Twelve Questions: Dame Catherine Tizard

Former Mayor of Auckland and Governor-General Dame Catherine Tizard last week launched the first Glenn Inquiry anti-violence report - while helping to plan her own funeral.

Dame Catherine Tizard, who says she once had to teach Helen Clark how to dress, talks of her happiest times including a long-running mayoral affair. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Dame Catherine Tizard, who says she once had to teach Helen Clark how to dress, talks of her happiest times including a long-running mayoral affair. Photo / Brett Phibbs

1. You've been at the gym this morning: how often do you go?

Our objective is three times a week. I do the bike and rowing machines. I had let myself get very unfit after a hip replacement. [Daughter] Judith goes around saying to people that if there were medals for an aversion to exercise, "Mum would [have] an Olympic gold". It's true. I have been lazy and I'm suffering the consequences of it now - walking sticks, being stooped, arthritis, I suspect. But I am 83. You have to expect something.

2.You're looking lovely: has appearance always mattered to you?

I actually don't care what I look like any more, as long as I'm respectable. I've still got a big wardrobe but I was just thinking today I haven't been shopping for about three years. I wear trousers and tops all the time. It's comfortable. The last time I wore a skirt was to my granddaughter's wedding. I suppose if I was having afternoon tea with the Queen I might put on a skirt.

Or I might not.

3. Helen Clark did do the royal trouser-suit first, so perhaps it wouldn't be inappropriate?

Well, there's another story. We had to teach Helen to dress. She was friends with Judith and came to live with us for about two years in the 1970s, before she was in Parliament. She became part of the family really and then she met Peter. I remember a Sunday night meal and Margaret Wilson was there with others and Helen said she wanted to bring this chap around. Peter's pretty quiet and he's in the middle of this group of loud, stroppy women. Helen always wore corduroy pants and T-shirts and it was quite an effort to persuade her that if she wanted to go into politics, the way she looked was important. I had to take her to buy a suit to get married in.

4. You met your husband Bob at university and he was your lecturer. Was that frowned on?

It didn't seem to be in those days. It was 1950. I'd failed his history paper and he asked me why, then he asked me out for lunch. Not long after he took me home from a dance and said, "I'm going into politics and I'm going to marry you". I said, "What party?" If it had been the wrong one I might have said no. My father was a lifetime member of the Labour Party which was a big thing in a small farming town [Waharoa] where they nearly all voted National.

5.Have you been a good mum?

I tried to be and even now I keep my tongue between my teeth quite a bit at Judith's perennial lateness. But I was not a martyr. I'd married young, at 20 and had a baby by 21. I had four children in five years and an absent politician husband so life was a bit busy. I tried to take lessons from my own mother on how not to do things. My parents were Scottish immigrants, Presbyterians, who were kind and I think loving but my mother's way of disciplining me was to send me to Coventry. She would ostracise me for something I'd said or done but never explain. It could last three or four days, this freezing out, and it was painful. I vowed never to do that to my own children.

6. You were Mayor of Auckland for six years: what do you think of the current one?

I supported Len Brown when he ran and I still do. I did, however, whisper in his ear, "You stupid f***wit" when I first saw him after that affair.

7.You and Bob divorced in 1980: have you been happier in a partnership, or alone?

Bob and I just outgrew each other. We still ring one another from time to time and we had his 90th birthday party here recently. I have been happy both ways [together and apart]. I've had a pretty happy life. I had a love affair once too, when I was mayor. Neither of us was married but we were together for seven or eight years. We really loved one another, I think. Everybody knew about it but I'm not telling you his name. It was a very happy time. And I had some happy times with Bob. I would never want to live with anyone else now, though. I'm never lonely.

8.When in your career have you been happiest?

Government House, I suppose. No work to do, well, no housework anyway. Didn't have to iron your own clothes. Functions - they can stop being fun but I'm a naturally gregarious person. I enjoy people. Someone to write your speeches. Do your washing. Nice house. "What Madam wants, Madam can have!"

9. Are you the last person in New Zealand to get a mobile phone?

Actually, I was one of the first. I sat next to [businessman] Rod Deane at a lunch and I saw him with this big brick of a phone. He said, "Have you got one of these?" and I said no, so he sent me one. Now I can't be bothered with them. I've had lots but I've lost them or given them to grandchildren who've lost them. I do a lot of email and I now have an iPad which I have to learn to use.

10.Why did you stay with the Glenn Inquiry when everyone else seemed to bail?

Everyone else didn't leave. Quite a few people left but I thought if I also threw my hat out of the ring at that stage it might damage the ongoing inquiry. And there were good people involved. I didn't know Mr [Owen] Glenn when I was asked to be patron but he was putting up a lot of money and it seemed to me like a very worthy objective. And it is a splendid report. It's called The People's Report and that's what it is. Violence is New Zealand's dirty secret.

11.Are you still Presbyterian?

No. The belief just sort of dwindled away from me after I became a mother. I don't mind the word atheist. It doesn't mean I don't believe in good. No, I don't fear my own funeral. It's being planned now actually. I'd be in line for a state funeral but I've asked if instead the money could be spent on a free lunchtime concert. [Dame] Kiri has said she'll sing if she's in the country. There'll be some classical and some lighter stuff like Cabaret. No, I won't be on the stage. I think I'll have been safely disposed of by my family by then.

12. What would you like your legacy to be?

Oh crikey. She wasn't such a bad old tart? That to the best of my ability I tried to do some good, tried to make people's lives better in whatever way I could? Without sounding sanctimonious about it. Perhaps just that I tried not to do any harm.

- NZ Herald

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