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Interesting times

Dame Patsy Reddy DFInstD reflects on being Governor-General through the Kaikoura earthquake, the Christchurch Mosque shootings and the Whakaari/ White Island eruption.

type
Article
author
By Sonia Speedy, freelance journalist
date
17 Dec 2021
read time
5 min to read
Dame Patsy, smiling, wearing a green top.

Dame Patsy GNZM, QSO, DStJ, DFInstD is no stranger to tough assignments.

She was the first female partner at law firm Watts and Patterson (now MinterEllisonRuddWatts). She has sat on the boards of some of New Zealand’s largest commercial organisations, including Telecom and Air New Zealand, and public agencies, including the New Zealand Transport Agency and the Film Commission.

But her term as Governor- General coincided with a few new challenges for Dame Patsy and New Zealand – the Kaikoura earthquake, the Christchurch Mosque shootings, the Whakaari/White Island eruption and 18 months of a rampaging virus among them.

“Like a lot of businesses and organisations, we’ve had to reimagine ourselves in the last little while and try and do as much as we can in a different way,” she says of the role, which involves a lot of public events, presentations and face-to-face meetings.

“To some extent, that is governed by the opportunities you have to engage. I have to say, the last 18 months has been particularly hard with the pandemic.”

“Inequality is something that we all have to address and how we address inequality – that’s the thing that will shape policies, current and future, more than it did in the past.”

Celebrant

“The great thing about being Governor General is that you celebrate success, and you leave all the challenges to the politicians,” Dame Patsy says. “I say that slightly glibly because I think over my term we’ve had more unexpected tragedies than most. They’ve been some pretty challenging times to help fellow New Zealanders mourn, grieve, and deal with sudden economic shocks as well.”

Her term as Governor-General ran from September 2016 to September 2021. And Dame Patsy believes we have changed as a nation over that time.

One of the changes is New Zealanders’ growing appreciation of the impacts of the climate crisis and concern about the environment.

“We sort of knew about it five years ago, but many of us paid lip service to it.”

Another is the “flourishing” of te reo and the growing appreciation of Māori values across business and society, such as kaitiakitanga (environmental guardianship) and manaakitanga (care for others).

“I think the importance of te Tiriti o Waitangi is more recognised by everyday New Zealanders today than it once was. I’ve really valued the opportunity of learning more myself and enjoyed the experience of engaging with New Zealanders, Māori and tangata tiriti [New Zealand non-Māori] and new New Zealanders - refugees and migrants - about what the Treaty can mean and how we can make it something we are all proud of."

But there have been less positive changes too, including the pandemic’s impacts on the economy and business sector, which Dame Patsy says are still becoming apparent. Of increasing concern is the growing inequality gap New Zealand faces, which she describes as almost more concerning now than the gender or diversity gap, although they often go hand-in-hand, she says.

“Inequality is something that we all have to address and how we address inequality – that’s the thing that will shape policies, current and future, more than it did in the past.”

An evolving role

When she was a child, Dame Patsy saw the Governor-General as a distant figure, imposed upon us as part of politics. But today, a key part of the role is bringing people together and recognising them in an apolitical way.

“I’ve tried to use my time for things like celebrating New Zealand culture, arts and creativity, but also leadership and innovation, environmental sustainability and innovation. But also diversity.

 “Can I tell you the role has definitely changed? No. I think it will be incremental.”

While every Governor-General has a slightly different approach the role, of course, is essentially as a figurehead, she says. The Governor-General represents the idea of the Crown in our constitutional monarchy.

“We don’t have power to change the world, we just have a responsibility to make sure that those that are governing us are keeping to the rules, making sure that the rule of law is what governs our constitutional framework.”

This includes upholding the Treaty of Waitangi, she says, stressing the uniqueness of having such a document – built on fundamental principles she believes are still appropriate today.

“I’ve represented the Crown side of that Crown/Māori connection, started by Governor Hobson in 1840. I see that as something that can continue to develop.”

Her personal view is there are advantages to not having a rigid written constitution developed in a particular time or place. Instead, New Zealand’s constitution is found across a variety of legislation, common law and constitutional practices.

“I don’t think we need to be a republic. I don’t think we need to have a written constitution. We’ve got the flexibility to move with the times. We’ve got the flexibility to have a constitution that works based on the social license that the country gives to the government and the head of state.”

“And stakeholders are interpreted much more widely. It involves looking after our environment, looking after the planet. It’s a wide remit, a wide responsibility. I don’t think when I was in private sector governance we’d given that much thought, frankly.”

Governance today

“When I look at the challenges for directors today – the ESG (environmental, social and governance) exposures, the challenges of trying to reimagine businesses in a post pandemic world, not even knowing what a post-pandemic world will look like, the inequality challenges that I mentioned – I think it’s a tough gig being a director.”

While things like diversity within organisations have been improving, she highlights important challenges for the future such as how our business environment develops and how we make sure our democratically elected government holds the appropriate powers when dealing with huge multinationals on issues such as what happens on the internet and taxation.

However, Dame Patsy is encouraged by the growing focus on social enterprise as a part of business, pointing to Peri Drysdale MBE’s fashion brand Untouched World, which uses a percentage of its profits to fund leadership courses for young people, and the buy-one, gift-one catering service Eat My Lunch, which gives away lunches to Kiwi children.

While the primacy of shareholders has been the key concern for boards, there is increasing talk of stakeholders now, she says.

“And stakeholders are interpreted much more widely. It involves looking after our environment, looking after the planet. It’s a wide remit, a wide responsibility. I don’t think when I was in private sector governance we’d given that much thought, frankly.

“I think this is the way of the future in the post-pandemic environment, in the climate crisis environment.”

Preparing for the future

The current environment may be challenging for directors, but Dame Patsy says not getting despondent is vital.

“We need to make sure people are looking at what we can do, as opposed to what the challenges are or and what can go wrong. And we’re all responsible for doing that.

“We have to make sure that what we do is a good thing, is a value-adding activity and we’ve got to walk the talk.”

She points to inspiring leaders such as New Zealand businessman and philanthropist Eion Edgar DFInstD, who died earlier this year.

“He was one of the most amazing can-do people I’ve ever met. He was full of positivity and where he saw problems and challenges, he’d say, ‘let’s roll up our sleeves and find a solution’. We need people like that and we do have them in New Zealand.”

Another person who has made a significant impact on Dame Patsy is chimpanzee expert Dr Jane Goodall, who she has met several times.

“She embodies what we need to understand regarding how to live in this world – how to understand nature, and to be part of it. She’s desperately keen to save the environment and save the wild creatures that live in that environment, like her beloved chimpanzees. But she says we can’t do that if we don’t look after the people because if the people can’t survive, then nor will the environment.”

Dame Patsy is staying mum on what she plans to do next and how governance might feature.

“I’ve said to everybody, that I’m not making any decisions about my future, I wanted to finish this role, without moving my head into where I will go next.

“But I doubt I’ll be retired for long – I don’t have enough hobbies. And there are lots of things I want to do.

“I think you’ll probably see me around more in the public or not-for-profit sector… I don’t think I’ll be taking on full-time roles.” 

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