More than a lawman

MAN OF THE MOMENT: Barrister Felix Geiringer is presenting the Maori Council’s case for delaying National’s asset sales.
MAN OF THE MOMENT: Barrister Felix Geiringer is presenting the Maori Council’s case for delaying National’s asset sales.

Twenty-one years ago, when Felix Geiringer was 19, he lay down in front of a cabinet minister's limousine. The driver didn't see him and the hot-headed Otago University maths undergraduate ended up with abrasions, a couple of cracked ribs and a conviction for behaving in a disorderly manner.

His appeal to the High Court that he'd just been exercising his freedom of expression rights failed.

That was 1991. Now Geiringer's 40, and he's once more talking about rights. This time, though, he's the barrister presenting the Maori Council's case for delaying National's asset sales. He's just chalked up a partial win: last week the Waitangi Tribunal advised the Government to delay its partial sale of hydro generator Mighty River Power until September, to give the tribunal time to consider Maori claims to owning water in New Zealand's lakes and rivers.

Last week, as media turned to Geiringer for comment on the case, there was something naggingly familiar about that unusual Germanic surname. And sure enough, it turns out Felix is the son of the extraordinary doctor, pro-abortion activist, socialist, anti-nuclear campaigner, amateur dramatist and sometime Wellington talkback host Erich Geiringer. (Others remember Erich, who died in 1995, simply for his remarkable beard, pictured bottom left.)

Felix doubtless imbibed some of his politics and anti-authoritarian tendencies from Erich, but other familial strands pull in completely the other direction. On his mother Carol's side, Geiringer is grandson of Tom Shand, the staunchly right-wing and red-baiting National cabinet minister who, from the mid-50s till his death in 1969, hustled New Zealand along the path of material progress and modernisation.

Shand oversaw everything from the establishment of the Cook Strait rail ferries and forestry in the Marlborough Sounds, to expansion of petroleum exploration and mining and - in a cute historical coincidence - the establishment of New Zealand's hydroelectric schemes, the self-same watery assets whose sale Geiringer is challenging on behalf of the Maori Council.

Geiringer has a photo of granddad Shand on his wall, posing with one of those plunger things, moments before setting off an explosion to mark the commencement of construction on the first Clutha dam. What would Shand have made of Maori laying claim to water, and of a grandson doing battle with the National Government?

Geiringer's not sure. It's hard, he says, to compare the politics of now and then.

"The National Party of that era was not the New Right that we've got today on both sides of the house. The idea of selling state assets would have been quite foreign."

Remember too that the 1960s, when Shand was at his political height, was a "dark decade" for Maori.

"The Waitangi Tribunal hadn't started up. The programmes to revitalise the culture and the language hadn't started."

Getting run over by Bill Birch in 1991 (the National minister of labour was on the Otago campus to face down student protests over the draconian Employment Contracts Act), wasn't the first time Geiringer had made the papers.

A couple of years earlier there'd been a little piece in the Evening Post saying the Onslow College seventh-former had won top marks in an Australasian maths competition. Geiringer was a maths whiz and, after completing an Otago degree, he won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University, where he grew his hair long and beard bushy and thought all day long about pure-math abstractions and cryptology.

Halfway through his doctorate, though, he quit and took an IT job in Berkshire. But after four years of geekily slogging in a basement with minimal social interaction, he decided to head home to Wellington and study law.

It wasn't just that practising law looked more convivial. It seemed to Geiringer that, as a lawyer, "I would be more directly influencing how we choose to arrange our society."

Pushing 30 and not wanting to mess about, he took every Victoria University summer school available and squeezed a five-year honours degree in law into 26 months, and was admitted to the bar in 2005.

He's still making his way as a barrister. "I'm not making much money. I do the jobs that come to me. I often do work where I know it's for free, or do it for money then don't get paid."

Occasionally he calls his sister for advice. That's Claudia Geiringer, a Victoria law professor and expert in human rights and constitutional law.

"She's got the jump on me on legal issues," says Geiringer.

You could easily get competitive in this family. Claudia's a prof. Brother Karl has been, at various times, a film-maker, a science writer and the founder of the high-tech start-up company Photonz, which uses algal fermentation to create dietary omega-3 oils, and is now midway through a medical degree. S TEP BACK through the generations, and you keep on stumbling over interesting folk.

Let's start with father Erich, who according to his obituary in the UK Independent, single-handedly "dragged New Zealand medicine into the 19th century".

Born into an intellectual Austrian Jewish family in 1917, Erich studied medicine then fled to England in 1938 to escape the encroaching Nazi threat, eventually fetching up as a researcher at Dunedin Medical School in 1959, where he swiftly got up the noses of right-thinking people. His pamphlets advocating cervical smears were banned by the university as obscene. He campaigned for abortion law reform and measles vaccination and giving the pill to unmarried women. He founded the New Zealand Medical Association as a breakaway from the conservative BMA-NZ.

Later he was a leading light in New Zealand's anti-nuclear movement, and from the mid-1970s he was a talkback host at Radio Windy, despite the thick Austrian accent.

Erich's siblings were no slouches either. Alfred was a Reuters journalist in Vienna whose reports on the Nazis made him a marked man, so he escaped to London, where he started the business arm of Reuters and married the daughter of the editor of The Economist.

Sister Martha also escaped from Vienna, but en route to London via Belgium she fell in love with another woman. According to family rumour, Martha arranged a return to Belgium to be with her, in exchange for spying for the Allies. Occupied Belgium was a lethal place for homosexuals, Jews and spies and Martha was all three, and she died in Auschwitz. According to the Independent, she was betrayed to the Nazis by her lover's husband. Another of Erich's sisters, Trude, became a scientist in the US (her husband Robert Adler invented the TV remote control).

A more distant Geiringer relative was involved in the hiding of the doomed Jewish teenager and diarist Anne Frank, and after the war, Elfriede Geiringer and Anne's father Otto Frank, each widowed by the Holocaust, married.

That's just the Geiringers. Climb the branches on the other side of the family tree and you find Felix's mother Carol Shand, medical doctor and activist, recently made a Companion of the NZ Order of Merit for services to women's health. Carol's father was Tom Shand, whom we've already met. And Tom's father-in-law (if you're keeping up, that's Felix's great-grandfather) was a man called Claude Weston, who was first president of the National Party.

Does this rich dynastic heritage mean that Felix Geiringer and his siblings have felt tremendous pressure to make something of themselves - or at the very least be demonstrably interesting?

"Quite the opposite," says Geiringer. What his upbringing and family have given is "unquestioned support, irrespective of what path we choose".

Growing up in the Geiringer/Shand household could be fun. Erich's Independent obituary claims that "when his teenage son went through a hair-dyeing period", Erich showed his disapproval by dyeing his own beard orange, as well as the cat's legs. Was that rebellious teen Felix?

No, the cat-dyeing incident was incited by brother Karl.

"My relationship with my father was the typical relationship of the youngest. My brother was the eldest and had the fractious relationship, and I was the one who was still considered a baby at 20 years old. We had quite a close relationship. I was quite devastated by his passing." He has taken on his father's mantle in one unusual way.

For decades, Erich would direct an annual play in the back garden of the family home in Karori, casting family and friends for a five-show season complete with props and costumes and orchestra. It's an institution of sorts for a certain Wellington set, and for the past 20 years, Felix has been director instead. They've done Shakespeare and Brecht and Bernard Shaw, and lots of Aristophanes - "which is very relevant, despite being 2500-year-old theatre". When Geiringer and his partner Sarah were "civilly united" in 2007, the ceremony was done as a play: Beaumarchais' The Marriage of Figaro, rewritten by Geiringer as The Civil Union of Felix and Sarah.

There does seem to be, Geiringer acknowledges, "an internal drive to do things well" in his family.

"I definitely try to do everything properly. I've pulled pints in the past, and I tried to do it well. I've got the perfectionist gene; I don't like to do things half-arsed."

On that IT job in the UK, he produced a handful of cryptology patents. "I didn't just sit in the office and bide my time." (You can look them up on Google patents; they're for things like "parallel modulo arithmetic using bitwise logical operations", and some are cited in further patents for Apple and Intel.)

Geiringer's been working for the Maori Council over water rights only since March. Previous cases, here and in the UK, have been a mixed bag. He's acted for an electronics manufacturer in a fair-trading case and for a British landlord trying to evict a millionaire divorcee who'd stopped paying her.

He was part of the successful Supreme Court appeal against Valerie Morse's 2007 conviction for disorderly behaviour after she burnt a New Zealand flag at an Anzac Day ceremony. This was particularly satisfying for Geiringer, because it involved a freedom-of-expression defence similar to the one he'd used unsuccessfully back in 1991, after his adventures under Bill Birch's limousine.

This water issue is "the case that's having the most influence on New Zealand of anything I've done", says Geiringer. And it's going to run and run. On Friday the Government told the Waitangi Tribunal that it wasn't willing to wait until next month for its report, a move that Geiringer described as "concerning".

But Geiringer's still a jobbing barrister. Last week he also did a couple of excess blood-alcohol cases.

"Not the crime of the century, but to the people involved they mean everything.

"You can't make it less of a priority because the other one's in the news. You've got to be doing as good a job for that guy as you're doing for the Maori Council."

Sunday Star Times