Dame Patsy Reddy on becoming Governor-General

by Clare de Lore / 23 January, 2017

Dame Patsy Reddy. Photo/Hagen Hopkins

When John Key offered the highly accomplished Dame Patsy Reddy the Governor-General’s job, she humbly suggested her partner for the role. 

Two weeks before Christmas, Patsy Reddy was expecting a relatively routine Monday – meetings with staff, attending the Executive Council meeting and hosting a farewell dinner for the outgoing American Ambassador.

John Key surprised her – and the rest of the country – on December 5 with his bolt-from-the-blue decision to resign as prime minister. On December 12, barely three months into her five-year term as Governor-General, Reddy put aside most of her schedule to formally accept Key’s resignation and swear in Bill English as Prime Minister. It was the second time this year that Key had taken Reddy by surprise.  The first time was when he shoulder-tapped her to consider becoming the country’s 21st Governor-General.

Reddy, 62, a businesswoman, lawyer, ­company director and Treaty negotiator in her previous career, is one of two daughters born to Neil and Kay Reddy. With an 11-year gap between her and her sister, she was effectively an only child.

By nature a private woman who has never sought the limelight, Reddy has taken to the public role with quiet grace, style and humour. She honed her business skills during decades of high-level public and private governance and management roles.

With Deputy Prime Minister Paula Bennett, husband Sir David Gascoigne, Prime Minister Bill English and his wife, Dr Mary English, at last year's swearing-in ceremony at Government House. Photo/Getty Images

She is now also the country’s most high-profile vegan, an advocate for sustainability, a film buff who has ­championed some of our most ­successful movies during her tenure as Film ­Commission chairwoman, a self-confessed shoe addict and a supporter of New ­Zealand fashion.

She is determined to use her often-ceremonial position to greatest effect. In designing a strategic plan for her five years as Governor-General, she consulted a range of people, including husband Sir David Gascoigne. The couple, who have been together for 29 years, married shortly before Reddy took office. They have a home in Greytown, where they will spend Christmas with friends, and a miniature poodle named Coco. I spoke with Reddy before Key’s resignation.

What was your family life like?

My sister lives in Auckland and is a New Zealand Herald subeditor. Because Sue is 11 years younger, we didn’t really grow up together; I left home when she was six. My CV says I was born in ­Matamata, but I didn’t live there. It’s where my mother was from originally. She and Dad were country school teachers and she went home to Matamata to have her baby – it’s where my grandparents were, so I spent a bit of time there when I was young.

We lived in Te Akau, then Minginui in the Ureweras, and when I was nearly seven, we moved to Hamilton. I was quite a grown-up sort of child. My mother taught – it was unusual then to have a mother who worked – and I was in the classroom from six weeks and participated in classes from about age three. Part of the kids’ training was to look after the baby at the back. I loved books when I was little and could read and write before I was five. The myth goes I could read by the time I was three, but I suspect that’s an exaggeration.

What was your experience as a child and teenager growing up in Hamilton?

I wanted to get out, but that was a common feature of growing up in the 60s – you wanted to go and do more exciting things in bigger cities. I had a privileged childhood in some ways. My parents were very focused on education, on my being able to do anything I wanted. My father was a rugby referee and he was ­determined I learn all the rules of rugby.

Being admitted to the Bar as a barrister and solicitor in 1977. Photo/Reddy family collection

Your father really did believe you could do anything, didn’t he?

Dad died in May, but he knew I was going into this role and he was thrilled. I went up to see him the day before it was announced – I hadn’t told anyone other than David. Somehow, Audrey Young [NZ Herald political editor] found out, though. I told Dad I wasn’t going to tell my sister in advance, which was lucky, because when the Herald got the story, it was clear it wasn’t from my sister, as she didn’t know. I thought I’d better tell the head nurse at Selwyn Village [retirement facility] that there might be something about me in the news the next day, and to watch out for Dad, as the media might try to talk to him. I went up again a few days later and she said that when the story broke in the Herald, she took the paper to show Dad. He was beaming, and she said, “I bet when she was a little girl, you never thought she would be the Governor-­General”, and Dad said, “Oh yes, I did.”

Had you entertained thoughts of becoming Governor-General? How does it come about?

I was finishing up the Security and ­Intelligence Review with Sir Michael Cullen. I’d had a reasonable amount of interaction with the Prime Minister and when his staff asked me to come to a meeting, it wasn’t that surprising. I thought he might want a heads-up about what was in the report. But as soon as I went into the office, the Prime Minister told me it wasn’t about the review and suggested I sit down. I had that immediate reaction that you have all through your life – “What have I done wrong?”, like being taken into the headmistress’ office.

The Prime Minister said he had been thinking about the role of the Governor-General and thought I would be an appropriate successor to Sir Jerry [Mateparae] and that with David, he would be getting two for the price of one. So I said, “Actually, David would be really good at the role. I don’t know if I am the right person.”

I thought the role would be hard for an introvert, so I suggested one or two other people. I asked if he had done his due diligence, because I do have a different background from other Governors-General – I worked in the private sector for a good part of my life and only in the public sector for the past 10 years, so that is not typical. He said, “Go away and talk to David, but I’ve asked you and not David.” So I did, and David thought it was a great idea. I told him I couldn’t do it unless he was 110% behind me, because it would be too hard on my own and it would be hard on him as my partner.

The taupaepae (main entrance) at Government House in Wellington. Photo/Hagen Hopkins

So, how are you finding the role?

Every day has been something new, so there hasn’t been a day when I have just thought, “Well, I know what is going to happen this week.” I knew it was going to be busy, because I had spoken with Sir Jerry and Lady Janine and I knew they had worked very hard. I started following them on Facebook, which was ­fascinating. Every day they had something new on – more than I had realised.

Did you seek his advice?

Everyone, from Sir Jerry down, said, “Do not accept every invitation, even though they are things you think you should do or even would like to do, because you will go mad.” You need to think through what you’re achieving. We spent time with senior staff here and some of the Cabinet Office who interact with Government House going through our strategy, our goals, the things we would focus on. We now have a ­strategic plan. We have identified the broad areas that either we are very interested in or could contribute to. If we can use them as lenses through which to see opportunities or seek opportunities, sometimes they will tick all the boxes.

King Willem-Alexander and Queen Máxima of the Netherlands (centre) with (from left) Gascoigne, Reddy, and then-Prime Minister John Key and his wife, Bronagh Key, during a state banquet. Photo/Alamy

What about reading up on the job or finding time to read for pleasure?

Lately, I am finding it harder and harder to have time to read. David has the discipline of a book club and I haven’t, so I keep starting books and not finishing them – it is driving me nuts.

For my work, I recently read Gavin McLean’s historical account called The Governors: New Zealand’s Governors and Governors-General, and I found it fascinating. It shows that lots of unusual and interesting things have happened to Governors-General over the years.

I have been reading a lot of New Zealand history and also The Dismissal Dossier: Everything You Were Never Meant to Know about November 1975. I thought I’d better find out what went on when the Australian Governor-General dismissed the Prime Minister in 1975. It is quite extraordinary what Sir John Kerr did, and it wasn’t that long ago. In terms of fiction, the last book I read was The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes, about [Soviet composer Dmitri] Shostakovich. I enjoyed it, but I am getting to the stage where I am picking smaller books so I can get through them.

The Blundell Room at Government House. Photo/Hagen Hopkins

You are both vegan, the first vice-regal couple to follow that diet. How did that come about?

I was a fussy eater as a child and I didn’t like meat. When I went to university in the 70s, I found I’d starve if I didn’t eat meat, because that’s what keeps flats going, and I took up eating meat. I love cooking, but always enjoyed the ­vege­tables more than the meat part of a meal. As I got older, I became interested in the debates about the impact of eating animal products on one’s health. Then a couple of years ago, good friends, who are vegan, gave us a DVD called Forks Over Knives. It is a very interesting analysis of the impact of animal products on the environment and our health.

I suggested to David we try eating vegan. The idea of giving up dairy, such as cheese and ice-cream, was particularly hard. But I had chronic laryngitis and sinusitis and a couple of doctors ­mentioned it might be affected by dairy. We said we would do it for a month, and found we really enjoyed the food. David lost an enormous amount of weight and my sinusitis has cleared.

So, it’s a permanent change?

I’m not here to proselytise or be an advocate for a plant-based diet for everybody, but we like it. It is a personal choice. At the investiture dinners we had food according to people’s preferences – David and I had vegan food, but duck and fish were on the menu, too.

Santa Claus calls on the Queen and Prince Philip at old Government House in Auckland during their state visit in 1953. Photo/Government House collection

Do you have vegan shoes?

I’m conscious of using products that are environmentally sound and sustainably produced. If it is something with palm oil in it, I want to know it is sustainably farmed. I haven’t got into wearing whatever vegan shoes are. I still wear leather, but only on my feet. Well, the odd handbag. I make sure the cosmetics I buy get the stamp of approval and my hairdresser has an eco stamp. I’m quite a pragmatic person. You’ve got to be adaptable.

Have the Government House chefs adapted?

We have fabulous chefs here. They have taken up the challenge of providing vegan food for us and I have suggested they keep track of their wonderful recipes. It would be fabulous to produce a Government House cookbook at some stage and raise funds for a charity. Or we may put some of the recipes on our web page.

Is it true that you also have a healthy interest in fashion, and shoes in particular?

I am a shoe addict, although not to the Theresa May or Imelda Marcos level. As I was thinking about what to wear for my swearing-in ceremony, I saw some boots at David Jones and I thought they had that little nod to the military about them.

Photo/Hagen Hopkins

My investiture was my first ­involvement in a military-type ceremony. I had worked with a lovely dressmaker to design what I would wear and already decided I wanted something with a military twist. So I thought the boots would be an ­interesting nod to that; they are also fantastically comfortable.

And you’re now consciously championing New Zealand fashion?

I haven’t bought anything that isn’t from New Zealand designers since I took the job. I want to support New Zealand designers and I’m also getting things made by a local dressmaker. Having things made to measure is such a treat. I have never done that before.

You spent some of the past eight or nine years as a Crown Treaty negotiator and will have continued involvement with Maori in this role. What was it like being at the Treaty negotiating table?

It was an amazing learning experience. I learnt far more about myself and New Zealand than I even realised I needed to know. The iwi I have been dealing with have a clear sense of where they fit, who they belong to and where they came from. I don’t have that. Do I feel the lack of it? No, it just hasn’t been part of me, although I am a fifth-generation New Zealander on my mother’s side. I’m not certain what that means and I’m not sure what went before that, whereas Maori know 19 or so generations back. I am always focused on the here and now and what’s coming next.

This article was first published in the December 24, 2016 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.



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