Focus on David and Jan McDowell

FE16_McDowell1-2One of the more interesting things about Ōtaki is the diversity of its inhabitants. Once upon a time it was market gardeners, farmers, iwi, retired folk and a small population scratching out a subsistence. Next month we have a Kite festival, and an indigenous film festival. Scratch the surface of Ōtaki and you’d be amazed what you’ll find.

Today, we profile a diplomat and public servant who has rubbed shoulders with some of the great names of the twentieth century, who now lives with his wife in retirement in one of Ōtaki’s grandest old houses.

David McDowell grew up in the Manawatu, tramped and fished in the Tararuas, went to school in Palmerston North, distinguishing himself in athletics and rugby. An old mate recalled ‘McDowell was so tall he could always get the ball in a lineout’. His mum wanted him to be a doctor, so at Victoria he included the four science intermediate units in a B.A degree, but changed course and gained a Masters degree with Honours in History. His dad, a research chemist suggested he respond to advertisements for diplomatic trainees so along with over 100 hopeful graduates he applied to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and was – to his surprise – one of three appointed.

FE16_McDowell2In those days, training was haphazard, and David was expected to learn ‘on the job’. The office of 90 staff was on the Prime Minister’s level in parliament buildings, and his first task every morning was to collect the milk crate, which meant he often bumped into Keith Holyoake on the stairs. Today it wouldn’t be so informal – Foreign Affairs staff number over 1,000 and they occupy their own silo. David had married Jan Ingram, a Gisborne girl, and they were soon off on their first secondment, David as external affairs adviser to the Prime Minister of Samoa. His Wellington boss, Frank Corner said that he was to ‘be a Samoan for 18 months, your loyalties are to Samoa’. Taking his boss at his word, David integrated himself into the Samoan public service – and also played two seasons of rugby in Samoa, the only Palagi to do so. (All went well until at the end of the last game of the season he was knocked out in the process of scoring a try. A big fight ensued while our subject was being resuscitated. Foreign Affairs were advised ‘we are sending back damaged goods’). Before leaving David had been closely involved – on Samoa’s behalf – in helping negotiate the Treaty of Friendship between NZ and Samoa. The now-retired McDowell went back to Apia last year for the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Treaty signing.

A year later in 1964, David and Jan were off to New York where he would be the first secretary to the NZ mission to the United Nations. Much of the South Pacific was still under colonial rule, and at the age of thirty David McDowell was thrown in the deep end. He worked to smooth the way to independence or self-government for the colonial territories including the Cook Islands and Niue. New Zealand was on the Security Council for a one year term in 1966 where David had responsibility for following African and Middle East issues. These were major preoccupations of the Council at that time.

FE16_McDowell1The posting lasted four years, but within fifteen months of returning to Wellington the McDowell family (now numbering five with the addition of three children) were posted to London, where David would be the Special Assistant to the Commonwealth Secretary-General. The SG, a brilliant Canadian, had a soft spot for Kiwis, demanding ‘another one’ to replace his departing NZ assistant, Gerald Hensley. (After McDowell, there were two more NZers, so the Commonwealth has been well-served by Kiwi secondees). These were interesting times. The Commonwealth was in a state of disarray. Rhodesia was in ferment under Ian Smith, and would eventually, with substantial Commonwealth resources including NZ peacekeepers, become Zimbabwe. Malaysia had split with Singapore, India 愦灭;amp; Pakistan were virtually at war over East Pakistan’s desire for more autonomy from Islamabad, and the nasty civil war in Nigeria over Biafra’s attempt to break away was underway.The activist Secretary General got the Commonwealth involved in all of these conflicts in one way or another. It was a hectic time for the Secretariat. In hindsight, his close association with the Secretary General and the work David thus became involved in gave him a unique opportunity to work with and for the good and the great, not to mention the occasional rogue, among Commonwealth leaders. He made lasting friendships and contacts across the globe among his contempories.

Back in NZ in 1972, he accompanied the new Prime Minister Norman Kirk to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Ottawa the following year. Kirk had just been elected, and was asked by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in a closed session of the meeting what his big problems were. Kirk said there were two: he had to knock the public service into shape, so that they adjusted to working for a new and very different government. And, secondly, he said, ‘I have many backbenchers, and I don’t know what to do with them.’ British Prime Minister Heath said, ‘Oh, set up dozens of select committees愦灭※ and put them on the select committees and make them work. Keep them out of mischief that way,’ Did it work? David, the perfect Sir Humphrey, would not elaborate.

In 1977 the McDowells were off to pre-coup Fiji, where he was to be High Commissioner. He recalls three busy and productive years though there were sufficient contentious issues between the two governments to keep the High Commission well occupied. Back in Wellington in 1980, at the age of 43, David McDowell found himself an Assistant Secretary with a whole raft of issues to address.Then, at the age of 48, he was given the prestigious posting of New Zealand Ambassador to the United Nations in New York. For three years David 愦灭;amp; Jan were heavily involved in the demands of multilateral diplomacy and found that the UN had changed much since their first posting there.Two of their daughters were studying there and all enjoyed New York, and the opportunities it offered.

Then in 1988 he came back to Wellington, and was appointed Director-General of the Department of Conservation. DoC was formed in 1987, as one of several reforms of the public service, to integrate conservation functions of the Lands and Survey, Forest Service and the Wildlife Service. 34% of NZ’s land area and much of its sea areas and offshore islands come under DoC’s jurisdiction. When David took over, government had lopped 1/3 off DoC’s budget reducing it to $101 million (today DoC’s budget is $452 million) Staff had to be reduced by a fifth while the number of regional offices had to be reduced from 34 to 14. David found the Department’s positive mandate to advocate for conservation a substantial motivating factor for staff somewhat demoralized by the budget cuts.

Against his own inclination – since he felt that his work in DoC was unfinished – David McDowell was asked to leave DoC to head up an expanded Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. Geoffrey Palmer was PM at the time, then Mike Moore, and then Jim Bolger. A primary task was to build up the advisory component of the Department so that successive PMs were provided with independent advice on the large issues of the day as briefing for Cabinet discussions and decisions. While his restructuring experience in DoC stood him in good stead he found that there was much internal resistance within the bureaucracy to the enhanced role of PMC and it took several years for the wider role to be accepted by other Chief Executives.

After three years running the PM’s department, David was ready for a change. He wished to go back to Foreign Affairs, and in 1992 was appointed Ambassador to Japan, a time he and Jan remember fondly: ‘They’re very direct and frank, once they trust you’ he said of his relations with the Japanese and the culture is fascinating. Japan has had a warm relationship with New Zealand for several decades now, respecting our independent views, and the McDowells enjoyed their two years there.

David recounts a farewell dinner organised by his wife. Dame Malvina Major was visiting Japan, and graciously agreed to sing for 120 guests. Ten Kiwis in Tokyo as teachers of English were recruited as waitresses.After 40 minutes of grand opera and some lighter pieces, the reception room was swiftly transformed into a dining room, followed by an immensely successful meal attended by colleagues, Japanese politicians, officials, businessmen and their wives. Such occasions are both fun and highly productive in cementing useful contacts says David.

While still in Japan, David was approached to consider becoming Director-General of IUCN, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, a Swiss-based global organization working in the field of nature conservation and sustainable use of natural resources. It is a unique organisation, being a GONGO, that is having both Governmental and civil society institutional members who vote in separate houses in the Four Yearly Congresses, the latter being the largest regular global meetings of conservationists. In addition there are six technical Commissions of volunteers from around the world who contribute to drafting such iconic publications as the Red List of Endangered Species. While reluctant to leave Japan prematurely the McDowells decided to accept this last challenge and spent five years on what David says was the most demanding of all his jobs. It involved, for example the over-turning within two years of the IUCN Budget so that instead of most of the resources being spent in headquarters the reverse was achieved, with two thirds of the funds being channelled to the global regions. The field programmes expanded substantially as a result. It was a fulfilling experience to be working on a global level, says David

And what role has Jan played in all the above moves? Apparently the role of spouses has been under review in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for several decades. Jan was involved in the review process in its early years. She says that for most of her contemporaries the role of a diplomatic wife (as it was in those days) was a mix of privilege and deprivation: privileged and rewarding in the sense that there were wonderful opportunities to meet and become friends with local people in the countries of posting who might otherwise be almost inaccessible to foreigners. The deprivation of having to raise a family (four children) away from their own close –knit families and friends back home and in a foreign educational context, in having to move the family many times just as they had settled into a new country and made a new set of friends. On balance, she says, the pluses well outweighed the minuses though David was often away on long trips in Africa, Asia, Latin America or the Pacific. Jan completed her training in three different university systems but at that time spouses were not permitted to take on fulltime employment overseas. That has all changed now, Jan says – and probably for the better – though “I did enjoy the many and varied roles we fulfilled in those days and we are still in touch with friends from all the countries we lived in.”

On retirement in 1999, David and Jan set about restoring their historic Ōtaki house. Built by the D’Ath family in 1906, on an acre overlooking the Domain, the house today is without doubt one of Ōtaki’s finest. They bought it in 1991, before they went to Japan. With sensitive upgrading and refurbishment, it is a private refuge, surrounded by majestic mature trees. David’s office allows him privacy and a view overlooking the Domain, where on a Saturday afternoon he can watch rugby games instead of getting on with his memoirs.

In his retirement, David is a trustee of Te Reanga Ipurangi, a trust involved in provision of Chromebooks to Ōtaki school pupils to promote digital teaching and learning. He is a member of an international team which has monitored for 18 years the social and environmental impacts of a large dam in the central highlands of Laos.

What’s good about about Ōtaki, I asked?

  • The diversity and approachability of people here.
  • The dimensions of the place after a life in big cities.
  • The adoption by the mokopuna of the venerable old house – and the Labrador -as the place to return to for family occasions.
  • The weather, so much better than Wellington’s.
  • The seascapes and the beaches.
  • The Tararuas, so familiar from childhood days.
  • The birdwatching opportunities.

One grandson is named Manutai, which in te reo translates as ‘coastal wader’. David can be spotted in the Waitohu estuary where he says he will see dotterel, terns, herons, spoonbills, skylarks and other birds, exotic and native.

Next time you spot a birdwatcher at the beach, it might be a retired diplomat!