If New Zealand has any moral fibre it should oppose Chris Liddell’s nomination for the top job at the OECD, argues Natasha Lampard.
He is one the most trusted and longest-serving lieutenants in the Trump administration. As assistant to the president and deputy chief of staff for policy coordination, he has played an influential part in a cruel masquerade of a presidency responsible for everything from a punitive policy on immigration to a disastrous Covid-19 response that has seen more than 225,000 people die.
He is also from Matamata. His name is Chris Liddell and according to the US ambassador to New Zealand, Scott Brown, he is “literally 20 feet from the president’s office, he sees him every day”. This New Zealander is said to be a man who gets things done.
In 2018, Liddell was among 11 of Trump’s most senior advisers called to the White House Situation Room for a meeting, where they were asked, by a show-of-hands vote, to decide the fate of thousands of migrant parents and their children. According to reporting by NBC, disputed by the White House, no one at the meeting thought to make the case that what they were voting on – separating children from their parents – was inhumane or immoral. If what was reported is true it is an indictment of the character of those present; an indictment of the character of Chris Liddell.
The state sanctioned tearing apart of migrant families by the Trump administration first came to light with heartbreaking, horrifying images of screaming children being wrenched from their distraught, desperate parents at the border, to be detained hundreds, thousands of kilometers away. Some were kept in cages. Some were sexually abused. Some died.
While Liddell worked alongside Trump at the White House, over 2,700 migrant children were separated from their parents. Some counts have the number as high at 5,400. The youngest: four months old.
Efforts to reunify separated families have been marred by wholly inadequate record-keeping. According to the New York Times, when case workers began their efforts to track down the families of children they encountered, as is customary for any child in federal custody, they discovered that the immigration authorities had, in many cases, not kept records of who each child’s parents were or how to reach them. The administration also went to considerable lengths to keep the full extent of their actions from authorities, from the courts, and from the public, further hindering the chances to track and reunite separated families.
Last week the world received the news that the parents of 545 children have still not been found. Around 60 of the children were under the age of five when they were separated. According to medical and human rights experts who performed psychological evaluations of asylum-seekers, this separation of families by US immigration officials at the Mexico border amounts to torture.
Last month, Chris Liddell was nominated by Donald Trump to become secretary-general of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Better known as the OECD, this is an international organisation that commits to work “to build better policies for better lives” and “shape policies that foster prosperity, equality, opportunity and well-being for all”.
For Liddell to assume such a role would make a mockery of the OECD and its goals. If New Zealand were to support his bid, it would make a mockery of us.
Liddell is unfit to head an organisation seeking to foster prosperity, equality, opportunity and well-being for all when he is complicit in the violation of human rights and the destruction of lives. He is a foot soldier of a regime of mismanagement and of malevolence; an enabler of an administration that history will remember for its brutality, bigotry, absurdity, ineptitude and inhumanity: one that splits up families and put children in cages; that performs forced hysterectomies upon detained women; that aligns itself with and defends white supremacists. An administration led by a man with over 27 separate accusations of sexual assault made against him; who doesn’t pay his bills or his taxes, who peddles lies with an ease and a regularity that astounds, and whose racism, sexism, nepotism and malignant narcissism knows no bounds. This is who Chris Liddell has chosen to serve.
In a 2018 interview Chris Liddell said “the best start anyone can have in life is parents who love you and a good community around you.” Parents and community. Many of the children affected by Chris Liddell’s reported support for family separations had loving parents; parents who were willing to risk more, and do more than most can begin to imagine, to give their children better lives. The start in life that Chris Liddell has helped give thousands of children is one that few, if any, will recover from. As Luis Zayas, a psychiatry professor at the University of Texas at Austin said, “if you take the moral, spiritual, even political aspect out of it, from a strictly medical and scientific point of view, what [has happened] to these children at the border is unconscionable … The harm will take a lifetime to undo.”
To be successful in his nomination for the OECD role, our government must decide whether to support him and back his candidacy. Our government represents us, the people of Aotearoa. To support Chris Liddell is to give tacit approval to what he has done, and makes us complicit in his acts of cruelty and inhumanity.
In 2016 Chris Liddell was awarded one of our country’s highest commendations in the New Year’s Honours List: a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit. He received this for services to business and to philanthropy.
The word philanthropy originates from two words: “philos”, loving in the sense of benefiting, caring for and nourishing, and “anthropos,” human being. Etymologically, philanthropy means “the love of humanity”. It is evidenced in behaviour that cares and protects, and furthers wellbeing, dignity, and opportunity.
We pride ourselves on our egalitarian character; the very nature of the New Year’s Honours purports to support that. We celebrate our ranking as the least corrupt country in the world; we speak publicly and proudly of our desire for the shared values of kindness, compassion, empathy, and for equity and dignity for all. To live these ideals means actively standing against racism, sexism, bigotry, corruption, and callous indifference in any form. It means actively standing against elements that erode our humanity.
Chris Liddell’s actions are the antithesis of one who “loves humanity”. He is not to my mind any kind of philanthropist. He should not be heralded as such and if this is what our honours system regards as being philanthropic then the word, and our honours system are utterly meaningless.
To stand against his OECD candidacy, and to go a step further and rescind his Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit is to stand for decency, and stand against the torture of children and the inhumane treatment of any vulnerable human being. It is to say that we in this nation will not excuse the inexcusable; we see no merit in a person capable of such deplorable actions; we see malice. If we truly care about tamariki, about justice, about equity and kindness and decency, we have no other option.