'I was a roughneck by occupation and by behaviour'

18:30, Dec 03 2011
David Garrett
ONE YEAR ON: David Garrett, pictured at his home in Kaukapapa near Helensville, says he takes full responsibility for the position he's in.

Out in the wop-wops north-west of Auckland, at the end of a long shingle driveway, is an old villa.

A red 1970s Jaguar, numberplate DAGJAG, is parked nearby, along with a weathered speedboat and a four-wheel-drive.

A mustachioed bachelor in his 50s in paint-stained shorts and an old T-shirt emerges from the house. Excuse the weeds, he says, pointing to the metre-high plants crowding the garden, they've just come up in the past week.

At the back of the house is a deck with a view over the 2.5ha property, and beyond that, an impressive native forest. "This is my kingdom," says David Garrett, who journalists like to describe as the "disgraced former Act MP".

I am here because the Garrett story refuses to go away, and I want to hear from the man himself. But it hasn't been easy – he doesn't trust journalists, so there's been a bit of to-ing and fro-ing to get to this point.

A recent article – "Disgraced MP in family feud" – quoted Garrett's wife, Saane, as saying she arrived home early last month to find he had padlocked the gate and changed the locks on the house, locking out her and their two children, six and 11.

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This after Garrett apparently disappeared for a week in September. Saane, who is Tongan, said in the article, published on the Auckland Now website, that Garrett had verbally abused her during their tumultuous 10-year relationship and was openly unfaithful, using online dating sites.

A neighbour said Garrett was the "most disliked person in Kaukapakapa", a small lifestyle community 12km north of Helensville – John Key country. "He calls [his wife] an effing native, eff off back to your tribe," the neighbour told the website.

It was the latest in a recent burst of publicity around Act's former law and order spokesman. Last month he pleaded not guilty to a drink-driving charge and in September was suspended from holding a practising certificate for 12 months and ordered to pay costs of $8430 after a Law Society disciplinary hearing.

So, plenty to talk about then.

But Garrett's sunny mood disappears under a dark cloud when I try to draw him on the alleged mistreatment of his wife.

"I have no comment on that. I'm not going there."

"But it's been written that you locked out your kids," I plead.

He fixes me with an icy stare.

"No comment. That's your last chance. You ask me the question again and I'm going to see you out the door."

FOR A man whose life has unravelled in the past 14 months, Garrett seems relaxed, munching on an apple as he traverses the passport scandal, his Tonga assault conviction, his battles with media "worms", his drinking and his former Act colleagues.

Garrett, 54, says he had a breakdown late last year after the passport forgery became public. After the media learned of the episode, he admitted in parliament he had stolen the identity of a dead child off a gravestone to make a false passport application in 1984, having read Frederick Forsyth's The Day of the Jackal and wondering how easy it would be. Very easy, as it turned out, but he was arrested 21 years later in a police swoop on fake passports.

It was a story the media couldn't resist – Act's hardline law and order spokesman, the man behind the controversial three strikes law, had a secret criminal history. When details emerged of how Garrett had dyed his hair and worn glasses for the passport photo, the coverage went into overdrive – newspapers mocking up pictures of Garrett in wig and glasses under rifle cross-hairs.

But for Garrett and his family, the relentless media attention was devastating. Reporters followed him through airports, sticking microphones in his face – goading him to strike out, he believes – and then camped outside his house, one asking his son, "Is daddy home?"

His darkest moment?

"We were on the run, and my little boy, when I tucked him up at my sister's house, said, `Dad, are the media coming tonight?"'

A tabloid paper reported that Garrett was in a "very dark place", and he confirms he considered killing himself. "I believe that if I had ended my life, they'd have been pleased that they got a better story."

Hasn't he brought it all on himself?

"Of course I have, I did what I did 27 years ago. But I don't think my kids should ever have been dragged into it by the scumbags in the media. They should never have been camped outside my f------ house or outside the school. My beautiful children had nothing to do with what I did."

Garrett firmly believes the media is left-leaning – that if he were a "leftie", the story would have been spun into "the colourful past of a real working man. But because I was a right-winger, it was Exocet missile time".

He thought that after he left parliament, reporters would forget about him. But a combination of his ongoing court appearances and a lingering fascination with the passport case has kept him firmly in the headlines.

Garth McVicar, the Sensible Sentencing Trust head who recommended Garrett as a candidate to then Act leader Rodney Hide, says Garrett's outspokenness on law and order and his forthright manner made him a target.

"I don't think we would have ever seen a politician in the early days of his career as articulate and as capable as David was. I suppose that automatically made him a target of not just the media, but the politicians as well. You're meant to get into parliament and sit in the back benches for many years and gradually learn the ropes. Well, he went in and basically rose to the fore."

McVicar says he worries about his friend, who suffers from anxiety and depression.

"I call him from time to time, mainly to make sure he's OK. It took a hell of a toll. I think he's a pretty strong character but, yeah, I do [worry]. What he did was many, many years ago and he's very sorry for that. I don't think he deserves to be continually hounded."

A LOT OF Garrett's problems can be traced to his boozing. In 2008 he was accused of turning up drunk to the taping of TVNZ current affairs show Eye to Eye and making derogatory remarks about homosexuals. "I'd been to a function and I shouldn't have gone on the programme," Garrett says.

So is he an alcoholic?

"Five years ago I had an assessment at my own behest with Cads [Community Alcohol and Drug Services]. My consumption was high, but I didn't fit some of the things that are required to be an alcoholic, such as drinking in the morning, hiding it at the office, missing work, roughing up your wife. The conclusion was I could develop a problem if I kept going. I'm proud to say I was never affected by alcohol in the House, which I can't say for others."

Seven weeks ago, after he was pulled over for alleged drink-driving, Garrett went "cold turkey". He says he hasn't touched a drop since. It's been easy, he says, and he feels fine.

Drinking heavily and chasing women is all part of the roughneck spirit that still lives within him, he says. He worked on oil rigs in the North Sea, the Tasman Sea and the Gulf of Mexico for nine years until the mid-80s.

"When you see a guy chucking chains and throwing stuff around and getting covered in shit, those are the roughnecks. I did that. At the time of the passport thing, that's what I was doing. I was a roughneck both by occupation and by behaviour."

He was living in New Plymouth when he applied for the fake passport. It was the stupidest thing he's ever done, he says, but there was no ulterior motive. "There are journos who still to this day are obsessed with the `real' reason I did it. There is no real reason. I wouldn't have got discharged without conviction if I'd travelled on it, used it for a bank account, done all the things that in journalists' fantasies I did."

He never thought the ruse would work. "I remember it arriving and thinking, `Jesus, what do I do with this?"'

He put the passport in a drawer, and when he was at law school in Canterbury a couple of years later, told a mate what he'd done.

"I was all set to ring Internal Affairs and confess. He said `if you do that they'll charge you, just burn it and hope for the best'. That's what I did."

In 2005, two plainclothes police officers walked into his law office at Albany.

"One starts giving me the caution. I'm thinking `What the hell have I done?' He says, `Is this you?' and flops down the application that I'd signed 21 years previously. I was speechless. It was like it wasn't happening. It was something coming back from another life. It was a hell of a shock."

Appearing in court on a forgery charge was hugely embarrassing, despite name suppression.

"I can still remember standing in court looking at the letter from the mother [of the dead child] in the spidery hand of an old lady and feeling like an absolute arsehole. It was really only then that it hit home to me that it had implications for people."

In an omission that would return to haunt him, Garrett told the court he had no other convictions, failing to mention a conviction for assault in Tonga in 2002. It was that false affidavit that led to his practising certificate being suspended.

Garrett lived in Tonga for four years after buying a law practice there. He is still bitter about the assault conviction. He says he was attacked outside a bar by a doctor with a known history of drunken violence and never laid a hand on the man. The doctor was charged but laid a complaint against him in retaliation, he says.

"He admitted he hit me...after the `massive cultural provocation' of talking to his wife. He claimed when I got up I snapped him in the eye three times – complete bullshit."

IT DIDN'T take long after Garrett entered parliament for his roughneck personality to get him into trouble. He was censured by Hide after making lewd comments about a female staff member.

Does this kind of behaviour reflect some kind of hatred or disrespect of women?

Garrett laughs. "No, I don't hate women, I was not brought up not to respect women. I'm from a generation who, if you see a good-looking woman with nice legs walk past, will look and perhaps comment to their mate."

He is proud of what he achieved in his short stint in parliament, especially guiding the three strikes law through.

"If I'd achieved nothing I'd bitterly regret it. But...by 2014 we'll have half a dozen third-strikers in jail, and they'll be first-grade arseholes, and the chance of repealing the law will be gone forever."

He had his clashes with Act colleagues, including former deputy leader Heather Roy. It's "bullshit", he says, that she didn't know details of the passport case.

"There was a meeting attended by Roger Douglas, Heather Roy, John Boscawen, and a board member at which I was asked if I had skeletons in my closet. I said `yes a big f------ rattling one'. I detailed the entire thing right there in front of her."

He says Act has not helped itself with its infighting.

"I remember my first caucus meeting. I regard Rodney Hide as a flawed genius. He said `we are in the death zone of New Zealand politics. No small party has survived in our position. If we allow factionalism or any other distractions to get in the way, we will destroy ourselves'. And there was factionalism from just about then on."

Don Brash's short-lived leadership?

"What can you say, of course it was a debacle."

What will become of the party after it polled so poorly?

"God knows. They're going to have to restructure. I don't like this silly term rebrand."

What about Garrett's future? What will he do when the fallout finally subsides?

"I don't know. It's destroyed my life. My marriage is over...I'm currently unable to work, I don't have a practising certificate, your colleagues still ring me constantly, hoping I'll lose it on the phone."

Does he blame the media for all his woes?

"The only person responsible for the position I find myself in is me. I did it."

Is his problem that he rubs people up the wrong way?

"I'd say I'm a bit of a curmudgeon. [Journalist] Barry Soper said I was a politician from another era. In a sense he's right. There's a bit of roughneck still in me, put it that way."

DAVID GARRETT: A ROUGHNECK LIFE

1957: Born in Gisborne. One of six children.

1970s: Attends Edmund Campion College. Leaves school, works on Maui gas pipeline.

1976: Heads to UK to work on oil rigs in the North Sea. Over next several years works on rigs around the world. 1984: Living in New Plymouth, takes name from a gravestone and applies for fake passport.

1986-1992: Attends Canterbury University, gaining a BA and a law degree with honours.

1990s: Works in law firm in Wellington before joining small firm in Taranaki, doing employment law.

1999: Moves to Tonga to work as lawyer. Meets wife, Saane.

2001: Daughter born.

2002: Convicted of assault after altercation outside a Tongan bar.

2003: Returns to NZ. 2005: Son born. Arrested over passport saga.

2008: Does pro bono work for Sensible Sentencing Trust. Puts together statement of claim for Mt Wellington RSA victim Susan Couch in her civil case against the Crown. Trust's Garth McVicar introduces him to Act's Rodney Hide.

2008: Enters parliament with Act as law and order spokesman. Champions three strikes policy, which becomes law.

2010: Tongan assault and passport cases become public, resigns from Parliament.

2011: Appears before law society disciplinary tribunal. Appears in court charged with drink-driving. Marriage ends.

Sunday Star Times