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Invercargill mayor Nobby Clark has refused calls to apologise for using an offensive slur (Photo: Stewart Sowman-Lund, additional design Archi Banal)
Invercargill mayor Nobby Clark has refused calls to apologise for using an offensive slur (Photo: Stewart Sowman-Lund, additional design Archi Banal)

PoliticsMarch 15, 2023

Behind the scenes at council after the mayor uses the n-word

Invercargill mayor Nobby Clark has refused calls to apologise for using an offensive slur (Photo: Stewart Sowman-Lund, additional design Archi Banal)
Invercargill mayor Nobby Clark has refused calls to apologise for using an offensive slur (Photo: Stewart Sowman-Lund, additional design Archi Banal)

Documents released to The Spinoff reveal Invercargill mayor Nobby Clark was provided with a draft apology by his own council officials after using a racial slur during a recent speech – but chose to ignore it. Stewart Sowman-Lund reports.

Invercargill’s mayor was told by his own staff that he should apologise for using the “n-word” during a recent speech, but declined to do so. That’s despite being warned his speech was creating a negative “perception” of the Invercargill Council.

Documents released to The Spinoff under the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act reveal Nobby Clark was even provided with a draft apology that he could use, but instead settled for sending an internal message to council staff doubling down on his decision to use the offensive slur.

Clark used the word during a speech delivered at an Arts Foundation and Creative NZ event on March 7. He was commenting on the balance between freedom of speech and hate speech, using a book – and subsequent publicly funded stage show – by award-winning poet Tusiata Avia as the basis for his statements.

“Does poetic expression override some of our societal norms?” questioned Clark, before answering his own question: “If we have art and poetry that uses the word ‘queer’, ’n*****’, ‘fuck the bitch’, which you’ve heard recently – is that beyond our tolerance?”

The comments prompted widespread condemnation, including from Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon and Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson (in an email obtained by The Spinoff, Clark incorrectly refers to Davidson as the “co chair of te party Maori [sic]” and says her being “aghast” was a “badge of honour”).

Clark fronted several interviews to defend his comments – and repeated the offensive slur during his media round. “I would never refer to any situation as being a n*****. I absolutely find it abhorrent [sic],” Clark told Newshub.

“I wasn’t using those words as my words. I was reflecting that they’d been in the media and been in the art space in recent times, and I felt uncomfortable about that and I wanted to talk with them.”

The Spinoff has seen dozens of emails to and from the mayor regarding his speech. While some further criticised him – including one correspondent who said the mayor had “single handedly reaffirmed Invercargill’s reputation as the Asshole of the World” and another who called him an “embarrassment” – many emails were sent in support of the mayor’s offensive comments. 

Clark tended to reply to the messages of support, often stating “I fear nobody (except Karen at home)” or writing that “evil only prevails when good men stay silent”.

Nobby Clark, mayor of Invercargill. (Photo: Let’s Go Invercargill, Image Design: Archi Banal)

But on the same day the controversy made national headlines, after first being reported via The Spinoff, the mayor was told he should consider a public apology.

“In regards to the media stories today about your speech at the All in for Arts event yesterday, my advice is that you issue an apology statement,” Invercargill Council’s strategic communications manager told the mayor in an email on the evening of March 8. 

“This is the perfect example of when perception is more important than intention, and the media stories do not reflect positively on Council or our relationship with those in the community.”

The call to apologise was, according to the emails, backed by the council’s acting chief executive Michael Day.    

An example apology was provided to Clark. It read: “I apologise for the words I used in my speech at the Art Foundation event in Invercargill on Tuesday. My intention was to start a conversation around poetic expression, but I now know that my use of these words was inappropriate. Invercargill City Council and I profoundly support the arts community and have great respect for the work they do.”

Less than 10 minutes after this email was sent, Clark responded saying he would not be issuing any form of apology. “I stand by my comments that was a reflection of what has recently been said by others under ‘artistic expression or artistic licence’ and how that would fit with a future gallery owner like ICC [sic],” he wrote.

A few minutes later, Clark emailed the council’s chief executive and admonished him for having his concerns passed on by a staff member. “If you have concerns about my presentation which I gave you a heads up on, that concern from you should not be relayed via your staff,” he wrote.

Day responded that he did not have concerns and would speak with the mayor in person, before sending a follow-up email to clarify his position. “I do not support the use of those words, but I understand you wanted to raise the issue. I accept you do not want to apologise but I have received a number of concerns from staff so I will send a message to staff today about the issue.”

Earlier in the day, Clark had emailed councillors with similar comments to those he made publicly in the media. He said that while he found the words he used “abhorrent” they were “recent quoted references in [the] artist’s setting”.

It took until the afternoon of March 10, two days later, for the council chief executive to issue an internal statement to all council staff acknowledging the controversy and the subsequent media attention. “Some concerns have been raised with me by our staff and I wanted to acknowledge these,” he wrote. “Our elected members are often asked to comment and provide their opinion on issues in the community, but it is important to note that these views do not represent those within the organisation.”

He added: “As an organisation, we are guided by our Compass values of Responsibility, Respect, Positivity and Above and Beyond, and this means that we respect and value all people and cultures. I do not support the use of racial slurs in any context and remind anyone who may need it, that our Raise Workplace Wellbeing employee assistance services are available.”

In an interview with The Spinoff during his election campaign last year, Clark claimed he was “colour blind” to issues of race. “Is there some advantage to being in a community that’s split on culture? ‘Cause that’s racism. I don’t see that,” Clark said.

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