Former Civil Aviation Authority director told colleague to 'have a joint' to relax

Newshub has obtained a video of the Civil Aviation Authority's (CAA) former director telling a colleague to "have a joint" to relax if they're getting frustrated with computer issues during the COVID-19 lockdown. 

Graeme Harris, who resigned suddenly on Tuesday, made the comments in a weekly video update to staff. 

CAA employees and a man who lost his daughter in an aviation crash linked to drug use say they're both appalled and astonished. 

Harris had been using video updates to keep his staff informed during the pandemic. In one weekly catch up, leaked exclusively to Newshub, he offers some advice to a staff member.

"Don't take it out on other people. If your IT system is not working at the moment, then if you can, just walk away, have a joint. Sorry, I was just joking then," he says.

Harris was chatting with a CAA safety advisor when he made the comment. 

"Ok, Graeme, thank you very much. I'm just going to get rid of my frustration with a little puff. You said I could," the CAA employee responded. 

"Okay clock off before you do it won't you and clock back on again," Harris replies.

The video was then posted to the CAA's internal website on April 3 where all staff could see it.

It's clear Harris makes the comments in a joking off-the-cuff manner, but some say there's nothing funny about it.

A senior aviation security service officer told Newshub the smallest lack of attention to detail in aviation can have dire consequences to life.

"It is unfathomable to victims of aviation accidents where the cause was cannabis or alcohol. I am appalled and offended... I believe several parts of the CAA Code of Conduct have been breached," they say.

Allan Still - whose 19-year-old daughter Alexis was one of 11 people who died in the 2012 Carterton balloon crash - says Harris' comments are "very disturbing".

The pilot that day, Lance Hopping, smoked cannabis shortly before taking off.  

"My daughter lost her life in an incident where cannabis was a major, major contributing factor. And to see somebody in a senior leadership role making light of cannabis in a sense, I'm pretty much gobsmacked by it," Still says.

Graeme Harris resigned suddenly on Tuesday.

A review into CAA's culture - prompted by Newshub's investigations into allegations staff felt bullying and sexual harassment complaints were "covered up" at the agency - will be released soon. But Harris has seen a draft copy.

Aviation expert Irene King says Harris' comment in the staff video is shocking and inappropriate.

"It's just unbelievably bad. Poor performance, bad leadership, bad messaging," she says.

The CAA's credibility is - in her words - "totally destroyed".

"What we have with CAA at the moment is death - their death - by a thousand cuts and it is extremely difficult to recover from."

That "extremely difficult" task now falls to the new acting director Shelley Turner, who told staff on Tuesday in an email leaked to Newshub, that she needed their help to "rebuild this organisation".

The CAA's Chairperson Janice Fredric told Newshub "it's not appropriate for the leadership of CAA to joke about drug use". 

She says the video "appears to have been an attempt at levity", but was inappropriate. She's now asked the acting director to reiterate to the leadership team that such a comment, even in a light-hearted manner, "is not acceptable". 

Transport Minister Phil Twyford hadn't seen the video but describes Harris' comments as 'ill-judged". 

He told Newshub that such comments, even in jest, "undermine the professionalism of workers in New Zealand's aviation sector" and that drugs and alcohol have "no place in our aviation system".