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Speech

Christchurch Art Gallery Fundraising Lunch

Issue date: 
Friday, 8 June 2001
Speaker: 
The Hon Dame Silvia Cartwright, PCNZM, DBE, QSO

Nga hau e wha, nga iwi e tau nei, tena koutou katoa.

E nga mana, e nga reo, rau rangatira ma,
tena koutou, tena koutou, tena koutou katoa.

My greetings to you all, people who have gathered from near and far. To all honoured guests, to the speakers, my respects and, again, my greetings.

Nga mihi o te tau kia koutou. Thank you for your warm welcome.

Ros Burdon, Tony Preston, Director of the Robert McDougall Art Gallery, the person who has been so influential in the push for a new art gallery in Christchurch, Arthur Pitcher, CEO of the Christchurch Casino, a generous supporter of community activities in Christchurch, Marianne Hargreaves, Chair of the Art Gallery Friends, ladies and gentlemen.

It is a pleasure to be here today in Christchurch at this luncheon held to raise funds for the Christchurch Art Gallery. I am a keen but very amateur art gallery visitor, and like many New Zealanders I suspect that I have visited more art galleries overseas than I have here in New Zealand.

I recall with pleasure a visit to the Caravaggio Exhibition 'The Genius of Rome' held at the Royal Academy of Arts in London earlier this year. The sensuous human subjects, the luscious fruit and the rich colour were breathtaking. Indeed I had long held a quiet passion for Caravaggio after visiting a tiny church in Rome with an Italian friend, a communist and agnostic who loved intensely one of his Madonna and child works, something which demonstrated that politics have no part in the appreciation of the arts.

And I have spent many many hours in the Metropolitan Museum, the Museum of Modern Art and at the Frick Collection and the Cloisters in New York.

But I also recall visiting a gallery here in Christchurch when I was a student and being taken aback by the modernity of the exhibition. One was of a female form corsets and all but hollow inside. Another had a couple of lumps of coal attached and was titled 'I live by the railroad and cough'. Both were very avant-garde then but sadly, rather pass now.

Another pleasure of attending this lunch today is that I was given the topic to speak on. Personally I might not have chosen 'From Legal to Regal' in case some might suspect lese-majesty. But the letter informing me of this said that the title didn't matter I could talk about whatever I liked. So with that licence let me do just that.

Much has been written and said about my youth and the time that I spent at University. Frankly it is all so long ago now that I can barely discern fact from fiction. And some of what has been said can certainly be described as a flight of fancy. Suffice it to say that I was one of six children of parents who had no tertiary education. Indeed my father left school at 12 and my sisters and I were the first in our family history to have an academic tertiary education.

My career as a lawyer was unremarkable except for the fact that early on, I was frequently denied work or was not promoted or paid at the same level as my male counterparts. I did however have some advantages. Women were rare beasts in the legal world in the 60's and 70's. And whenever a firm of lawyers wanted to have a bit of a joke, I would be trotted out to demonstrate their sense of humour. So I appeared in the High Court in Dunedin on a hopeless sentence appeal as a brand new graduate and found myself up against the Crown Prosecutor who used the occasion to present me publicly with a photo of a woman barrister wearing a wig and gown, and nothing but the pantihose the photo was advertising, from the thighs down.

My career as a judge was equally lacking in any notable moments except for the National Women's Inquiry, and the fact that I was the first Chief Judge of the District Courts and of the High Court. Having passed quickly over those parts of my occupation, perhaps I should mention just one or two of many moments that remain in my memory.

I well recall the time when I was asked by the then Attorney General Geoffrey Palmer to Chair the NWH Inquiry. I was actually sitting in Taranaki at the time, and must have been the only person in the country who had not read the magazine article that gave rise to it. Nor had I heard the public reaction through television or radio. I am a great newspaper reader so to this day, have no idea how I missed the outcry. As a consequence, when the Attorney General called I really had no idea what he was talking about and saw an Inquiry which was to be 'short and sharp' as a great way to get out of doing the rest of my two week circuit in New Plymouth.

Women in the audience will understand when I tell you that my main concern was that I had a case full of used clothes and nothing to wear to Wellington the next morning, to have what I thought was to be a private meeting with the Minister of Health. I believed then that I was very aware of the dangers for a judge of involvement in political or public life, but I realise now how nave I was. Dressed in my slightly crumpled shirt, and blinking in the lights of the television I had not expected to be present, I faced a huge media presence all asking me questions about a topic I had no idea about, and other human interest matters such as 'how old are you?' 'Have you ever been a patient at NWH?' Both of which, I thought were none of their business.

I learned fast to deal with the press over that Inquiry and I learned real cunning. As to my mode of dress, I also learned that boring is beautiful for the Press. Then they can only comment of how few risks one takes with ones' clothes and dub me, as one columnist has done this year, a 'real pearls girl'

I also learned that a casual approach to the press is rewarding. Returning from my visit to Wellington to receive the terms of reference for the NW Inquiry, I drove to Hawera for a scheduled sitting of the Family Court to find squads of people outside the Court. It had still not occurred to me that the Inquiry would be of media interest, so I simply drove past the crowd thinking that there must be some big event in town, and walked into Court to find that they were all there to film me and had not expected that I would be driving myself in a nondescript car. How little the public knows of the humble arrangements made for the judges of the District Courts!

Another valuable lesson I learned was the delicate use of the threat to exclude members of the press if they didn't comply with direction. That was deployed in the NWH Inquiry and again years later when I was the unfortunate judge to draw the short straw to preside over the first televised trial in the High Court. Both times I saw with some amusement the intrepid press officials damp with anxiety as they pleaded to be allowed a second chance.

So what did I learn from the NWH Inquiry? A great deal more than I wanted to know about gynaecology and mortally ill women. More than anyone should experience of the reflections of these women and their relations as they blamed themselves for the fact that their lives were altered irrevocably and in some cases severely shortened by the practices at the Hospital. I also learned important lessons that were to be used by me over and over again, about crowd control, ways of inducing a calm environment when there is tension and tragedy in the air, and that there are more important things in life than the trivial disputes that many people bring to the Courts. That quality of life and life itself are precious and fragile. And that well meaning people can do as much harm as the malevolent.

My time as Chief Judge of the District Courts was perhaps the most difficult of my career to date. Unfortunately because it involved dealing with over 100 judges as their unselected leader and with the Departmental Officials and politicians over Court restructuring, there is little that can be described publicly. Suffice it to say that some of my best friends are judges.

The High Court was also an instructive period for me. Many will assume, probably correctly that I am a person of ambition. Not for nothing did the Woman's Weekly caption an interview with me: 'How I fought my way to the Top'. So too a business magazine routinely described me in a way that suggested that I was lobbying for judicial promotion.

From my perspective however the truth is a little different and does me no more credit. Mostly I have simply not foreseen the possibility that I might be asked to undertake a high profile job. I like to think that now I am better at examining the entrails and predicting what will happen to me next. So for example as soon as the media started to ruminate on who the next Governor-General would be, I had a feeling in my stomach. And for once I was not astonished and had time to consider the ramifications without the usual agonies.

My time in the High Court was also one of intense learning. I had largely been engaged in Family Law and judicial Administration for the 12 years prior to joining the High Court, whose jurisdiction is dominated by serious Crime, major civil disputes and appellate work. I had not specialised in any of these areas for many years, but in that I was no different from many other judges appointed to that Court. Most have been immersed in civil law, and have never appeared in a criminal trial. Others have come straight from private practice or Academic life and have not appeared in a Court for many years.

Although I was not publicly criticised for my lack of recent experience, a few trials assigned randomly to me allowed the press to characterise me as 'politically correct'. I suspect that there were two reasons for this: the first was the fear in some sectors of the business community and judiciary that I might become Chief Justice on the retirement of Sir Thomas Eichelbaum, and the second arising from my judgments in some cases, of which I will mention just two: an action for damages in a domestic violence claim and the other (from memory) a declaration sought by the Human Rights Commission on the method used by the Northern Health Region to limit the numbers of General Practitioners in its area.

Domestic or family violence is a topic about which I know a great deal. This arises from my career first as a lawyer and then judge specialising in family law. In the High Court a significant portion of a modern judge's work is spent presiding over criminal trials of men (usually) accused of sexual violation (various forms of rape), indecent assaults, and incest. Most members of the community would be astonished at the number and seriousness of these crimes. Certainly I became accustomed to seeing the shock and distress of the jurors empanelled to bring in verdicts. It remains quite common for these people to require assistance as they deal with this dark and tragic side of family life in New Zealand.

Similarly, I have long become accustomed to the variety of apparently decent law abiding men who perpetrate these offences: working men, men from gangs and from the professions, men of strong religious belief, your neighbours and mine. Naturally, I have also long despised the self indulgence and arrogance of these men who say that a young child agreed to the acts complained of or that a beautiful teenager really wanted to have sexual relations with a man older than her father.

We in the community hear little of these offences. We do not like to discuss them and many are held in private because the girl's identity might be disclosed. It is still a shameful thing for a girl or woman to be the victim of a sexual predator.

Then there is the ordinary banal violence practised in the home. The women who are in effect slaves to their male partners, not permitted to have friends, to operate their own finances, told how to dress and what to do to please. And the women who are beaten and threatened on a daily basis. All of these women become less valuable members of the community in which they live. Their capacity to raise their children is diminished, they consume too much of our scarce health dollars, are unable to give their best at work, and waste their educations.

So when I had a case in which a young professional woman sought damages for the financial losses that she sustained because her professional husband beat her, gashed her leg and then sewed it up without a sedative, raped her and reduced her to a mumbling wreck before she took the courage to leave, I saw no real obstacle to assessing his worth - considerably more than hers given the time away from her profession as the result of his actions, and fixed a sum of damages just as a judge would do if the financial and emotional losses had been the result of, for example, a deliberately lit fire.

However, this was quite controversial in a world where damages are more frequently awarded for losses to property than for personal physical and emotional harm. Of course the presence of the Accident Compensation regime has had a major influence n this area over quarter of a century.

I also know a great deal about discrimination, particularly in relation to women. I have spent a total of eight years as a member of the UN Human Rights Treaty body, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination a Against Women. Discrimination in whatever field it occurs: in relation to race, to children, to women, when civil and political rights or economic social and cultural rights are ignored, and when there is torture applied or condoned by the State, diminishes the individual and renders him or her less able to participate in society.

It is a mystery to me that communities, which expend precious funds on health and education, then limit their use by discriminating against a person or group of people on grounds such as race or sex. No right thinking business, operated to maximise funds for its owners or shareholders could afford to waste such a valuable resource.

And the most pervasive and pernicious form of discrimination, at least in developed countries, is that which is unintended. The old overt discrimination suffered by me and by many women of my age group, and even more seriously by Maori and by those of other ethnic groups, has long since been removed from our statutes.

What is more difficult to contend with however is that which arises from policy or legislation which on its face is fair but which has an unfair effect on a particular group.

So the case in which the Northern Region Health Authority sought to limit its rising number of urban-based General Practitioners in order to spread primary health care to more sparsely populated areas, although highly principled on its face, in fact resulted in unfair discrimination of a particular group of doctors. The means chosen to reduce the numbers of new General Practitioners was to restrict entry to those who had been trained overseas. When the policy was examined, it became clear that, although qualified to practice medicine in New Zealand those trained in foreign Universities were being singled out in a way that was discriminatory in terms of the Human Rights Act: that of national origin.

My sensitivity to such issues has unquestionably arisen because of my membership of the CEDAW Committee. Although harmful discrimination is found in New Zealand, we are not alone in this. Human nature being what it is, there appears to be no limit to the ingenuity of those who wish to retain power and control in both public and private life. Race, language, culture, religion and economic status are all used as a reason for discrimination. If there is a way in which by diminishing or confining another, a person can retain power, prestige or improve his or her economic position, then the temptation to do that seems irresistible.

There remains a need therefore for civilised States to emphasise the rights and obligations of State and citizen to each other. And for States to enforce equality of opportunity for all its citizens. These are not easy goals, and often we make mistakes, but the Courts, the Human Rights Institutions, civil society, and the world bodies such as the United Nations have made a huge impact for the good of civilisation. Without them, the world would be a much poorer and crueller place than it is.

So, having asked me to talk about my path from the law to becoming the Queen's representative in New Zealand, you must forgive me if I have indulged myself with these scattered thoughts and recollections. To be Governor-General is both an enormous privilege and a grave responsibility. It is important that the voice of the Governor-General is raised for the benefit of all New Zealanders, of whatever race, sex, religion, culture or economic group.

It is my responsibility also to react to the requests that people and groups make to me. There is in fact limited opportunity to carve out a particular area in which most emphasis might be placed. But it is already clear to me that those who know how the system operates can most readily engage the Governor-General's time. Just as those who have the best education or can afford the best lawyers will always access the Courts more readily than those who are the most vulnerable in society, there is a need to ensure that all New Zealanders have equality of access to me.

This includes those such as you who have given your precious time, and money to support this fund raising function because of your love of the Arts. Without your support, without the work so tirelessly done for no financial reward the arts in New Zealand would be poverty-stricken indeed. And as a country is identified by its treatment of its most vulnerable so too is it known for its artistic endeavours. They are our window display for the world to gaze at. They say who we are, and how we relate to each other and to our environment. They are our heart and our soul. They nurture and support the rich and the poor and are an expression of our culture and our identity. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to participate today in this event.

Last updated: 
Friday, 9 January 2009

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