outstanding contribution to drawing public attention to instances of the abuse of public power in New Zealand and to preventing its continuation.”

Professor Geddis believes the place of academics in our society is privileged. “We are afforded considerable time and resources to do something not many others can: think widely about the world and the issues it faces. I believe that with this privilege then comes a responsibility to use the fruits of our thinking to try and make the world a better place.”

The issues he has been involved with and commented on include denouncing legislation that prevented family members of adult disabled persons from obtaining legal remedies for discriminatory treatment by the government. He also supported the call for an inquiry into the issues raised by Nicky Hagar in his book Hit and Run and criticised the way Hager was treated by police.

He criticised the legislative ban on prisoner voting; called for reform of the legal controls on using money to influence election campaigns; pointed out the unjust consequences of some applications of the ‘three strikes’ law; the police‘s unlawful use of a breath alcohol checkpoint to gather information about people attending an Exit International meeting and advised those stopped on their legal options; called for Housing NZ to compensate tenants whose eviction was based on meth contamination guidelines subsequently shown to be misleading; and called out then Deputy Prime Minister Paula Bennett for proposing that police be permitted to search gang members’ houses at will for firearms and for saying that gang members have ‘fewer human rights than others’.

“In these public contributions, Professor Geddis has not been the critic who carps negatively from the sideline,” says Professor Walsh. “He has played a constructive role by consistently articulating solutions to the issues he has raised and, although he is reluctant to claim the credit, some of his proposed solutions have been taken up and implemented.”

Established in 2017, the Award is accompanied by a cheque for $50,000 to be used for research purposes, which Professor Geddis plans to use in collaboration with colleagues at Otago and beyond.