Anand Satyanand has had some flash jobs in his 73 years — and some not so flash. Like when he worked at the Westfield freezing works to fund his studies as a law student.

But, later, there were times when you could’ve been addressing him as “Your Honour” (when he was a District Court judge) and then as “Your Excellency” (during his time as our Governor-General). For the last nine years, he’s also been the Rt Honourable Sir Anand Satyanand.

In a number of his roles, he’s carried heavy responsibilities. He’s doing so again now, as the chair of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Historical Abuse in State Care. That’s such a fraught mission, it will be exceptionally hard going.

Here he talks with Dale about his career and the task ahead of the Commission.


Kia ora, Anand. My understanding is that your life here in New Zealand came about through your grandfather migrating from India to Fiji — and then your dad heading over here as a schoolboy.

That’s right. My father, Mutyala Satyanand, came from Fiji as a school student in the 1920s. For about 40 years, the Fiji government had a scheme, whereby they sent two Indian boys and two Fijian boys to secondary school in New Zealand. Schools like Palmerston North Boys’ High and Napier Boys’ High.

My dad went to Wanganui Tech, which later became Wanganui Technical College. And he went on to do medicine at Otago University, where he qualified in 1938.

Then there was a set of unusual circumstances.

He was working as house surgeon and then as registrar at the Auckland Hospital when war broke out on the 3rd of September, 1939. He had finished his contract at Auckland Hospital at the end of August, and my mother (Tara Tillak) had come from Fiji. They were engaged to be married and were going to return to Fiji.

But two things happened. War broke out, and the man in charge of the A&E at Auckland Hospital died unexpectedly. So the hospital superintendent asked my father to fill in as a replacement — which he agreed to. And he started the following week.

Then, in early 1940, something called “manpower regulations” came into force. That meant that if you were doing important jobs like being in charge of a coalmine, or a transport service, or a hospital department, even in an acting capacity, you were locked in to that job.

My father didn’t mind because it was good experience and Auckland Hospital was a great place to work as a doctor in the 1940s. He remained there and, at the end of the war, he got a letter from the government, I think from Walter Nash, offering, because of his service, to make him a permanent resident.

And, to cut a long story short, he and my mother decided to accept the offer, partly because their children had started to arrive — and partly because they were performing a role a wee bit like voluntary vocational guidance advisors.

There were people coming to them for advice about what course they should do, or where they should live, or whether they should board. That sort of thing. By the end of the war, Fijian and Indian parents were sending their children to New Zealand, and my father was especially helpful because he could speak Fijian as well as Hindi.

So they accepted permanent residence and, a few years later, became New Zealand citizens. I had become a New Zealand citizen by having been born here in 1944, at the Bethany Hospital in Dryden Street, Grey Lynn.

You have a neat name, although I guess it would’ve been mispronounced and butchered over the years. Would you be kind enough to tell us a little bit about that name?

Well, Anand means joy and Satyanand means truth. So you could say that my name, Anand Satyanand, means through truth comes joy. Of course, it’s not a common name in New Zealand but, if you and I were in India today, particularly central India, we would come across repeats of it. Not just Anand and Satyanand, but also Ananda and Satyananda.

You and your siblings grew up here at a time when there weren’t so many people from Fiji here. Did being different mean you were subject to much prejudice?

Well, I was born and raised in Ponsonby, and then, by the time I became a teenager, we shifted to Glen Innes. So I went to Richmond Road School Primary and then Sacred Heart College. In both of those suburbs and those schools, there were some Māori and Pacific Island people, although at both schools I would be among less than half a dozen non-Europeans.

But, from an early age, my parents brought up myself and my brother Vijay to think that it was a positive thing to be different — and that we were in a country which rates people by the quality of their work, and that we ought never to feel uncomfortable or awkward about being a different colour and about coming from a different background.

When did you realise that, in some ways, Māori were being disadvantaged in New Zealand?

That’s a good question. I think I always knew that there were issues developing under the surface. In Ponsonby, for example, there were people who’d come in the first wave of Pacific Island migrants to New Zealand, in the 1950s. People with family names like Sanft and Kohlhase and Williams.

Then, in Glen Innes, where my father had become the local GP, we had Māori neighbours and friends on West Tamaki Road. Our neighbours two along were Brownie Puriri and his wife and family. Across the road from us was Bill Brown. And the local policeman was Alec Farmer.

So there were discussions, and as youngsters we heard our parents and friends talking about this matter of Māori needing to have a more equal footing in the country. It was something of which I was aware probably from a young age, but it took until the 1970s and issues like Bastion Point and the hikoi led by Dame Whina — who also was a Glen Innes person — for that to really come to life in my mind.

And, speaking of those Glen Innes days, I’m reminded of our family’s connection with Carlaw Park, which you would have had, too, as a rugby league player and fan. My father, as you may recall, was the Auckland Rugby League’s doctor — and we’d be there for the club games watching the likes of Joe Ratima and HK Emery. They were great days.

I remember at the back of the old wooden stand, the smell of liniment coming through the windows of the dressing rooms. And there was the crowd stamping their feet on the wooden floor of the stand. Those occasions were great. I don’t really think there’s ever been as exciting a place to watch football as that old stand at Carlaw Park.

You’re absolutely right there. And there was some magic, too, in Glen Innes, I suppose, in those early days when the state houses were new and we had a more egalitarian society. What was the mood of the community in those days?

I’m not the best person to answer that, because, although we lived in Glen Innes, we weren’t on a state housing precinct. We were on West Tamaki Road — the majority of homes were privately owned, and I was the older son of the local doctor.

So, sure, we had a place in the community, and we were friends of Māori and Island people who went with us to the same school or church et cetera. But we didn’t actually live and breathe state house life.

I know you considered medical school but ended up studying law. And, in the course of your legal career as a lawyer and then as a judge, you’ve no doubt been troubled by the size and the imbalance of the prison population and by the way New Zealand has developed as such a punitive society.

Yes. As soon as I entered the law proper, particularly when I decided to fashion myself into being a court lawyer, it became clear that there were a significant number of Māori people ending up in court and in prison.

When I practised law, I would argue cases for the Crown and against the Crown. I acted for people charged with crime in cases in front of judges as well as juries. But I’m bound to say that, as a young lawyer, I was keen on fashioning myself into being as good an advocate as I could be, I have to confess, without being a philosophiser about how come there were so many people in this predicament. At that time, I just wasn’t focused that way.

There was a lot going on in the ‘70s. Not just Bastion Point and the Land March, and not just here but a significant mood for change overseas, particularly in the United States with the Civil Rights Movement.

Yes, there were these shifts going on, like with Martin Luther King Jr and the Black Panthers in the US and the racial difficulties in the UK that led to the Brixton riots, and so forth. But, back here in New Zealand, there were also some significant markers. Dame Whina and the hikoi, for instance. The demand for no more sales of Māori land. And Dame Rangimarie Naida Glavish saying “Kia ora” when she answered the phone at the telephone exchange, and then being reprimanded for that. In their time, they were all markers.

But one of the personal influences that I benefitted from was working very closely as a law clerk, then as a lawyer, and, in due time, as a judge, with Mick Brown. He was, in my day, as good an advocate before the courts as you could find. He could stand and debate and persuade and argue in a magnificent fashion. And it was no surprise to me that he was one of the earliest appointees to the newly expanded District Court in 1980.

Then, two years later, partly as a result of his counsel, I became a district court judge, too. Mick had come from Te Aupōuri in the Far North and was fostered and brought up in Auckland. As a boy, he’d been a patient at the Wilson Home but, despite his limp and his gammy knee, he played cricket up to the senior level and was a hugely well-regarded schoolteacher before he took on law as an adult.

Another significant development has been the Waitangi Tribunal. What would you say of its influence?

Well, Māori people have reasons for grievance, and the challenge for our government has been to provide a way forward from that. And the Waitangi Tribunal is a very good example of a vehicle which enables people of Māori origin to bring forward notions that the principles of the Treaty have not been adhered to — and that this should prompt a declaration or a recommendation.

Matiu Rata was a significant player in achieving that situation. So, too, was Koro Wetere. And then, later on, Parekura Horomia on the one side, and Georgina Te Heuheu on the other, helped ensure that the grievances experienced by Māori people are being attended to.

In other parts of the system, there are a number of Māori people who have advanced into significant positions in the judiciary. There have been Justice Eddie Durie and Judge Ken Mason, as well as Mick Brown and, more recently, Justice Joe Williams and Justice Christian Whata.

And then, in the District Court, there’s a number of people with a Māori background who are now regular judges.

For a long time, there were rather few brown faces on the bench. Happily, it’s different now.

You’ve had a remarkable career because, as well as your years as a lawyer and judge, you were an ombudsman for 10 years and then our Governor-General for five. There must’ve been any number of high points in that time. But I wonder if you can single out one or two.

I’ve been lucky to have had an interesting career as a lawyer. I really enjoyed being an advocate. The judicial life was absorbing, too, and I had the responsibility for beginning judicial orientation and judicial education programmes. I also worked on the Parole Board, which gave me a look at the importance of people being integrated back into the community after their release from prison.

But that was all a kind of lead-up to the ombudsman period because, as an ombudsman, you have to be inquisitive and to investigate and to work out what has gone wrong. It’s different from being a judge. A judge has a set jurisdiction and a limited number of powers, so if somebody proves their case to the correct standard of proof, the judge is entitled to enter judgment in their favour.

By comparison, an ombudsman has unlimited jurisdiction and can inquire, look, read, to find out about something. But there are no powers except persuasion. And, at the end of an ombudsman inquiry, it’s for the ombudsman, with the benefit of being able to speak directly with people, to persuade the players that the way you have assessed it is perhaps the solution — and that the solution lies in their hands, rather than in the ombudsman making an order. So I found that a fascinating 10 years.

Let’s turn now to your current role in heading the inquiry into historical abuse of children in state care. How did you feel about being asked to take on this job?

First of all, I was really surprised because I’m well into the retirement phase. Not inactive, but I hadn’t expected to be fully engaged professionally. It was immediately obvious, though, that this was a very large and important item. So, after some intense thought, and after discussion with my wife, I decided that this was something where I had the background to be able to make a contribution.

What do you know, or have you known, of the process that saw so many of our Māori people in state care?

That has become more obvious as I delve into this. It seems that, along with the urbanisation of Māori beginning in the 1940s and ‘50s, many Māori children were facing new circumstances and stresses. And child welfare officers made findings that these children would be better catered for by being made state wards. So they were sent to these state institutions.

Whereas many received a reasonable education and a reasonable start in their lives, we now know that a significant number didn’t. A significant number were neglected and the subject of abuse, both physical and sexual. And those people have been really damaged. As a result, survivors of that abuse have made their views known for a long time now.

And the government has said we’ll have a Royal Commission to enquire into this, to work out what happened and why — and, if bad things are found, how they might be avoided in the future.

There was some hesitancy about undertaking an inquiry of this nature. Is it a sign that, as a country, we’re maturing, in that we’re now trying to unravel the hurt and to speak openly about it?

I think it is. It’s hard for people to speak about the neglect and abuse they have suffered because of the deep hurt and shame. But, if the Royal Commission is able to provide an avenue for these people to tell their story — confidentially, if necessary — and if the Royal Commission can make findings, future generations will be in a better place than the present day people are.

Many of those who’ve kept their stories sort of inside for all these years, have had kids who’ve had kids — and sadly there’s been intergenerational dysfunction. So, as a result, perhaps you’re doing this work as much for the little ones as for those who’ve directly suffered the abuse?

Yes. This has been a repeating thing and, equally sadly, a lot of those people subjected to neglect and abuse have ended up on the wrong side of the health statistics, and the prison statistics, too. And they’re among those who have died prematurely — and among those who have taken their own lives.

It’s a really serious, deep-seated problem. And it’s one that needs an approach that will provide atonement, and a way forward for these people.

Understandably, there are many people mistrustful of the system, of the government, of anyone in authority. So we have the challenge of opening our doors in such a way that people will feel they can come forward — and can speak openly. And in a Māori context or a Pacific context, too.

I’m sure you’ve heard some dark stories about what various people have done over the years. Has that made you somewhat battle-hardened? Or have you had to work at protecting yourself against the harrowing stories you’ve heard, or that you’ll encounter during this inquiry?

That’s a good point. There will be harrowing stories which my colleagues and I will hear — and we’ll need to take good care of ourselves. There have been similar situations with inquiries in Australia and Canada and elsewhere, and I imagine that we will engage with psychologists and others able to provide assistance if need be, because it is stressful and can be damaging.

Leading up to this inquiry, you’ve been asking people what they thought the inquiry should look at — and the shape it should take. That’s not always how it’s done, is it? They’re mostly conducted from the top down. But you’ve deliberately asked for input in advance. How important was that to you?

It’s very important, and it’s part of the new law that New Zealand passed in 2013, whereby things like Royal Commissions can have an initial phase where the chair is invited to have public consultation about the terms of reference.

I’m very pleased to say that, as a result of the media exposure, notably on radio and TV, we’ve had more than 350 submissions, even though it’s a complicated subject. I think that’s remarkable. You would expect the entities like the Law Society and the Salvation Army and other organisations to make submissions. But the response from so many individuals has been remarkable.


This interview has been edited and condensed.
© E-Tangata, 2018

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