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AGENDA: Cameron Bennett IVs George Fergusson

George Fergusson
British High Commissioner
Interviewed by CAMERON BENNETT

TV One – 29 July 2006

CAMERON: New Zealand and Britain have a unique historical relationship but it's been a long time since Michael Joseph Savage vowed that we would follow her wherever she went. Having said that New Zealand is now moving towards a closer military relationship with Britain through our involvement with NATO the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. Now one man whose family has been in an ideal position to observe our changing relationship over the years is George Fergusson, but first take a look at this.

SIMON POUND George Fergusson has taken up the post of British High Commissioner but he's been here before.

(Film clip) The liner Rangitane berths in Wellington and for the second time in 40 years a member of the Fergusson family arrives to take office as Governor General. First ashore is master George Fergusson, Sir Bernard's eight year old son, he'll attend school her during his parents' stay. Lady Fergusson and Sir Bernard disembark, later in the day there'll be an outdoor ceremony at Parliament Buildings when Sir Bernard is sworn in as Governor General of New Zealand.

As his father meets Cabinet Ministers young George looks on. Sir Bernard has come to a country his family know well, his father and grandfather both represented the sovereign in New Zealand.

SIMON: Grandfathers on both sides in fact, Sir Bernard father of George Fergusson had a rare distinction, Sir Bernard's paternal grandfather Sir James Fergusson was Governor of New Zealand from 1873 to 1874 while his maternal grandfather David Boyle the 7th Earl of Glasgow was Governor 1890 to 1897. George's grandfather Sir Charles Fergusson was Governor General 1924 to 1930 which brings us back to George's father, Sir Bernard, one of New Zealand's most popular Governor Generals serving from 1962 to 1967. Another in a long line of distinguished soldiers and politicians he was well known for his interest in Maori affairs, a link that saw George inducted as a chief of Ngati Raukawa, and now 44 years on George Fergusson is back continuing his family service and connection to the country.

CAMERON: Simon Pound compiled that report, now George Fergusson joins me now, welcome to the show George. There you are knobbly kneed walking down the gangplank, it clearly must have been a formative experience for you arriving here at the age of seven.

GEORGE FERGUSSON – British High Commissioner
Well it was, one of the things that I'm really lucky on is that I have extraordinarily clear memories of those five years, it would have been an awful waste if I couldn’t remember them because it was such fun and such interesting things happened.

CAMERON: And of course your father such a huge character with the monocle and the feathered hat.

GEORGE: I was just looking at the great footage you’ve got, one of the things that strikes me is not just my father wearing an amazing hat and his is perhaps unrivalled, but everyone's wearing hats, it's a different era.

CAMERON: This being Maori Language Week as well and you having quite an unusual family link with Maori culture your father was a fluent Maori speaker for instance.

GEORGE: When he was here as a boy he had a Maori tutor, his mother who'd been her in 1890s really was quite a fluent Maori speaker, my father worked on it when he came back but became pretty good.

CAMERON: And how about your own?

GEORGE: Mine, at the moment I have a pocket here of flash cards, I don’t want to have a vocabulary test this morning, but I'm looking to take lessons I find it quite difficult to actually join a course because it's been a busy couple of months but a duty that I think is something I will be going for.

CAMERON: There can't be many British High Commissioners anywhere with the kind of dynastic association with New Zealand that your family has.

GEORGE: That is right I've been very lucky, my father certainly reckoned when he was here he used to say he had the best job in the Commonwealth and he meant it.

CAMERON: And the fact as you saw in the report are you the only British High Commissioner to be an honorary Maori Chief?

GEORGE: Probably although I have a Kaitahu colleague in the Foreign Office who is Governor of somewhere else, so the exchanges carry on.

CAMERON: Your connection of course is with Ngati Raukawa in Otaki, just explain the kind of depth of emotional and – the attachment that you have to that iwi.

GEORGE: Well I remember very clearly when I was ten going to the ceremony which for a ten year old was quite formidable, it involved pulling some hair out in public and putting it into the waka as a symbol of connecting with the iwi, I went back a year later before I left and I went back to Otaki on my – when I was doing my gap year when I was working here when I was 19, I went later with my wife and on subsequent visits with our children and our son who very sadly died last year went back to Otaki two years ago.

CAMERON: And your son like you also had Raukawa as a middle name is that correct?

GEORGE: He did, and our eldest daughter has Huia and the other two are Marama and Tukina.

CAMERON: And it's 40 years since you were inducted as a Chief, there's a special ceremony coming up for you in Otaki.

GEORGE: We will be going back as a family next month.

CAMERON: Your son died tragically in a motorcycle accident. Is there a connection too in terms of laying him to rest as it were and your visit to the marae?

GEORGE: It was a bicycle accident, yes there will be because it'll be our first visit back to the marae and so there will be a kauamate and in fact we have delayed going back until our daughters can be with us because it will be a big family event for us.

CAMERON: Now one other thing is you're staying with your family here, another name that is very resonant here of course is that of your mother. The Laura Fergusson Trust, what's you're association with that these days?

GEORGE: Well formally I'm the patron of the national trust but I'm afraid it's been a fairly geographically distant relationship for quite a long time, though when I've visited New Zealand in the past I've gone back and visited the trusts in Auckland and Wellington and Christchurch, and have picked up those connections again and I'm looking forward to having a rather less distant relationship with the trust which does tremendously good work with disabled people.

CAMERON: So last here as a freezing worker, now here as the High Commissioner how would you characterise the relationship between the UK and New Zealand?

GEORGE: It's interesting I have been back every five years or so since the 1970s and in the 70s and 80s there was a feeling that Britain and New Zealand had a very close association, but we're sort of saying so long it's been nice to know you with Britain's entry into the European Union and New Zealand's vocation with either side of the Pacific and coming back now it is very striking that that is coming full circle. There are for instance more British people who have come from Britain but now living in New Zealand, I think nearly a third of all the immigrants into New Zealand now come from the UK, the days when people were rather embarrassed that their grannies referred to Britain as Home with a capital H have moved on, and not a lot of people have first hand relationships with Britain.

CAMERON: Kiwis of course still stand in the alien queue when they line up at Heath Row, how would you compare the relationship say between New Zealand and Britain and European states in Britain?

GEORGE: I'm not gonna let you get away completely with that, we stand in the not Australian or New Zealand queue which can be just as long.

CAMERON: Touché.

GEORGE: I think going back to what I was saying about the first hand knowledge, it's not now a matter of ancestry, you have Polynesian Chinese New Zealanders who have spent two years in London whose knowledge of Britain is today's Britain, and you have still enormous family connections. The person I report to in the Foreign Office his mum lives in Christchurch, the person I report to on trade matters his mum lives in Christchurch, so the relationship is clear, and I need to make sure that his mums don’t think I'm making a mess of it.

CAMERON: Right and of course there's a lot of mums wondering about their sons and daughters on their OE, what about the working visa arrangement between the two countries, are you satisfied with the way it stands?

GEORGE: Yes there was a review last year, there are something like 86 different ways in which you can get into the UK which people not surprisingly find a bit complicated, and there was a tidying up last year, but both Prime Ministers discussed this explicitly, the gap year in New Zealand and the OE in Britain are really quite pretty important bits in both countries' rights of passage and neither country wanted to mess it up and that the arrangement for New Zealand young people to come to Britain will remain pretty well unchanged.

CAMERON: Now of course the other element to the association between both countries is the proposal for much closer association, well for New Zealand to have a much closer association with NATO, how involved an influential has Britain been in those negotiations?

GEORGE: I don’t think that there is a specific pitch for New Zealand or any other country from beyond NATO to join formally, but NATO has been evolving really quite rapidly over the last ten years, and I think that the main area in which NATO and New Zealand are going to get to know each other better – are getting to know each other better is in Afghanistan, where the Bamian provincial reconstruction team New Zealand is providing has up to now been under American command and will be for a period but in the plan to move from the more explicitly anti terrorist programme in Afghanistan into NATO's operation which is to do with extending the governance of the Afghan government and helping development which is the instruction that British forces are under, New Zealand will come under that in due course which will be the first formal connection with NATO I think.

CAMERON: It's a curious situation that New Zealand is finding itself in, at a public level we haven’t heard too much about this, how far down the track are negotiations?

GEORGE: There is an agreed programme in Afghanistan that all five areas of Afghanistan will eventually come under the International Stabilisation and Assistance Force which is organised by NATO. I'm not sure it is so odd, I mean some people might find it odd that America and New Zealand are operating in a direct relationship at the moment rather than in the broader developmental structure that the NATO command has.

CAMERON: So they need us, all is forgiven is that the situation?


CAMERON: NATO and the Americans.

GEORGE: NATO's there under a UN mandate, I think the whole international community is being encouraged to try and help the democratic government in Afghanistan establish itself.

CAMERON: George just on the subject we were talking about very briefly, New Zealand's engagement in Afghanistan of course having engineers in Iraq as well, does that mean that we're perceived as part of the coalition of the willing?

GEORGE: I think that the terminology could tie us up here but I think New Zealand playing a role in dealing with some of the threats that the world is facing at the moment is very welcome and pretty natural.

CAMERON: To David Beatson and Richard Long as well, is that the position we curiously find ourselves in now, members of the coalition of the willing?

DAVID BEATSON – Political Commentator
Well I'm at the risk of sort of upsetting a rather sort of cosy mood and welcome home but New Zealand is not exactly totally aligned with the current position of the UK or the US, we have had a difference over military intervention in Iraq, we currently have a difference over whether or not there should be an immediate ceasefire in Lebanon. I mean how are we going to accommodate these differences, there are differences and I think New Zealand if anything have begun to assert itself independently of the big blocs and that’s something that New Zealanders have quite enjoyed, you know how are you going to do the balancing act here because there are New Zealanders who sort of say well ho-ho let's just treat each one of these things on their merits and we don’t necessarily fall in easily with the line.

GEORGE: Well I think that’s a two way thing, in our history we have the really quite, still quite moving record of New Zealand imposing rationing on itself in September 1939 to have more food to send to Britain that was then it's an important part of our shared history, but since then we are independent countries of each other, we didn’t follow you into Vietnam you didn’t follow us into Iraq.

DAVID: Should we have?

GEORGE: It's a choice for each country but I think that whatever about the intervention in Iraq the current position there is one which we are both in agreement with you and there are now three Security Council resolutions mandating the multi national force in Iraq, and to urging or requesting all member states to send troops there.

CAMERON: Following up on what you're talking about David is there the risk that a country like ours could find itself the meat in the sandwich say in Southern Lebanon as part of an international force and drawn into something we've had no involvement and even making decisions over.

DAVID: We'll we're already the meat in the sandwich in Lebanon, New Zealand is the Head of Mission for the United Nation's military observer team there, a number of New Zealanders are stationed in various areas of both Israel and Lebanon and on the border with Syria so New Zealand is in there already and I think that’s one of the – when I said earlier on I got fed up with the fact that we don’t actually really have a sound debate over foreign policy in defence issues, this is one of the points, New Zealanders don’t actually appreciate that we are exposed at the hard edge of international tensions and conflict and we've gotta come to terms with that whether we like it or not we're there and why are we there, what interests are we serving of our own.

CAMERON: That’s of course a broader picture I spose of UN engagement.

DAVID: Well no it's not.

CAMERON: Richard your observations too regarding this relationship.

RICHARD LONG – Columnist, The Press
Well I'd like to take the High Commissioner back to the links the traditional links that New Zealand has with Britain in a whole lot of areas, science for example I spose you could argue goes back to Captain Cook and the … but there was a beachhead programme developed a few years ago with the High Commissioner to help New Zealand business in Britain for example, how is that going and do you see yourself coming here fresh any other opportunities to develop these things?

GEORGE: I'm glad you mentioned the beachhead thing which is going extremely well but I think that is a project jointly run by New Zealand Trade and Enterprise and UK Trade and Investment, and in a way it's typical of a quite a lot of enterprises between Britain and New Zealand which are for mutual benefit, in this case it is encouraging innovative New Zealand companies to develop themselves beyond what they might find with the New Zealand market by establishing bases in the UK from which they can sell and develop their products, and I think there were 14 new companies came into the UK last year in that which helps the R&D base in New Zealand and it's companies we very much welcome.

CAMERON: Can I just bring us back ever so slightly to this issue of NATO because of the state of play in the world at the moment, I mean this thing, and George mentioned this that New Zealand could end up in formal arrangement with NATO and when we find ourselves in this very incongruous position of being a non nuclear country signed up to an alliance that committed to a doctrine of first use of nuclear weapons, are we finding ourselves in an invidious incongruous situation?

DAVID: I didn’t actually think NATO was committed to a first use doctrine, I thought it was always a situation which NATO would be prepared to respond in the event that there was nuclear hostilities.

CAMERON: Do you see it as incongruous George?

GEORGE: No I don’t and I think – I'm going back to what David was saying earlier and I agree with a good deal of it that New Zealand whether it likes it or not is involved in world affairs, it is very difficult for any country in the world to escape from the challenges that are around, we very much welcome the part that New Zealand is playing for instance in Afghanistan and I think there are now 37 countries trying to help the elected government of Afghanistan maintain its authority and the Afghan government and people of Afghanistan have a fear that as has happened in the past a country comes in sorts out what it sees as a problem and then leaves Afghanistan to fester in its problems, it's incredibly important that we stick it through this time as the overwhelming majority of Afghans want to see a government established there that is democratic.

CAMERON: And when will we see a British warship in our ports then?

GEORGE: The issue is unfortunately that the Royal Navy is kind of busy and hasn’t managed to get Auckland or Wellington or Tauranga into its busy schedule but I hope in the next six months or a year it might be possible but it has a lot on its plate, but there isn't an issue of principle.

CAMERON: And that six months to a year out of interest have you heard word of this or …

GEORGE: It's more a hope.

RICHARD: Are you concerned over this standoff between New Zealand and Washington?

GEORGE: Just to be absolutely clear there isn't an issue of principle with the Royal Navy, the Royal Navy has been here in the last few years, I would love to see them come through but it's a matter of scheduling. We would like to see any remaining problems there are between New Zealand and America resolved but I don’t think to be honest they're getting in the way of practical things as far as I can see but it's not really a matter for a British High Commissioner to be getting into too much detail on.

DAVID: I'm interested in this notion of NATO having a particularly common view on international affairs, at the moment it would see that the UK is to some extent at odds with the prevailing mood in old Europe in the sense that in regard to Lebanon old Europe appears to be firmly of the view that there should be immediate ceasefire, whereas Britain has been somewhat reluctant to express a view on that matter.

CAMERON: Do you briefly have a reply to that George?

GEORGE: I do, we attach enormous importance to getting a durable sustainable ceasefire there, we've taken the view that simply declaring it would be nice if everyone stopped isn't going to get us very far, there is a possibility out of the terrible events of the last couple of weeks that it could be used to establish a more lasting peace or moves towards that in the Middle East to withdraw what is a festering wound, and over the next couple of days Prime Minister Tony Blair is in Washington as we speak, Condoleezza Rice I think is going this weekend to Lebanon and Israel, we are expecting certainly pressing for the United Nations to meet on Monday to review putting in a multi national force which can help to get a ceasefire there as quickly as possible and look towards a UN Security Council in the course of next week on a ceasefire.

CAMERON: An international force of which New Zealand may be part. We're going to have to wrap it now George Fergusson thank you very much for coming in. Welcome to New Zealand.


CAMERON: While Noel Ingram QC's report into the actions of Labour MP Taito Phillip Field cleared him of any conflict of interest it left many questions unanswered, National wanted the matter referred to parliament's powerful Privileges Committee but Speaker Margaret Wilson has ruled that it's outside the committee's jurisdiction. National thinks her interpretation is far too narrow and is now martialling cross party support for a Select Committee inquiry, all of which raises the question is it time for parliament to adopt a code of conduct. We're back with our panellists Richard Long and David Beatson, is it time for such a code?

RICHARD: Well I would say it's probably inevitable. I'm actually against these sort of thing cos I think they're odd words, it's probably inevitable now when you see what's happened over the Phillip Field business and to go back on that as we know there is an inquiry it was sposed to last nine days it lasted nine months it cost half a million dollars and was practically worthless because the QC couldn’t talk to certain people and get certain information, the government shows no inclination to follow up the holes in the operation, the Privileges Committee hearing was turned down by Margaret Wilson on technical grounds, she's quite correct but the trouble is it leaves a bad taste and then you have the extraordinary episode this week in parliament where Don Brash moves the equivalent of nuclear warfare a motion of no confidence in the Speaker and the only time that’s been done to my knowledge before is Muldoon.

CAMERON: Yes it's an extraordinary situation.

RICHARD: And Dr Brash is by no means a Muldoon, so he's certainly riled to do that.

CAMERON: What do you think of it David?

DAVID: Well I actually think the Taito Phillip Field case is a matter where the focus has got screwed up with this – I think this is a diversion quite frankly from the whole parliamentary code of ethics. It's a question of whether or not the authorities are properly investigating matters of concern, it's a question of whether the Commissioner of Inland Revenue is properly investigating the tax issues that were raised in the Ingram report, it's a question of whether the Minister of Immigration and the Immigration Service have behaved properly in the performance of their duties and under those circumstance I think that to turn it on to the Speaker of the House who says look this is not a matter which has disrupted the orderly proceedings of the House she's quite right, and I think – you know I have little faith in the notion that some parliamentary star chamber will sort out problems relating to one MP's conduct, I don’t think that’s the way to do it, I think there is a system there to deal with these issues and it should be working and we should be insisting that it does work.

CAMERON: What are we looking at here, a purely cynical political exercise, the terms of reference for instance of the inquiry, the fact that Phillip Field represents a one seat majority, is it just an exercise in political cynicism?

DAVID: Well I don’t think it is because if it was it was pretty high risk exercise no one could really know how the Ingram report would work out at the end although there are some obvious limitations to the nature of the inquiry and the depth of the inquiry. I mean I've gotta go back and say however if you only have to read some of the codes of conduct which are required of people for instance in the Immigration Service it's quite clear, how would you like to deal with this is the code of conduct for a public servant, 'I recognise that the acceptance of gifts and favours whatever their nature and value may be or be seen to be an inducement that puts me under an obligation to a third party this may compromise both myself and the department, I understand it is a general guide gifts or favours will not be accepted except in circumstance where it would be offensive or culturally insensitive to depart, it is the responsibility of my manager to make that decision'.

CAMERON: The point being that there are clear guidelines already.

DAVID: Well no I'm saying that essentially that’s not a clear guideline but that’s what you get when you go down the code of ethics route.

CAMERON: Richard has Labour been able to salvage any sort of dignity out of this?

RICHARD: Out of the Phillip Field thing, no. I mean they were lucky in that it went off the front pages for a few days after Winston did his antics, but it has now gone back and is creating a very bad smell and you have government departments actually not following up things that were raised by Ingram, so it simply doesn’t look good and won't look any better, and it comes on top of other things, I think we should mention also that there is a general frustration in parliament you can see it and feel it, questions aren’t being answered basically and okay they never have been you can then you can argue that Margaret Wilson will say well the question has been addressed because the Minister might have just mentioned something to do with the question but the point about it is that Her Majesty's loyal opposition examining what the government is doing what the executive is doing that’s not actually working very well at question time and that actually should be looked at, I'd prefer to see it more like the British system where you get a much cleaner examination and you get better answers.

CAMERON: And what are the chances of that do you think?

RICHARD: Probably nil.

CAMERON: Well clearly this is going to run and run for some time now, we're running out of time on the subject to debate it now.


CAMERON: We're back with Richard Long and David Beatson for their closing thoughts on the week that was, what about yours Richard.

RICHARD: Well the news today is that the Labour Chief Whip Tim Barnett is going to talk Phillip Field through his actions, but that of course is just a red herring, it's no substitute for either a Privileges Committee hearing which would have been good to see, or a Select Committee inquiry, and unless this can be addressed properly then there's going to be an inevitable pressure on a code of conduct which we talked about before, I mean Canada's got it and Australia's got it, Britain's got it I think, so really – but as well as that I would like to see that extended because as we mentioned before also the question time in parliament's becoming a farce, you’ve got to have a system whereby the Opposition can get questions out of the government, out of Ministers and unless you can get that you're going to have continual disruption and the whole business is not working properly.

DAVID: Well I've got a view that codes of ethics and code of conduct will only be as good as the people who have to actually observe them, and frankly journalists have a code of conduct and a code of ethics, do either of you happen to remember one single provision from that code? How long have you got I could read it out.

CAMERON: We're naturally inclined to ethical behaviour.

DAVID: Ethics it's a county somewhere outside London isn't it?

CAMERON: Thanks to both of you for coming in and your thoughts today.


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