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Dame Alison Quentin-Baxter looks back

20 August 2015 - By Chris Ryan

Dame Alison Quentin-Baxter's career in the law has taken her far beyond the conventional law office and onto the world stage. Her fascination with policy-making, her skill in facilitating the constitutional development of small island states, and a talent for the intelligent analysis of real-life problems and looking for a way to bring law and policy together in order to solve them, have been hallmarks of her career.

Alison was born in 1929 and grew up in Auckland. Her grandparents on both sides of the family were farmers and she spent school holidays on their properties in the Waikato and the Kaipara. Neither of her parents had been to university and both were very encouraging of their daughter's progress. 

"My father was a farmer with good business knowledge. He had no hang-ups about what women could or could not do. As he grew up several women were positive role models. As the oldest of four boys he had watched his mother on their farm near Cambridge be the eyes of his father who had lost his sight." Later on, when he was learning farming, he worked for while on the Coates family farm in Northland. Gordon Coates was prime minister, and while he was busy in Wellington his farm was run by his sister Miss Ada Coates for whom Alison's father had great respect.

photo of Dame Alison Quentin-Baxter
Dame Alison Quentin-Baxter.

 "When I was about fourteen my father told me he thought that, as a woman, I would be able to do anything I wanted to do, and said 'How would you like to do law?' I started telling people who asked me what I was going to be, 'I might be a lawyer', and I enjoyed the surprise this caused!"

When Alison came to study at Auckland University College, she says she had no sense that studying law was particularly novel even though she knew there were few women lawyers at the time.

"In one class, criminal law, I was the only woman and the lecturer, who was a practitioner from downtown, would greet the class with 'Good morning gentlemen'. When we got to the part of the Crimes Act dealing with sexual offences he felt unable to talk about those in my presence and told us to read that chapter for ourselves.

"But I had a lot of support from the Dean, Professor Davis, and fortunately the law and I happened to click. I joined the law students' society, was later invited to be a member the committee and became the chairman in my final year.

"As a law clerk I did settlements around town and solicitors who seemed old but were probably about forty would say, 'What's a nice girl like you doing in a law office?' But invariably I found they would be doubly helpful if any problem arose."

When she was near to qualifying in 1951 she was offered a job as a solicitor in a good firm with partnership prospects, but had decided she did not want to spend all of her working life in Auckland. An interest in government and international affairs encouraged her to ask the department of external affairs whether it had a job for a lawyer.

"The first response was that if I had been a first class shorthand typist they would give me a job, but a woman lawyer? They were not so sure."

Mr Quentin-Baxter arrives

However, they agreed to think about it. A few weeks later she was asked back to meet the legal adviser, Colin Aikman, and was then offered a job. While she was in the interview, there was a knock on the door and a young man came in who was introduced as Mr. Quentin-Baxter. "I did not know then how fateful that meeting would turn out to be, that my career and my personal life were to be inextricably linked."

Quentin Quentin-Baxter, who would become an eminent international and constitutional lawyer, was to be her future husband. They were to work together for some years at external affairs, and later in many other parts of the world.

Alison says they both understood that the personal had to be kept separate from the world of work. "That was fine between the two of us but after we married my greatest difficulty was that we were working in the same field. We were morbidly sensitive about any possibility that I could be seen as getting jobs through my husband. But we did work very happily together, alone and with other people. If we were in a work environment we behaved accordingly, but each valued the other's constructive criticism and arguments about the issues were often vigorous. As a family, we also learnt that we could not both have a major project on the go at the same time.  One of us had to be free to do what the other had to leave undone.

"My first job in external affairs gave me a perspective that has remained with me all my life. I became very interested in policy issues, but it was made very clear to me that I must always make the distinction between questions of policy and questions of law. The two were not to be confused. Part of the job of a lawyer at external affairs was to ensure that our law conformed with New Zealand's treaty obligations, as well as general international law. That meant monitoring all kinds of legislation put forward by other departments - a never-ending task.

"The practice in external affairs was for all incoming mail and cables to be given first to a junior member of the relevant division. You then had to draft a reply or propose some other appropriate action. I was quite good at this, although Quentin, who became my immediate boss for a while, rewrote everything I drafted! But I could see why he had done so – and in due course I meted out similar treatment to more junior staff "

Head of the legal division

Alison was so successful in fact that she was made head of the legal division in 1956. By then she had twice spent several months in New York representing New Zealand in the Legal Committee of the UN General Assembly, and would later be a member of the New Zealand delegation to the early conferences in Geneva on the law of the sea. She remained head of the legal division until late 1960 when she was posted to Washington DC as first secretary in the New Zealand Embassy.

Fate intervened at this juncture.  It was around this time that Quentin, then in New York, was posted to Tokyo. "We announced our engagement to be married. As I was in Washington, I applied for leave without pay from the public service, so that after our marriage I could go with him to Tokyo, without having to resign.  In those days the public service was something of a "closed shop" that it was difficult to rejoin. But the Public Service Commission refused my application on the ground that there was no provision in the Public Service regulations for leave without pay in such a circumstance.

"I had to make a choice between staying at my post in Washington or resigning. So I put in my resignation. We returned to New Zealand, where we were married in August 1961, and then three weeks later, we left for Tokyo. I was the victim of a mind-set that did not then contemplate the possibility that a woman might want to carry on her career after her marriage to a husband who would be happy to see her do so. This has changed of course. I was just caught at a particular time in a period of social change."

Back in Wellington after two pleasant years in Tokyo, Alison looked around for work and applied for a position teaching legal subjects at Wellington Polytechnic. These were mostly in the commercial law area, which she knew little about, but the old axiom that teaching a subject is the best way to learn it certainly applied here.

Victoria University faculty of law

In 1967 Alison was asked by Colin Aikman, her former boss at external affairs and now dean of the Victoria University faculty of law, to teach in the faculty which she did until the end of 1969. In 1968 her husband also appeared in the law faculty, having been appointed to a chair in jurisprudence and constitutional law; "… so there we were side by side again".

"The university was quite happy to have us both but we seemed to have the university for breakfast, lunch and dinner! I decided that I did not want a career in teaching, particularly in the same areas of law as my husband."

Life was to change after 1970 when Alison accompanied her husband to Niue, then a colony of New Zealand, where he had been appointed as constitutional adviser to the Niue Island Assembly. This was the beginning of what was to become a theme of Alison's career – an affinity and concern for the people of small island states, and of their ability to become self governing, despite the fact that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to develop their economies to the point of self-sufficiency. She has published a number of papers on the subject and worked in several islands and island groups as an invited constitutional adviser.

"When I went to Niue with Quentin that first time, my fare was paid and it was understood that I would help with the work. That became something of a pattern whenever Quentin had the responsibility for a major New Zealand government initiative somewhere overseas. My role was accepted by officials and Ministers, most of whom knew me from my days in external affairs, but it was never suggested that I should be paid for any professional work I did in support of the current enterprise. I accepted that my role was an extension of the unpaid but nevertheless considerable contributions to international diplomacy made by diplomatic wives. Nowadays, that concept is itself problematic, as wives – or husbands and partners of either gender – are increasingly committed to maintaining their own careers when their spouses or partners are posted overseas.

"In the case of Niue, I was fully involved from the beginning. Unlike the Cook Islands, which had become self-governing in 1965, Niue had refused even to consider self-government, fearing the loss of New Zealand government support, even though it had been made clear that Niueans would continue to be New Zealand citizens." 

Drafting the Niue constitution

Professor Quentin-Baxter was able to reassure the people that they could proceed to self-government without losing the support on which they depended. Some four years later he and Alison moved to draft a constitution for a self-governing Niue. The Niue Constitution Act of 1974 and the accompanying constitution were passed by Parliament but the constitution did not come into force until after it had been approved at a referendum in Niue in September 1974. Niue then became self-governing in free association with New Zealand.

After a decade away from Niue, both Alison and her husband were invited to celebrations for the tenth anniversary of self-government late in 1984. Sadly, Professor Quentin-Baxter died suddenly in September of that year.  "I had to decide whether I should still go and after very real hesitations I did so. While I was there one of the Niuean government ministers took me aside and asked me to help them in their relationship with New Zealand."

When in 1985 a Niue Review Group was set up to examine the relationship between Niue and New Zealand, Alison was one of three members appointed by the government of Niue. She wrote a paper which emphasised that the open door to New Zealand risked draining Niue of its workforce unless living standards there were comparable with New Zealand. To that end, the review group recommended New Zealand assistance should be aimed at improving the living standards on the island.

Alison was also appointed as the member of the Niue Public Service Commission "with special knowledge of Niue". The Commission had the duty of maintaining an independent and politically neutral public service without patronage or favouritism, but taking account of the special circumstances of a small island nation.

"Niue stayed with me for a long time and I felt a special bond with the people and place. I had a sense of commitment … On our first visit we had flown in by air force Hercules with the minister of island affairs, landing on the half completed airstrip. We stayed there until the ship came to take us off so I had some idea of what it was like to live on a small, isolated island with no ready means of leaving it."

On that occasion they had travelled by the GMV Moana Roa, the New Zealand government-owned vessel which serviced the islands at the time. The 14-day voyage took her from Niue to the Cook Islands, first to Rarotonga, then to Aitutaki,  then back to Rarotonga, and finally to Auckland. "Going up and down a rope ladder when the ship is rolling in an open roadstead is always a challenge and I realised that it was absolutely essential to the wellbeing of the people and the development of tourism that Niue and other small islands should have an air connection."

Counsel to the Marshall Islands

A further opportunity to work with small islands came when Alison was appointed Counsel to the Marshall Islands Constitutional Conventions in 1977-79 and again in 1990 when the constitution was reviewed.

The Marshall Islands were part of the US Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, administered by the United States and encompassing hundreds of atolls and islands inhabited by a several distinct Micronesian peoples. The Marshall Islanders disagreed with a broad American plan to lump all the groups together in a federation. They cited significant traditional, language and economic differences in their wish to become self-governing on their own. Alison had been invited to accompany Quentin in assisting with the constitution-making, but Quentin had teaching commitments and Alison went alone.

"The first time I was there for three weeks and was deeply involved in advising at the first session of the constitutional convention. Interestingly, the Marshall Islanders had looked to the South Pacific because they were interested in a Westminster-type constitution rather than a US-style one, with an election to choose the president or governor who heads the executive branch, and the separate election of the members of the legislative branch. That had been tried in Guam and the Northern Marianas but different parties had won control of the two branches of government and it had been difficult if not impossible to resolve the resulting deadlock between them. The Marshall Islanders were looking for a more unified system.

"We worked out what would need to be done over a 21-month period if a new constitution was to come into force on 1 May 1979 as was hoped. After two referendums and a general election, as well as a lot of work on drafting and adopting a constitution, that target date was met.  I more or less commuted between Wellington and the capital, Majuro. It had its funny side though – while it had been considered quite alright for Quentin to travel overseas on his projects leaving me behind to mow the lawns, now that I was leaving him at home to cook his own chops, it was seen as very odd behavior on my part, despite the fact that both of us were comfortable with it."

The Americans were personally helpful, Alison says, but the institutional side was difficult. "I had to go to Washington a couple of times to argue over various points, but my earlier diplomatic posting there meant that I knew my way around."

She had asked that a good American constitutional lawyer should advise on the Bill of Rights – something New Zealand did not then have – and Professor Laurence Tribe of Harvard University was willing to assist. He and Alison worked closely on the role of the judicial branch of government. He came twice to the Marshal Islands, and at a later stage she met with him at Harvard accompanied by a Marshallese member of the Convention.

Constitution still in place

"Since coming into force the constitution has had its moments but it is still in place and has been made to work in ways that appear to meet the people's needs. I was always clear that they had to make their own decisions about how it should work, and  my involvement there is probably the single most satisfying professional experience I have had."

The most recent chapter in Alison's work in small islands between 2002 and 2004 was perhaps the most improbable. This was for the south Atlantic island of St Helena, once a victualling depot for the East India Company sailing ships and famously where Napoleon Bonaparte was detained in 1815 until his death in 1821.

Just getting there was difficult. On her first visit Alison flew to London, then made her way to Brize Norton Royal Air Force base in Oxfordshire for a nine-hour flight to Ascension Island. After a wait of several days for the RMS St Helena to arrive, once again at an open roadstead, she sailed for St Helena, a voyage of three days and two nights. On a subsequent visit she embarked on the RMS in Capetown, then spent five nights on the voyage to St Helena. When she left St Helena, the ship was bound for the UK, a voyage taking two weeks. An airport due to open in 2016 will no doubt bring great change.

St Helena was settled mainly by people from England, Africa, China and the Indian subcontinent. Subsequent intermarriage has produced a homogeneous population of English-speaking people who call themselves "Saints". They are British citizens with the right to live and work in the UK or in other EU countries.

Alison went there as an independent constitutional adviser to the members of the St. Helena Legislative Council, and was funded by the Commonwealth Secretariat. On her two visits, she worked with the councillors developing the principles of a new constitution providing for ministerial government. Its main features had been negotiated and agreed with the Foreign Office when the nearly completed draft constitution was put to the people in a 2005 poll. It was a premature step in Alison's view. A majority voted against the proposed changes and St Helena remains a non-self-governing colony. "The opportunity for change at that time was lost, but the draft constitution is still sitting there and some day may be picked up again and completed."

It was not all bad news – not long before going there Alison discovered that an ancestor of hers had been governor of St Helena.  "He had married a woman who was descended from one of the first English settlers, so the first time I went there I had a tea party for about 25 relations even though it was 220 years since my branch of the family had left!"

First director of Law Commission

Aside from a concern for small islands and their constitutional destiny, Alison Quentin-Baxter has been busy in many other areas over the past 60 or more years. She was the first director of the Law Commission in 1986, though she adds, "…it was just an administrative position."

"Sir Owen Woodhouse, the first president, was the chief executive but he had been looking for a "chief of staff". I met him by chance in the street and we had a long talk and then two weeks later I was asked if I would like to be director.

"There was no job description. Sir Owen said 'make of it what you can', and that was not always easy. But over the eight years I was there the nature of the job gradually emerged. In addition to the management roll, I was able to contribute to various project, and I also did some drafting when the commission was proposing a new statute."

Earlier, in 1973-74, Alison became involved in the New Zealand government action at the International Court of Justice attempting to stop France testing nuclear weapons in the atmosphere of the South Pacific, though she emphasises that her contribution was small. Quentin Quentin-Baxter had a leading role from the beginning and had been named "Agent of New Zealand" for the purposes of the case. The lawyers who took part in the case were the Attorney-General, the Hon A M Finlay QC, the Solicitor-General, Mr R C Savage QC and Professor Quentin-Baxter, Professor Kenneth Keith (later Sir Kenneth),  Mr Christopher Beeby, Legal Adviser to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Alison.  She became involved at the time of the first hearing which considered New Zealand's request for "interim measures" - the immediate cessation of all nuclear testing in the atmosphere.  When the hearing date was fixed, Quentin and Alison had been in Geneva where Quentin was attending a meeting of the International Law Commission, of which he was a member. They travelled together to The Hague.

"I was just the accompanying wife, but there was huge pressure to be ready for the hearing. Notes had been prepared for the attorney-general's address to the court but were not in an organised form.  So after breakfast one morning my husband handed me a large pile of papers, saying could you put these notes into an order that works, write a beginning and an end, and any necessary connecting bits, and have it ready by lunchtime!

"I did my best and the draft I had assembled became the working document. From then on I was treated unofficially as a member of the team. At the next hearing a year later we had to satisfy the court that it had jurisdiction to deal with the case, and also that the case was "admissible" – essentially that there was a dispute between New Zealand and France involving a question of international law. Quentin was to argue one aspect of jurisdiction. I helped him by doing some research into why France had accepted the jurisdiction of the court under its Statute, but had made a reservation excluding matters of national defence."

Alison could read French and found some information in French legal journals that Quentin was able to use. "We were back in Geneva when a telegram came inviting me to join the team officially.  So I put on my wig and gown and sat in the court with the other lawyers but junior counsel  did not speak – so that was all."

Dame Companion of New Zealand Order of Merit

Among other matters: in 1980 she completed a review of the Letters Patent constituting the Office of the Governor General; she was Counsel assisting the Fiji Constitution Review Commission 1995-96; and special counsel to the Niue government on the reform of electoral law. She was awarded an honorary doctorate of Laws by Victoria University in 2003, and in 2007 was made Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit.

In a career of 60 or more years, Alison says that there has never been a plan; events and opportunities have simply unfolded.  This is no doubt true, but overlooks the fact that she has been ready, willing and able to take up the challenges that have been presented to her.

"I was brought up to act responsibly and to do jobs on my own without supervision, once I had been shown or told what to do. The need to take the initiative was an element of my early training at the department of external affairs. I do not think I would have been much good at waiting for clients to give me instructions – I would have wanted to suggest that they take all sorts of initiatives.'

"My proactive approach does not mean that I am not committed to the law. But I have had enormous pleasure in searching for ways of making the law accord with people's needs and aspirations. And I have been so lucky in having challenging international and constitutional law questions come my way.

"It has given me great pleasure to work with other people, share ideas and collaborate in solving problems. I have enjoyed my work – I hope it has been useful."

This profile of Dame Alison was first published in Council Brief, the newsletter of the Wellington branch of the New Zealand Law Society, May 2015.

Last updated on the 20th August 2015