Interview with Elizabeth Tennet, CEO, Community Law Centres o Aotearoa

26 March 2018

Liz Tennet

Elizabeth Tennet has championed change and social justice throughout her career –as a trade unionist, a Labour Party MP, native sanctuary Board Chair, volunteer, regional economic development adviser and industry advocate. As Chief Executive of the national body of “New Zealand’s biggest law firm”, Community Law Centres o Aotearoa, Elizabeth advocates for 24 law centres, 140 outreach clinics, and 1500 volunteer lawyers who provide free legal support across New Zealand.

How do you best reach people to let them know about your service?

We get about 4,000 hits a day on our website. People can easily access the information, which is set out in simple, not legal, language, about what we do and the main issues we receive client contact on, including family, children, employment, tenancy, consumer, debt, ACC and criminal issues.
We encourage people to come and see us face to face. We engage with local media, we run information and education sessions, and we get lots of referrals from community and government organisations.
We’ve been up and running for over 30 years and we’re well integrated in the community. We’re also introducing chatbot, which is exciting – it will give people immediate replies to specific questions off the website.
Utilities Disputes has a barrier with your name as I’d say most of the general public don’t understand what you do from your name – utilities isn’t a word people generally use. People do understand complaints, and they understand gas, electricity, water etc – so there’s some education there!

How do you manage to get a volunteer base of around 1500 across the country?

We’re in a privileged position as law schools promote community law and encourage their students to volunteer. It is good experience for students to deal with real people, and it helps with their CV. We also have senior lawyers who just want to help – they’re keen on providing access to justice and getting involved in more diverse issues. We look after our volunteers and organise them so they can just turn up and do their great work.

Do you think political activism is less alive than in a past?

I do see a huge number of caring young people who have a vision of helping to make society a better place. They genuinely want to work with people and provide access to justice for people who are struggling.
The big issues that were around in my youth are perhaps not so prominent. Although, there are still terrible wars going on, we don’t tend to see an uprising of interest from young people. The recent women’s rights movement has ignited a positive debate.

You’ve been instrumental with women’s issues including the pay equity debate, paid parental leave, sexual harassment, and the rights of women as parents. Where do you think we’ve got to these days?

Things have improved for working mothers, but it’s still hard. Having a pregnant PM and Minister of Women's Affairs will undoubtedly fuel the discussion. I see a lot of young mums coming back to work and juggling a lot. Being a parent is a really important role, it’s important for the mental and physical health of children as well as the health of their parents. In Nordic countries men can take extended parental leave and work part-time with shorter, more flexible hours. This helps both parents with their careers and home lives.
So things are improving but there's a long way to go. I think it’s no longer acceptable for law firms to take on young lawyers and work them like slaves for 70 hours a week. It’s impossible to be an active parent and work those hours. There needs to be a cultural shift. And with recent revelations about sexual harassment in law firms, there most definitely needs to be a cultural shift.

What are your career highlights?

Being political at a national, community and union level is extremely exciting and worthwhile. I encourage people to get involved and help to improve peoples’ lives and achieve social justice. It’s very satisfying. 
Being an MP was a highlight, I also loved representing the clerical workers’ union, where discussions around pay equity and sexual harassment began. We laid the ground work. Community Law is an extension of that.

When did you become brave?

I made a lot of decisions that set my path when I was 14 years old. This was during the time of the American civil rights movement, and the Vietnam War. I remember watching these things on TV and being horrified and moved. But I was a very shy, meek, mild girl. I started to become brave at university. I organised anti-apartheid protests and I became braver. When I joined the Labour Party at 18 years old I was still pretty shy, but as the clerical workers’ union rep I lost my shyness. I was able to get up in front of an audience and fight the fight.