At Her Majesty's service

Sir Anand Satyanand is the very model of a modern governor-general.
Sir Anand Satyanand is the very model of a modern governor-general.

As Governor-General Anand Satyanand enters his final year in the role, he talks to Anthony Hubbard about Kiwi informality, why he backs MMP, and the fine line between being a pushover or a pedant.

THE GOVERNOR-GENERAL'S job is to celebrate things that have gone well. Last year he did this on 400 occasions. It's a job, in short, that would make even Pollyanna howl.

Anand Satyanand is our first Indian governor-general, our first Catholic one, and the first with a funny name – but therein lies a secret. "Anand" in Hindi means rejoicing, and "satya" means truth. Satyanand beams as he reveals this.


Truth and joy: the man was destined for vice-regal office.

In person, Satyanand is jovial, bland and careful. He pours the coffee in his office and denies that he has servants. "The term `servant'," he says, his smile tightening a little, "is about as outmoded as the term `varlet'."

Or, perhaps, the term "governor-general". The name is a bit of silverware left over from colonial days, when the Queen sent out a chap – it was always a chap – as her representative. Governors-general have tried to modernise, however, even while the name gathered dust. Satyanand is the very model of a modern governor-general.

He avoids starch and solemnity. "Even at New Zealand's most formal, there is no question of cockaded hats and plumes and governor-general uniforms and people cursteying," says Satyanand. "That's of a different era. So New Zealand formal is quite different from overseas formal."

He is self-deprecating. "I have a legal friend who says that on Investiture Day, I look like a draft horse on A & P Show Day with all the ribbons."

He claims to be just like other people. He belongs to a ("no-guilt") book club. The whanau spent last summer holidays on Waiheke Island. He finds it "strange" and even "awkward" living in mansions and having "household attendants" – not maids or butlers! – waiting on him hand and foot.

And, like most of his predecessors, he censors himself on political matters. The governor-general is expected to stay above the political fray, and usually does. Sir Paul Reeves was a rare exception: he caused a ruckus in the mid-1980s by saying he "didn't believe in trickle-down economics", a clear shot at the Labour government that appointed him.

Ask Satyanand whether he thinks the monarchy has had its day in New Zealand – Labour Prime Minister Helen Clark called the monarchy "absurd" – and he retreats into a blizzard of windy evasions.

"It's not something on which I have a view that I would offer in a circumstance like this," he says, a remark which looks more pompous in print than it sounded.

Presumably he has a view about it? "Yeah, but whatever I think about the matter is not of any greater importance than the 4.2 million other New Zealanders."

But it would be interesting, wouldn't it, to know if the governor-general was a secret republican? Satyanand laughs.

"The present governor-general is entirely comfortable with the present arrangement."

It is a surprise, given this caution, that Satyanand is happy to seize such a hot political kumara as MMP. In speeches he has praised the system for providing a much wider range of MPs – more women, more Maori, more ethnic minorities. Satyanand is himself of Fiji Indian origin, and always preaches the virtues of diversity, one of his "three planks" as governor-general.

However, this is a live political issue, since there will be a referendum on MMP at the 2011 election: so should the governor-general have entered the debate? Satyanand's remarks are "closer to borderline than being uncontroversial", says Victoria University political scientist Jonathan Boston. MMP was not a party political issue, but it did significantly divide political opinion.

MMP, Satyananand tells the Sunday Star-Times, "has brought for the country considerable advantages". MMP has allowed a greater diversity to come through the party lists, not only of ethnic minorities, but also of people with community engagement such as advocates for the disabled. It has also allowed more people who have succeeded in other areas to enter the house.

He cites – and the selection is a judicious, cross-party one – the wealthy former businessman Steven Joyce, who rocketed into National's cabinet right after being elected; the Green former academic and diplomat Kennedy Graham; and former race relations conciliator and Labour list MP, Dr Rajen Prasad.

Under first past the post, by contrast, "for people to get ahead in party politics they need to spend years on committees".

Many people complain that rejected electorate MPs should not be able to get back into parliament by getting a safe place on the list. Satyanand says this is "harking back to first-past-the-post thinking".

"You know, a person can offer themselves as a candidate for parliament – they might get there through the electorate or through the party list system. There is this feeling that, you know, the electorate MPs are in a slightly different capacity to the party list MPs, in that one lot are more Brahmin-like than others.

"But when you consider what happens at the beginning of parliament, when the governor-general sends the commissioners to parliament and there is the process of those who have succeeded being sworn in – they all swear the same oath, and they all take up a seat in parliament, and they all have the right to vote and be counted for that vote. That's the way it works."

The parties put forward their list and if people don't accept it "they have a right not to vote for that party. And if they don't vote for that party, those people won't get in".

Act's problems have focused attention on small parties that gain an electorate seat and so avoid the 5% parliamentary threshold, allowing them to win further seats as well. Some ask: why should they be so lucky? Satyanand says: "That is a problem and there may need to be some adjustment to cover that situation," but he doesn't know what change is needed. He has "no magic lozenge" (a favourite phrase).

THE RECEIVED view of the governor-general is of a sociable old thing who rubber-stamps legislation, gives speeches brimful of bromides and shakes an unfeasible number of hands. There is a great deal of truth in this view, but it's not quite the whole truth.

Not all governors-general are gregarious, although Satyanand says it's "essential". His predecessor, Dame Silvia Cartwright, was a reserved intellectual who found the glad-handing a trial.

Satyanand, though, likes talking to strangers. "More people than you know say hello to you and engage you," he says. "So that means when you go to the supermarket or go to get a haircut, it's likely to be longer than the journey you might ordinarily take. But that's nice, because both of us [he and his wife Susan] have, over time, enjoyed meeting people."

Governors-general sign bills into law and, as former governor-general Dame Cath Tizard put it, "see that the parcel of power is passed". They are expected to do as the prime minister tells them. But they also have the theoretical power to act by themselves: to refuse to sign a bill into law, or to sack an elected government, as governor-general John Kerr did to Labor PM Gough Whitlam's administration in Australia in 1975.

If they do this, however, all hell breaks loose. The basic problem is one of legitimacy. "It is not the role of an appointed governor-general to usurp ... a democratically elected government except in the most extreme and rarest of circumstances," as Satyanand said in a speech on the day he swore in John Key as prime minister.

Satyanand does not think he would refuse to sign a bill (this was last done in 1709). "If you weren't going to assent," he says, "you would resign."

There's an apocryphal story, Satyanand says, that Tizard was confronted with a piece of legislation she disliked. She asked her officials what to do, "and then she considered the position herself and said something like, `All right, I will sign it – but in black ink!' And the bottle of black ink was duly brought, the pen filled, and she signed it."

This is a great story that certainly sounds like Tizard – but the woman herself "hasn't the faintest memory of it". It might have simply slipped her mind, she told the Sunday Star-Times. She can certainly remember signing things she disliked. "It wasn't just because it was a National government, either," says Tizard, a long-time Labourite. "There are lots of things Labour governments have done that I haven't liked either."

Satyanand says he has never asked for the bottle of black ink. "It would have to be a major thing that offended the bones of the body, and that hasn't happened."

He is not, however, just a rubber stamp. "You have to draw a line between being considered a pushover who will sign anything that's put in front of him," he says, "and on the other hand being a nitpicking pedant whose attention should be elsewhere.

"And so what I always do is read everything with a view to being able to express to a nine or 10-year-old child what I have agreed to."

He "encourages" ministers making appointments to provide him with the legal basis for making it, the reasons for the choice and other supporting stuff. He "encourages" ministers wanting to pass a regulation to write a covering letter outlining all the steps the law required them to take first, and saying they had done so.

Sometimes he has not been happy with what a minister has done, and said so. "What generally happens is there will be a reaction reasonably quickly."

A governor-general is an intelligent person appointed to burble for their country: or so it sometimes seems. How to avoid blathering about motherhood and apple pie? Satyanand has built three planks to stand on, three favourite themes to talk about "rather than just uttering warm words".

They are: the value of diversity, the importance of engaging in the community, and civics. These might sound bland enough, but Satyanand can make them interesting. Maori success in bringing Waitangi claims before the courts and the tribunal, he says, are a case of civics in action: "Sensible minds using civic processes in an intelligent way to achieve. It's a journey that's been really worth engaging in."

As for the business of constantly praising the praiseworthy, Satyanand points out that, as an ombudsman and judge, he "spent the previous 20 years looking for the error, looking for the mistake, the lapse in judgement or the bad act". He's now happy to leave that to others and do some celebrating.

Also, he points out, his term lasts for only five years.

But what say he's had a bad night and doesn't feel like giving another speech of celebration? What does a grumpy governor-general do? Well, he goes to the gym, talks to his wife, reads up the stuff and does his best. "It would be very wrong not to do this as well as you possibly can."

Besides, he's a happy sort of man anyway. Just consider his name.


Born: 1944 in Auckland.

Education: Richmond Road School in Ponsonby, and Sacred Heart College in Glen Innes.

Married: Susan in 1970; they have three adult children.

Career: Following a Bachelor of Laws degree from the University of Auckland in 1970, worked at the Crown Solicitor's Office in Auckland. In 1982, appointed a judge in district court. From 1982-1994, worked in Palmerston North then numerous Auckland courts. Appointed a Parliamentary Ombudsman in 1994, serving two five-year terms.

Awards: New Zealand 1990 Commemoration Medal and made a Distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for public services in 2005. In 2006, made a Principal Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2006, and a Companion of the Queen's Service Order in 2007. Redesignated a Knight Grand Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit.

Sunday Star Times