Sunday, August 9, 2020

Karl du Fresne: Institutional overkill? The case of Deborah Hugill

I wonder if anyone else felt uneasy reading the story on Stuff - see HERE - about a Taranaki nurse, Deborah Hugill, who was deregistered by the Health Practitioners Disciplinary Tribunal for making racist comments.

Hugill was held to be guilty of professional misconduct after a social media post – prompted by a news report about the absence of Maori voices from a mental health and addictions inquiry – in which she described Maori nurses as lazy, cunning and underhanded [sic]. She also said they got a lot of unfair handouts and spent too much time eating and going to meetings.

It was a statement that even staunch upholders of the right to free speech would have trouble defending, and Hugill asked for trouble by posting it on a New Zealand Nurses Organisation’s Facebook page. Yet Stuff’s account of the tribunal hearing left the discomforting impression that the proceedings had the hallmarks of a show trial.

The tribunal chair, Maria Dew QC, rebuked Hugill for her “failure to show a sustained and genuine understanding or remorse for her highly offensive and racist comments”. That suggests she was punished not just for her offence but for not being sufficiently contrite.

Dew also acknowledged “mana whenua” – by which she apparently meant local Maori, though that’s not the Maori Dictionary’s definition of the term – for their “very special contribution” to the hearing, saying it was important for the tribunal to be part of restoring mana for Maori. “Ms Hugill’s conduct has damaged that mana.”

Really? I would have thought the purpose of the Health Practitioners Disciplinary Tribunal was to ensure professional standards are upheld. Restoring mana for Maori suggests a broader agenda that goes beyond the tribunal’s warrant. This is fashionable ideological rhetoric, not the dispassionate language expected from a quasi-judicial body. Was this a case of the tribunal buying into the culture of grievance and victimhood?

Perhaps it was Hugill’s misfortune to be subjected to disciplinary proceedings at a time when confected fury over supposed white supremacy, fanned by the Black Lives Matter movement, has fuelled an appetite for retribution against anyone bold or foolish enough (and this case involved a bit of both) to expose themselves to charges of racism.

Cherene Neilson-Hornblow, who laid the complaint against Hugill, told the tribunal that Hugill had “trampled on the heads of our people”. Later, when the hearing was over, she said: “I’m just overwhelmed, I’m so pleased. It’s thousands of years of injustices, it’s tears of joy.” Hyperbole, much? Remember, we’re not talking about the righting of grievous historic wrongs here. We’re talking about a lone woman who expressed racially offensive (but, we must presume, sincerely held) opinions and has paid what some would regard as a disproportionate penalty.

As well as having her registration cancelled, Hugill was formally censured and ordered to pay 15 per cent of the costs of the hearing: $8362.95. She was barred from practising for two years and before working as a nurse again must complete what Stuff called a cultural confidence course (I think they mean cultural competence). Used punitively, as appears to be the case here, this is a more benign form of the re-education camps favoured by Pol Pot and the current Chinese communist regime: a means of moral purification by which ideological transgressors are persuaded to see the error of their ways and given a chance to purge themselves of their sins.

Stuff also reported that after the tribunal had come to its decision, proceedings were closed with a karakia. Well, of course.

Karl du Fresne, a freelance journalist, is the former editor of The Dominion newspaper. He blogs at


Doug Longmire said...

I find their level of punitive action far too severe, and way beyond what any reasonable professional body should have the power to inflict.
This nurse posted an inappropriate and offensive comment. That's all. Just a few words typed onto a computer screen.
Offensive? Yes, to some people.
But threatening? No.
Dangerous? No.
For these few words which some people objected to, she has had her career destroyed, has been fined $8000+, and has been condemned publicly.
And one of the major complainants sees this as some sort of payback for "thousands of years" of injustices !!!

I ask - is this Justice ?

TOny Noble said...

I share 'the sense of unease. But, the comments were racist in the sense that all Maori nurses were impugned based on one person's experience of some Maori nurses. The unease is that this case illustrates the worrying erosion of individual freedom of thought and belief...which I suppose is Karl's point - and a point well made.

Don said...

this is common and typical human behaviour to generalise from too few examples e.g. "all dogs have 4 legs, that animal has 4 legs therefore it is a dog." no doubt the nurse had encountered Some Maori nurses with those characteristics but her big error was to state they were all like that. What of the majority of Maori nurses who in my experience are very good indeed and those very few non-Maori nurses who share the unpleasant features mentioned. Maoriness has nothing to do with it. Her judgement was quite faulty.
Ending with a karakia is a different issue. No other religions impose their prayers on the general public. How do Maori get away with it?

Empathic said...

Nurse Hugill did not specify that all Maori nurses showed the characteristics she criticized. Although her comment was a generalization it would have been clear to any reader that she was referring to those Maori nurses whom she had worked with. In this respect she was a whistleblower punished for speaking up. Note though that her evantual punishment was not only for her statement but for continuing to work after being initially suspended.

The complainant, another nurse, was reported as saying “We’ve had years and years of racism and derogatory comments we’ve had to put up with and years of having to contend with this.”. Then later she claimed there had been "thousands of years of injustices". Those statements could equally be accused of being racist and 'trampling on the heads' of non-Maori to whom she can only be referring. Can she come up with evidence to back up her first claim? Probably not from recent decades, and certainly nowhere near as much derogatory racism as pakeha could point to as coming from Maori towards non-Maori. Her second claim of course was blatantly false given that NZ Maori have not existed for thousands of years and much less so for any possible colonial injustice. So it's ok for a Maori nurse to impugn non-Maori without evidence and even by blatantly lying but it's not ok for a non-Maori nurse to describe her actual experience of Maori colleagues. Surely racism based on falsehood is a more dangerous social wrong than is a true statement based on one's own observations?

As for the requirement for Nurse Hugill to attend a political re-education camp, this trend has been with us for many years now. Men, on the basis of an allegation by a woman regardless of any evidence, are ordered by the Family Court to attend feminist indoctrination courses. Moreover, if those men do not compliantly pretend to agree with the course indoctrinators they are liable to be thrown out of the course, reported then found guilty of breaching a Court order. We have bought into the unjustified certitude of social justice warriors and we are well on the way towards totalitarian political censorship. Nurse Hugill's saga is but one more example of this.

John Lanham said...

Wonderful to see you still writing Mr dF! Thank you, I look forward to your articles

Zerpo said...

It was a show trial - no more, no less.

Koro John said...

Will be plenty of work for her in Australia.

Sam Esler said...

The question really is, when does some ones rights to freedom of
speech end, and some ones feelings begin. Oppression is not hearing a word that may offend one, it is not being able to use language that may offend some one else

Unknown said...

Don they get away with it because they are maory.
John Raat

Don said...

The most elemental way this 'racism' should be defined is to flipside it.
What would be the reaction of the Health Practitioners Disciplinary Tribunal if the exact same comments were made by a Maori nurse, or the Maori nurse made the same comments about 'White' nurses. If the outcome for the Maori nurse is different than the one above, then it is the tribunal who are racist...and they should be disbanded immediately.

Coker said...

If Ms Hugill did intend her comments to apply to all Maori nurses, then she was clearly wrong. But if being wrong is the criterion for dismissal, then nobody would be employed.

Bondy said...

And before all this, did the Tribunal investigate the accuracy of her claims? Hugill was, as someone else said, A "Whistleblower", but in this case of course, easier the defame her that find the real issue.

Robert Arthur said...

It seems incredibly severe and absurdly expensive action for a minor utterance not threatening to patients. I cannot imagine any maori expressing reservation about others would have drawn such a violent reaction. One wonders if there is much more to it. Did the defendant have any legal assistance? Had no action against her been found appropriate would she have had all costs met? Had she qualified with “in my experience” would she have been convicted? If she had produced evidence to support her statement would she have been convicted? The calim that maori receive benfits would have sound basis. The problem is that with any assessing body, unless made up of 80year olds not seeking any future employment, members sense the current PC drift and find accordingly to preserve ongoing employment opportunities. No one on any committee would be so incautious as to disclose possible reservations about any aspect of maori behaviour or attitude. The action discourages objective honest non maori from the profession, not a factor in the patient’s interest.
Incidentally, despite the oh so English name, I understand the claimant is clearly maori.

One Law for All said...

The only issue here is, were her comments true, And if they were, the hospital management should be held to account and censured for allowing this sort of behaviour to continue or, are we forever going to be saddled with a culture that is a law unto itself

Barend Vlaardingerbroek said...

From the newspaper report: “The practitioner failed to show a sustained and genuine understanding or remorse for her highly offensive and racist comments."
We're back to the heresy trials of the 16th century. You express an opinion at odds with that of the establishment and you'd better recant fast or gace the consequences. And of course the truth is no defence.