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Speech

Press Gallery Dinner

Issue date: 
Friday, 20 June 2008
Speaker: 
Rt Hon Sir Anand Satyanand, GNZM, QSO

May I begin by greeting everyone in the languages of the realm of New Zealand - in English, Maori, Cook Island Maori, Niuean, Tokelauan and New Zealand Sign Language.  Greetings, Kia Ora, Kia Orana, Fakalofa Lahi Atu, Taloha Ni and as it is the evening and the sun has set (Sign Good Evening).

May I specifically greet you: Vernon Small, Chair of the New Zealand Press Gallery; Full and life members of the Gallery (may I mention, in particular, two of your doyen members Ian Templeton and Derek Round); Distinguished Guests; Ladies and Gentlemen.

It is with pleasure, that my wife Susan and I, welcome you to Government House Wellington this evening for this Press Gallery Dinner and to thus continue the tradition for Governors-General to host the Gallery to dinner every so often.  It is good to do so before the House closes for a major conservation project later this year.

It is now approaching 22 months since my swearing-in as New Zealand's Governor-General and the time has been many things—a distinct privilege to serve, a hugely interesting learning curve, a mixture of exhilaration and anxiety with the ever present challenge of fitting it all in.  At times I've felt like a possum caught in headlights - but not ever for long!  We were being welcomed by a recent and well-known former Minister of the Crown at a public function in Matamata last week when he said the following words "and it is very good, Your Excellency that you have brought Mrs Baragwanath with you as well" is a good example.

As one whose professional life has been a mixture of law and government, the niceties of our constitution were matters of nearby knowledge, but being in the job makes one realise so much more of everything that is involved and its essential simplicity.  From the first piece of legislation I assented to—the Coroners Act 2006—I am beginning to lose count of the pieces of legislation or regulations I have assented to or signed. 

There has been the singular experience of signing into law the largest piece of legislation ever passed by our Parliament, which you will probably not be surprised to find was last year's Income Tax Act.  At 2,855 pages long it covers four volumes.  The Minister of Revenue, Peter Dunne, assured me that despite its doorstop size it was better worded and that it repealed an even larger amount of incomprehensible law.

Barring a constitutional crisis—which thankfully no New Zealand Governor-General has had to deal with—the only outstanding duty I have yet to face is that of appointing a Prime Minister after this year's election and then of presiding over the opening of a new Parliament.  I shall come back to touch on that topic again shortly.

The Governor-General role in whichever facet - constitutional, ceremonial and/or community leadership - is constant in its interest. 

It is unlike any other job.  One is not a celebrity and is not out to garner popularity or votes, but I never fail to be surprised by the warmth with which Susan and I are received - wherever we go.  For just one example - we attended the Ngati Kahungunu Waitangi Family Day near Hastings earlier this year, supported by local government, and we joined more than 10,000 people genuinely pleased to be there and to see us and we and they were somewhat overwhelmed.  Even the local gang members had turned over their jackets so their patches weren't visible.

Speaking of Hawke's Bay reminds me of visiting Tutira School in March 2007 to plant the first tree in what was to become the school's new bush area.  I think I have planted sufficient trees in my time as Governor-General to warrant applying for carbon credits when they come on stream.

At Tutira School, the children given the job of preparing the hole, had become somewhat carried away and had provided a hole of width which could have accommodated a 44 gallon drum and I was supposed to place a very diminutive kowhai seedling in it.  Without quite a bit of back filling, it would have been completely consumed.

But I digress.  In my previous careers, I was more often than not involved in focusing on or resolving inherently negative matters and on the lookout for the error, blemish, mistake or bad act.  As a lawyer it was prosecuting or defending someone accused of a criminal offence.  As a judge, presiding over trials and sentencing those convicted.  As an ombudsman, it was attempting to mediate and resolve greivances between members of the public and governmental agencies whether to do with actions or provision of official information.

As Governor-General, another facet of the jewel of our community is exposed when there is the opportunity to see New Zealanders at their best. 

As old hands in journalism, you have no doubt been taxed by people who say the media only ever cover negative stories—that "if it bleeds it leads" , "if it smells it sells" and so forth.  I know that isn't always the case, but I can say as Governor-General that if you wanted to cover more positive stories—and I would be an advocate for you to do so—there is plenty of scope.  The items on the Governor-General's website bear this out.

Behind every person who is awarded a New Zealand honour is an account not only of individuals who have contributed so much to our society, but also the organisations they have worked with.

The stories of those like Corporal Willie Apiata, the first winner of the Victoria Cross for New Zealand, the few people who receive the Order of New Zealand or are made Distinguished Companions of the New Zealand Order of Merit are well known.

But the stories of those who have received the Queen's Service Medal are often just as fascinating and are fertile ground for anyone seeking genuine human interest news - fire-fighters and community workers, for example.

The Governor-General's role is one I have found hugely challenging.  Involvement with events and people who influence events are the source of huge job satisfaction and I think that Germaine Greer's recent suggestion that the Governor-General's role is so monotonous and protocol-bound that it could be done by a robot, is simply potty.

Every day is different and it is not all a 9-5 job.  There are 500 plus or minus engagements every year, my contribution tonight being my nineteenth speech in public this month.  Susan and I often attend three or four functions each day.  Attending and speaking at a dinner will be followed by meeting a community group the following morning and speaking to a reception in the late afternoon.  Ably supported by the experienced staff of Government House, I am briefed and advised on all these engagements.  The Government House website tells something of this.

One sees people in all sorts of emotions - happy, tense, sad and excited.  An incident that sticks in my mind was the St John parade in Auckland last year when a little seven-year-old boy got so excited about being in the parade that, when I came over, he saluted with both hands.

In my speeches I have consistently stressed key themes—the richness and challenges of New Zealand's increasingly diverse cultural mix, the need for greater community engagement and for civic education.  They are all areas that I believe the media can, and does, play an important role, such as in promoting cultural understanding.

My relationship with the media has also changed.  In almost 40 years in public and professional life, my dealings with the media have been many and varied.  I have found the majority of journalists to be professional people trying to do their best for their employers and for the people who read, listen or watch the news they provide. 

I have lost count of the times I have been photographed since I became Governor-General.  Indeed, if the Australian Aboriginal saying that each photograph takes a bit of your soul is correct, I would imagine that three years' time I will be headed directly for hell!

But I believe the Office of Governor-General should always be more important than any individual incumbent.  For that reason you will perhaps understand that I don't see it as my role to wantonly create headlines or to upset apple carts.  But I believe that the media does have an important role, not in promoting the erstwhile Governor-General, but in ensuring the public is aware of what is being done and why.

It takes a bit of time for some people, for example, to realise that one Governor-General has gone and another has replaced them.  Additionally, in my case as I said in my inaugural address my term will be one where for some it will be a matter of me being " one of them being one of us" whilst for others it will be a case of "one of us being one of them."  When I visited Te Papapa School in the Auckland suburb of Onehunga recently, a 12-year old asked me: "Do they let you stay at Dame Silvia's house?"

Speaking of houses, it is an appropriate time to mention some features of the year ahead and the forthcoming conservation project.

I heard word that when the project was announced, that the first concern of some Gallery members was that this dinner was going to be cancelled.  But fear not, the packers don't arrive until after dessert—some three months after dessert - to be precise.

However, the House, which will be 100 years old in 2010, is long overdue for significant restoration work. One reporter who interviewed me recently implied that the House was going to get a "facelift," the architectural equivalent of cosmetic surgery. 

If I might extend the medical analogy a little, especially with Wellington Hospital being nearby, the reality is more like a triple bypass and a double hip replacement.  And it is not just for the House, but for the grounds and many of the outbuildings as well.

The other major event that will tax both your time and mine, will be the forthcoming election. I suspect a number of at lease will be wondering what role I will have as to who will be the Prime Minister after the forthcoming election.  In the words of Michelle Dubois, the resistance leader from the television comedy, Allo Allo: "I want you to listen very carefully, I shall say this only once."

Sir Michael Hardie Boys, who was the first Governor-General to deal with government formation under MMP made it clear that, while the electoral system had changed, the respective roles of the Governor-General and the leaders of the political parties in Parliament has not.  Whatever the electoral system that is used, the Governor-General will always appoint, as Prime Minister, the person who has been identified through the government formation process as the person who will lead the party or group of parties, that appears able to command the confidence of the House of Representatives. 

I expect that there will be clear and public statements that a political agreement has been reached and that a government can be formed that will have the support of the new Parliament.  In appointing the Prime Minister, I will abide by the outcome of this political process.

The need to command a majority in the House is the same as it was in the period before 1996 when elections were held under first-past-the-post.  In 1984, for example, Sir Robert Muldoon said he no longer had a working majority and advised the Governor-General to call an election.  The visit to my predecessor, Sir David Beattie, came on the night of a dinner for newspaper editors and other media luminaries.  I can assure you that there has been no notice this evening.  But the piano in the next room has been tuned and is ready to play if needed!

The media have an important role in the election campaign, and indeed you as practitioners are at the heart of a healthy democracy as the eyes and ears of the public.  It is your job to keep people in the process such as myself accountable and trusted.

But with that power comes the responsibility to ensure that truth, accuracy, fairness and balance are never secondary to either commercial imperatives or the burning desire for a good story.  My predecessor Lord Cobham spoke to a media gathering almost 50 years ago of how much the public relied on accurate and responsible journalism.

This is never more important than during an election campaign.  Lord Cobham finished his speech by issuing a challenge, which, respectfully, I make again this evening: "May you always have the courage and far-sightedness fearlessly to proclaim what you honestly believe to be the truth, and not merely what your readers would like to read."

And on that note, I will I close in New Zealand's first language, Maori, by offering greetings and wishing everyone good health and fortitude in your endeavours. No reira, tena koutou, tena koutou, kia ora, kia kaha, tena koutou katoa.

Last updated: 
Friday, 9 January 2009

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