I have to admit that on hearing Cindy Kiro was to be the next Governor-General, my reaction wasn't positive.
As I recall, she made little impact in her five years as Children’s Commissioner, a position to which she was appointed by Helen Clark's government.
She seemed to come out of nowhere and when her term expired, she withdrew into relative obscurity. The next the public heard of her, if they noticed her at all, was when Jacinda Ardern’s government made her a dame in the most recent New Year Honours. We can now see this was a necessary preliminary step before announcing that Kiro would be the next tenant of Government House.
Even so, yesterday’s announcement came out of the blue. A common reaction might have been: Cindy Kiro – really? Is she still around?
The immediate, and crucial, question was whether she was chosen because she was the best available person for the job, or because she was Maori and a woman – in other words, to send a virtuous signal to the world about what an inclusive, bicultural government Ardern runs. (I suspect much the same motive lay behind the appointment of Nanaia Mahuta as Minister of Foreign Affairs, though it’s possible she may yet surprise us.)
Much has been made of Kiro’s Maoriness and sex (“our first wahine Maori Governor-General!” Newshub gushed excitedly), but these should be irrelevant. They have no bearing on her ability to do the constitutionally crucial job she’s taking on.
A perusal of Kiro’s CV wasn’t encouraging. For starters, she lacks legal qualifications, which once seemed to be considered a pre-requisite in vice-regal appointments. But to be fair, that’s not necessarily an impediment; neither did Keith Holyoake, Paul Reeves (at least as far as I know) or Jerry Mateparae.
Even less promising is Kiro’s background in social work and academia. This may endear her to a government overloaded with people from the same professional caste, but these are not obvious credentials for someone who will effectively function as our head of state. (Speaking of which, can someone please explain to Kiro that the Queen, not the G-G, is officially the head of state? It’s a pretty basic point, after all.)
I note that my very respected fellow blogger, Lindsay Mitchell, is sceptical about Kiro’s appointment. Lindsay says it’s political (well, yes it is, as is every decision governments make, and this one especially), and reminds us that Kiro’s performance as Children’s Commissioner wasn’t one to inspire confidence.
Neither was it encouraging that in an interview yesterday, Kiro said she will be working for people who can’t speak for themselves and don’t have a profile. That’s not the Governor-General’s job; that’s for politicians. The Governor-General is supposed to be above politics.
Perhaps, having been thrust into the media spotlight, Kiro felt compelled to say something that sounded inspirational. She has until October to change gear mentally.
But hang on a minute. Having heard her interviewed by RNZ’s Kathryn Ryan this morning, my reaction to Kiro’s appointment has softened.
She came across as intelligent, personable, thoughtful, warm, grounded and articulate – a woman of some depth, which wasn’t evident in her last high-profile job.
She came from a humble background but didn’t make a big deal about being disadvantaged by it. Both are points in her favour.
One thing in particular impressed me. She said at one point: “We [meaning New Zealand] have a history we can be proud of.” That’s a welcome antidote to the poisonous rhetoric of identity politics, which seeks to persuade us that ours is a shameful society built on injustice and discrimination.
Kiro didn’t come across as an ideologue, which was refreshing. She admitted having “briefly” been radicalised as a student, particularly over Treaty issues, but said she was sharply put in her place by her grandmother, who forcefully reminded her that Maori have solemn obligations under the Treaty too.
Oh, and one other thing impressed me. When Ryan asked what Kiro's role would be when contentious issues such as Maori rights to water came up, she replied without hesitation: “To stay out of it.” If she sticks to that line, she shouldn’t go too far wrong.
Okay, a cynical view is that it was a masterful PR performance, calculated to reassure us that we shouldn’t feel threatened by her appointment, but I prefer to take Kiro at face value.
We’ll never know whether there were other people on Ardern’s list of prospective appointees with better credentials on paper (I’m sure there were), but perhaps we should give Kiro the benefit of the doubt for now.
Then again, perhaps I’m going soft in my old age ….