About Us

Dame Margaret Bazley

Photo: Mark Mitchell

The following exert was prepared by Carroll du Chateau and Cathering Masters, Saturday April 2007. 

Behind the queenly dresscode and ever-present handbag, Dame Margaret Bazley is sometimes “outrageously naughty”, according to people who have worked with her.

When they weren’t scared of her, she would have her staff in fits of laughter. They never knew quite what would come out of the outwardly prim public servant’s mouth. Or her handbag.

“You never knew what she was going to say or do next,” said a former staffer. “She used to call Parekura [Horomia] Papakura and she would not call him anything else and we used to laugh and laugh and laugh because she was so determined about such things.”

Sometimes she would pull homemade Marmite sandwiches from the depths of her handbag. “That bag is amazing, the things in that bag are truly amazing.”

Bazley’s public persona may be unremarkable but she is one of our most successful state servants for good reason. She is fierce, tough, apolitical and unwavering. Over the past decades she has carved her way through the public hot spots: nursing, the State Services Commission, the Ministry of Transport, the Fire Service, Social Welfare and more.

Even in the company of the Prime Minister, Helen Clark, Police Minister Annette King and Minister of Justice Mark Burton she showed her independence. Dame Margaret will answer questions, says the Prime Minister. No questions, says Bazley. Let the report speak for itself then let the politicians take over.

She had other things to do. Throughout a stellar career, Bazley has shown that she will take no fear or favour. This time, the determinedly faceless, old-school public servant has been required to get inside a dirty culture that thrived in some police bars and police stations, not just in the Bay of Plenty and Far North but, it seems, throughout the country.

Her 450-page report was not the slap over the wrist with a damp dishcloth some had feared. Instead, and despite two long waits during the trials that arose from the allegations of Louise Nicholas and another complainant (whose details are suppressed), she came up with a document that left no holes, no possible room for doubt about what must happen next.

The police allowed a disgraceful sexual culture to flourish and, most tellingly, Bazley was not confident they would not fully implement the long list of recommendations.

To make sure it happens the wise woman of deep public service experience has wheeled in the Auditor-General and the State Services Commission to monitor the police progress – and report it back to Parliament.

Bazley has had plenty of practise in tricky situations. Mike McEnaney, former president of the Fire Fighters Union, who worked with her during the restructuring of the late 1980s and early 1990s, found her to be “open and straightforward, with a clear and concise way of putting things across. She stuck to agreements she made at all times.”

At the time, the Fire Service was in turmoil. Ten years of zero pay increases, staff brought in to break the union contracts and huge numbers of officers to be taken out combined into a recipe for turmoil.

And, says McEnaney, Bazley was “integral to the settlement [we achieved]. If it hadn’t been someone of her ability we’d have still been arguing five years down the track.”

Surprisingly, McEnaney did not find Bazley particularly tough. “You had to have some good arguments and show you’d make a good effort, but she had a good handle on the issues – and on people as well.”

He particularly admired her ability to understand people’s various points of view – to argue and not take it personally and not to demonstrate any bias. “Though she did do a lot for women in the New Zealand Fire Service, making sure their efforts are recognised.”

Often McEnaney and Bazley would finish their week of hard work and heated battles at Westpac Stadium in Wellington, side by side in their allocated seats (his borrowed), she barracking for the Hurricanes, he for the Crusaders. “She was just like any strong person who supports the Hurricanes,” he says. “But there was no animosity [left over from the week] – on either side.”

Bazley is not uniformly popular. At the spearhead of a generation of women who had to fight to get to the top, Bazley has made enemies. Many people – including Bazley – will not speak on the record for this profile.

Certainly, during the 1980s and the surge of restructuring of Government departments, she was known as a hatchet woman – notorious for moving into organisations and sacking people – something about which she was sensitive, perhaps because as a girl her own father lost his job when the Martha goldmine closed in Waihi, where she grew up.

In 2001, when she granted a rare interview, writer Peter Calder noted that her office was sparsely furnished and that her salmon pink office sofa was fraying at the piping – apparently “a well-known symbol of her legendary abstemiousness”.

Bazley also spoke about the responsibility of the State Services Commission to help staff through the trauma of constant change. “If you let yourself suffer personal grief and trauma you’d never survive this job. I think you have concern always for what you’re doing.”

And later, “I’m quite ruthless in achieving the objects that have to be achieved. You can be all over the place and not do anything and I’m quite single minded.”

Even then she had been singled out for the tough jobs: “They’ve always been challenging, but I like a challenge. I’ve turned a few down, usually because I hadn’t finished what I was doing or because I was being headhunted from overseas.”

There was also the famous story during the 1970s, when Bazley was sitting on a high-powered Government committee and the men started moving off to lunch at a club on the Terrace. When she tried to follow, one turned to her and said, “Sorry Margaret, it’s men only”.

After they came back, she was waiting: “I gave them chapter and verse,” she said at the time.

Although she believed – and still does – that her colleagues didn’t know better, they clearly realised their behaviour wasn’t acceptable.

And they learned fast. From then on lunch was at the Public Service Club which accepted men and women.

At that time Bazley, former psychiatric nurse, was one of the first women in such a senior position. But if those men had not had to include women before, Bazley did them a favour. Within a decade, women would occupy many of the seats on those august committees. And in several cases the person at the head of the table would be Bazley.

One of her protegees was Christine Rankin, who headed Winz when Bazley was the boss of Social Welfare.

Rankin was an interesting choice considering their difference in style: Rankin with her short skirts, long earrings and outgoing personality; Bazley with her handbag, sensible clothes, home-packed lunches and habit of baking cakes for favoured colleagues, particularly incoming politicians of any party.

“I was her favourite – and then she gave evidence against me at my trial,” says Rankin, who still has mixed feelings about her old boss.

“Once, when I was making a presentation at an international social security conference in Ireland, and I was just about to start, Margaret came up to me with my earrings which I’d left on the desk where we’d been sitting. ‘Wait, wait,’ she said, ‘you must put these on’ … It was my job to charm people.

“I can remembering her talking to Rod Deane, who asked during a meeting of all her general managers, who was the best. Margaret got her little twisted finger and pointed at me. ‘It’s her. If she doesn’t get that job [as chief executive of Work and Income], I want you to give her a job [at Telecom]. I’ll be on the phone tomorrow.’ It was terribly embarrassing.”

According to Rankin, Bazley is not “the conservative little old lady we see on TV. She has always been a rebel, always out there. She’s a very tough woman.”

The split between the two came after Rankin disagreed with Bazley, who wanted the then-Department of Social Welfare to manage Work and Income’s computer program. “We wanted to be independent and manage it ourselves,” says Rankin. “And that was it. From then on she went for me. You never denied Margaret anything she wanted.”

The relationship never recovered. The final blow came when Bazley testified against Rankin. “After all the years of sending me out in my little short skirt to charm people, she said that, in her opinion my clothes were too revealing.”

“For all that,” says Rankin, who plans to reveal this in a book she is writing, “she taught me a lot and she has mothered me at times. But if you get on the wrong side of Margaret Bazley your world falls to bits. She had a reign of terror that stretched from one end of the building to the other.”

Social workers of her day had little good to say about her. Neither did beneficiaries. One of her more controversial moves was to host some of the “world’s finest minds” in the field of welfare at a conference in Auckland called Beyond Dependency.

The speakers included Jean Rogers from Wisconsin, whose state policy was to force single parents of children over 12 weeks old into work programmes. While the speakers were inside, now-Green MP Sue Bradford was leading angry protests outside.

Bradford says of the Bazley era: “My memories of her in the late 90s was that she was the driving force of an ideology that was taking us in a really dreadful direction.”

The culture was about blaming and bashing beneficiaries. The pair never met but Bradford says it would not be unfair to say that beneficiaries hated her.

Another move which did not make Bazley popular with her Social Welfare staff was ordering them not to whistle-blow. If they did, there would be consequences. She also called in the SIS to sweep her office for bugs.

The stellar state servant had quite a different career dream as a girl. Bazley set her sights on becoming a psychiatric nurse. She became one and rose quickly to the top. By the late 1980s she held the top nursing job in the country, heading the division of nursing in the Ministry of Health.

But in 1973 she was the matron of Sunnyside Hospital in Christchurch. She is regarded by mental health nurses today as one of the pioneers of her time, someone who put the humanity back into the lives of psychiatric patients.

“We like her,” says Anthony O’Brien, senior lecturer in mental health nursing at the University of Auckland. “Mental health nurses like her because she did a lot of innovative work at an early stage in the days of the old institutions when it was very hard to change things.”

When Bazley was at Sunnyside she co-authored a book on psychiatric nursing and also wrote a paper published in an international journal, a rare feat for a woman of her time.

In the paper she describes Sunnyside as an 826-bed psychiatric hospital with an acute unit, psycho-geriatric unit and villas, a unit for alcoholics, two wards of intellectually handicapped patients and a ward of disturbed female patients and male sexual deviants.

The way the hospital was run was vastly different from the days of custodial care and total segregation, she wrote. The hospital was run more as a therapeutic community and many patients had been rehabilitated into the community.

By today’s standards the achievements are routine. Then, they were ground-breaking. “A system of private-issue clothing, allowing for all patients to have their own individual clothing, chosen by them and personally fitted, has done much to improve the self-image of patients – as have modern hairstyles and cosmetics,” she says.

“A lot of money has been spent in furnishing the hospital in as near a home-like way as possible. Patients are given a say in choosing furniture and colour schemes, personal ‘possessions’ are encouraged, and every patient has the right to do what he wishes with the area around his bed.

“Traditional hospital tidiness has been dispensed with in favour of a more homely pattern of living.” There were even pets in most of the wards.

Two nurses who worked under Bazley when she was matron, in the days when juniors would stand up and almost bow when matrons walked by, described her as a fabulous woman. She was slim with a sleek bob. While one said she was a little scary, both said she was inspiring.

She was an early proponent of deinstitutionalisation, and someone who decided that psychiatric patients were also human beings and should be treated accordingly.

In 1972, Bazley became president of the Nurses Association and spoke out about how nurses should be paid a decent wage and that nursing should be viewed as a career.

She would comment later that her psychiatric nursing had helped her to manage people in the state sector. The gradual move from nursing into the state sector, though, surprised even her, according to a Herald story from 1987.

“I still sometimes wonder, as I’m trundling along Lambton Quay from the railway station, how I came to end up in one of these city office blocks when I set off in life to be a nurse.”

But also that year, her effectiveness was becoming recognised. She was named Businesswoman of the Year. What the judging panel liked was her determination to stamp out inefficiency in the public service.

Rob Brown, a general manager at the Ministry of Social Development, says Bazley is a person of great common sense. “She’s intuitive, with a fine ability to look forward to things that are coming up and what can be done to advance them. She’s not a person who sits on her hands.”

“Terrifying?” He laughs. “Oh no, there’s a little bit of mythology with her. The other thing about Margaret is that she’s absolutely honest and well respected by the people who work closely with her for that.”

And where did the “unavailable for comment” Dame Margaret Bazley go the day after she dropped her bombshell on the New Zealand police force?

In her capacity as chairperson of the New Zealand Fire Service Commission she was in Rotorua, to attend a Fire Service passing-out parade.

  • 1961-63: Charge nurse, Tokanui Hospital, Te Awamutu
  • 1963-65: Assistant matron, Seacliff Group of Hospitals, Dunedin
  • 1965-73: Matron, Sunnyside Hospital, Christchurch
  • 1973-74: Senior public health nurse, Auckland District Health Office
  • 1974-75: Deputy matron in chief, Auckland Hospital Board
  • 1975-78: Chief nursing officer, Waikato Hospital Board
  • 1978-84: Director, division of nursing, Department of Health
  • 1984-87: Commissioner, State Services Commission
  • 1987-88: Deputy Chairwoman, State Services Commission
  • 1988-93: Secretary for Transport
  • 1993-1999: Director-General of Social Welfare
  • Current: Chairperson, New Zealand Fire Service