ADLS member raises profile of employment law and Pacific issues

ADLS was very pleased to see one of its members, well-known employment lawyer Peter Kiely, being justly honoured in the recent New Year Honours list.

Mr Kiely was appointed an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for his services in two fields – the furtherance of New Zealand’s interests in the Pacific and for contributions to the law (specifically, his principal practice area of employment and industrial law). While Mr Kiely was “delighted” to receive his ONZM and is grateful to those unknown persons who nominated him for the honour, he says he feels “humbled” by it and by all of the messages he has received from colleagues in the profession.

He was also quick to share much of the credit with those who have worked with and supported him over his career, including his colleagues at Kiely Thompson Caisley and those with whom he has worked in advancing New Zealand/Pacific relations. In fact, the thing about which he seemed most pleased was that the honour would bring the two areas to which he has devoted so much energy – the practice of employment law and Pacific issues – into the spotlight.

Employment law – coming into its own

Mr Kiely is a founding partner of Kiely Thompson Caisley, the first specialist boutique employment law firm to be set up in New Zealand. When the firm was established in 1997, there was nothing else like it.

“Employment law is now recognised as mainstream, which in the past it probably wasn’t. Even the President of NZLS is an employment lawyer!”

While he is clearly passionate about his chosen practice area, a career in the law was not necessarily a foregone conclusion for Mr Kiely – he confesses to having enjoyed the Arts component of his BA/LLB at the University of Auckland more than the law.

“I really enjoyed my BA and I actively encourage other people to do one – a lot of law is telling a story and a BA teaches you how to do that. But there was a job at the end of the law, and ultimately, I’m really pleased that I chose the law. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed working in employment law along with my professional colleagues and having the chance to contribute something to the law and to the law societies,” he says.

Now, with over thirty years’ experience in employment law and industrial relations, he is one of the few practitioners in New Zealand to have worked under four legislative regimes – the Industrial Relations Act 1973, the Labour Relations Act 1987, the Employment Contracts Act 1991 and the Employment Relations Act 2000. He says that the collective bargaining aspect has always particularly captivated him and has been interested to witness and work with changes in the law over the years.

“When I started, union membership was compulsory and you could only bring a personal grievance through a union. Grievances were only opened up more widely under the Employment Contracts Act in the nineties – until then, the ability to bring them was much narrower. I’ve lived through all of that.”

The benefit of his insights is in much demand – Mr Kiely chaired the Ministerial Advisory Group into the Holidays Act 2003 in 2009 and, following on from that, was asked to sit on MBIE’s Payroll Leadership and Governance Group by the Minister of Labour. The Group, which comprises a mixture of public and private sector representatives (Mr Kiely is the only employment lawyer), advises on holidays and payroll issues. “It is a work in progress and not an easy fix,” he says wryly.

He has also contributed academically to the development of employment law in this country, having been (since 1999) an Adjunct Professor of Employment Law at Victoria University of Wellington and also a member of its Industrial Relations Centre Advisory Board.

A passion for the Pacific

The other area for which Mr Kiely has been honoured is his “commitment to promoting New Zealand’s interests in the Pacific and fostering growth and business in the region”, a fitting recognition of his 25 years’-plus involvement with various Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) projects and subcommittees and other business groups. Mr Kiely is Chairman of the Pacific Development and Conservation Trust, which distributes funding received from France arising out of the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior, and the Pacific Cooperation Foundation (PCF), an independent partnership between public and private sectors in New Zealand and other Pacific Island countries which aims to build and enable partnerships, share knowledge and expertise, support communities, and promote collaboration and sustainability in the Pacific region.

As Chair of the MFAT Advisory Committee on External Aid and Development from 1996 to 2001 and (from January this year) Chairman of MFAT’s International Development Advisory and Selection Panel (the entity which is largely responsible for making decisions as to where New Zealand’s development assistance goes), he has made significant strides in promoting not only New Zealand’s interests in the Pacific but also sustainable economic development and improved standards of living in the region.

“The aid and development programme for the Pacific is New Zealand’s largest such programme. I’m a great believer in the aid that New Zealand provides being sustainable. I want the money we contribute to have a meaningful impact and long-term economic and social benefits,” he says. “While there is of course a humanitarian aspect, I want us to develop programmes which will increase standards of living in the countries receiving our help. That has largely happened – Niue and the Cook Islands are two great success stories – but there is a lot more to do, particularly in Melanesia and Micronesia. Issues like environmental protection and climate change, gender equality and human rights, and the independence and professionalism of legal systems in developing countries also have to be integrated into a complete development programme.”

While Mr Kiely’s BA studies (majoring in History) helped fuel his interest in international relations, his interest in the Pacific in particular first arose after a volunteer trip to Fiji as a teenager.

“After my 7th form year at Sacred Heart, the Marist Brothers offered a short ‘gap year’-type programme. I got to experience Fiji as an 18 year-old, working in schools and providing a helping hand to local teachers. It made me realise how lucky we are in New Zealand and that we can contribute to the Pacific in a meaningful way. I saw a gap which I could do something about.”

Mr Kiely has also been a member of the University of Auckland Council since 2009 and was Pro- Chancellor from 2012 to 2014. In that capacity, his legal and international relations interests intersected in what he describes as one of the most exciting moments in his career – when he capped United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon with an Honorary Doctorate of Laws in 2014.

“It was a real highlight for me – I got to have lunch with him after the ceremony and we spoke a lot about the Pacific. He was on his way to Apia but had just come from Kiribati, and related the novel experience of being taken to his hotel room by staff and the first thing they showed him being where the life jacket was.”

Mr Kiely’s belief in the importance of involvement in the wider community, beyond his day-to-day employment practice, is amply evidenced by all that he says and does – in particular the amount of time he devotes to the various bodies on which he sits.

“I think my involvement in foreign affairs has made me a better lawyer and a better employment lawyer,” he says. “The experience of working closely with different governments and with different cultures has made me better at what I do and has given me more understanding of human dynamics, and I really enjoy being able to do both.”

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