*Kate Green and Rachel More – Duncan Webb, Labour MP, former lawyer and professor of law speaks to LawFuel reporters Kate Green and Rachel Moore about climate change, law curriculum and the transition from law into politics.
First term Labour MP for Christchurch central, Duncan Webb, 51, says it’s an unbelievable moment to be in politics.
“There’s just so much going on. It’s a real privilege”.
Webb is a former lawyer and professor of law at the University of Christchurch. As chair of the environment select committee, he is working improving the carbon zero bill.
He says working towards a better carbon zero bill is a huge challenge, but that all parties are working collaboratively towards presenting it in the house in a month’s time.
“If we can achieve these targets, we will be doing what is required of us to halt the destruction caused by climate change and make the world safer and better.”
He says the committee heard submissions from around the country acknowledging climate change as an existential threat.
“There are people out there globally whose very existence is threatened if we don’t take immediate action,” Webb says.
For him, it’s important to note that it’s science-backed, and that the “catastrophe” won’t happen for 50 years.
Webb believes as a developed nation, New Zealand must go first. “It’s unacceptable for us to stand back and say we’re less than 1% of emissions, let’s watch what happens elsewhere.”
“We are the ones that have the ability to go first, we have the economic resilience to go first, we have the scientific ability to innovate so that we can go first. And until we do that, only then can we really expect developing nations to follow,” he said.
Webb describes himself as a socialist and says that at the end of the day the state has an important role in making sure the economy works, and equity.
“Sometimes that is by regulating markets, sometimes it’s by leaving markets alone and sometimes it’s by actively entering markets, and that’s fundamentally a socialist point of view,” he says.
He says the government has a “massive” role in ensuring equity across populations and between generations.
“We should be making sure that our weakest and most vulnerable can lead dignified and rewarding lives without feeling shame, or that they have the begging bowl out. They haven’t. It’s a fundamental right and we should be proud to support that through our taxes.”
Socialism’s “Bad Rap”
Webb says socialism has a “bad rap” and is cast around like a negative thing, when it’s “absolutely not”.
“There are members around the house that will think the state has a very limited role to play in intervening in the economy and in people’s lives,” he says. “I don’t agree, and I think in reality most people practice socialism even if they don’t preach it.”
Webb was a professor at the University of Canterbury and had a position as a lawyer for law firm Lane Neave.
He didn’t find the transfer from professor of law into politics particularly difficult.
“I’m not sure every academic would make the transition seamlessly, but I’ve always had a foot in both camps,” he says.
He was at the firm every week and was looking for interesting problems, finding ways to help people and having fun.
He was on the hunt for more challenges after being in academia for a long time.
Webb says he had a natural head start. “This place makes law. So obviously you’d immediately know how to navigate your way around legislation.”
Secondly, he says Parliament has a lot in common with a courtroom.
“There’s a whole lot of rules around it, there’s a whole lot of archaic procedures and etiquette. Also, the law kind of as a trade, is about negotiating in many ways and understanding people, and that’s what politics is as well.”
However, he says you must be cautious and not fall into the trap of thinking lawyers are experts on everything.
“Similarly, lawyers can go into other jobs, policy jobs for example, and give good advice but I think we’ve got to be careful and just simply think that lawyers, because they are lawyers give good advice.”
He says lawyers, like everyone else, need to be trained to understand economics, social policy, history and philosophy, amongst other things.
“I’m a huge advocate for people broadening out their learning, rather than narrowing it.”
He wouldn’t change his career course and says the intellectual challenge and the maintenance of relationships in Parliament is stimulating.
Webb himself is still learning and is currently completing a course at Victoria University of Wellington on public policy.
At the University of Canterbury, the law of evidence is no longer compulsory. Jonathon Eaton, Queen’s Counsel and high profile lawyer, was concerned about the narrowing of options and said students would be less likely to work in litigation because of this.
Webb says he disagrees with Eaton on this and thinks law students are over-taught. “The amount of learning you actually need to practice law is much less than the four years that go on.
“I think you’d be better to have like you can in the UK, have a much shorter law training, and a much broader pre-law training.”
He says Eaton comes at it from a barristerial, litigator point of view.
“A conveyancer will never use the law of evidence, a commercial lawyer doing finance transactions will never use the law of evidence. But there was a time when every single student had to do the law of evidence.”
As a society we undervalue the work of lawyers that goes on outside of the courtroom.
“Just because you’re sitting in an office, and have never entered a courtroom, doesn’t mean you’re not doing really meaningful, really difficult work that changes people’s lives.”