• Dame Judy McGregor in her shared plot at Ngataringa Organic Gardens.
  • Dame Judy McGregor in her shared plot at Ngataringa Organic Gardens.

Dame Judy McGregor

– activist, advocate, academic

Devonport resident Judy McGregor received a CNZM for services to journalism in the 2004 New Year’s Honours. She is now Dame Judy McGregor, honoured with a  DNZM for services to human rights and health this year, a highly regarded academic and human rights advocate, and the immediate past (and last) chair of the Waitematā District Health Board. Christine Young traces her career – and discovers a hidden passion for gardening. 

Dame Judy might have remained and been a highly respected journalist throughout her career if she hadn’t been sacked from the Murdoch-owned 'Auckland Star' as its third to last editor. But ever the rebel as well as an achiever (she was suspended from school while a prefect for speaking out) she “didn’t want to take the paper tabloid, which management wanted,” she says. “It was in terminal decline anyway. I had been studying law part-time and I went home to Palmerston North (John and I married and he was editing the Manawatu Standard – we commuted for about seven years from Auckland) and I finished my law degree at Massey University where I began teaching journalism and communications.”

She became a professor at Massey University and helped start the Massey campus at Albany, using business and community contacts she had from living on the North Shore.

She still regards journalism as providing her with a strong foundation for her future career. “Journalism is an honourable and professional skill that has helped me with whatever job I’ve had. It helps you write clearly, develop finely honed intuition for those who fudge facts, and it is a great skill to have for advocacy roles,” – roles she has relished since she left journalism.

 Her dismissal effectively offered an opportunity for career change, and Judy made the most of the opportunity.

At Massey, Judy completed a PhD in political communication; shortly afterwards, she was appointed to the first of two five-year terms as the first Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner with the New Zealand Human Rights Commission. This role perfectly suited Judy’s penchant for both advocacy and activism. “I had always been involved in gender activism around issues like the right to abortion and women’s representation and participation in governance and management. I had also developed a keen interest as an editor and as an academic in ensuring young Māori and Pacific people had opportunities to become journalists, and worked with the NZJTO (New Zealand Journalism Training Organisation) and Mana Māori Media on training programmes.”

She could have added her support for the Māori land march in 1975 and the 1981 Springbok tour marches as earlier examples of her activism, an ethos developed even earlier: “As a youngster I was taught that if something was wrong or worth fighting for you had to speak up and more than that, take action.”

Among many other achievements as EEO Commissioner, in 2012, during the statutory inquiry into employment issues in the age care industry, Judy went undercover and worked as a carer before completing a report published as ‘Caring Counts’. This experience still resonates with her. “[It] showed me how under-valued health care assistants and carers are in New Zealand, and still are, as they continue to fight for pay equity and a reasonable wage. During Covid, New Zealand relied on nurses and carers to keep older people and others safe. We owe them decent pay. A pay equity claim has just been lodged and I believe carers should be paid at least a third more than their current rates, to compensate for the hard physical job they do, the dirty work, and the emotional labour that is involved in caring for frail and vulnerable people every day.”

Next step was an appointment at AUT University (where she is now Emeritus Professor) as professor of Human Rights. Judy explains this appointment as being a result of the work she did during her time as EEO Commissioner, working for the UN and the Asia Pacific Forum teaching communications strategies to new human rights institutions in countries as diverse as Mongolia, Palestine, Jordan, Malaysia, and the Maldives, as well as doing work in the Pacific (Samoa, Tonga and the Solomons) in climate change reporting.

At AUT she co-authored a paper on human rights titled ‘Human Rights in New Zealand: Emerging Faultlines’, identifying five critical issues to be addressed including women’s rights, equal pay, child poverty and the over-imprisonment of Māori.

In 2016, Judy received the Women in Governance Award. The citation says she was “well known for promoting board diversity, both locally and internationally and has for many years been considered the ‘eminence grise’ for women directors in New Zealand”. It was another well-deserved award. Throughout Judy’s academic life she not only researched women in governance and management but encouraged other women to research and write in the field, as well as to join boards.

“My interest began when I was the first woman to edit a major modern New Zealand newspaper and saw how few women there were at the top. For many years I published a census report for the Human Rights Commission that audited NZX-listed companies in terms of women on boards. I think the research, which had high factual integrity and named and shamed, began to shake some of the boardroom old boys’ clubs. We also looked at the legal and accountancy professions, local government, trade unions, the defence forces, the media, and sports organisations. I think boardroom diversity has become normalised in public dialogue now, but women everywhere should [still] be alert to equality of representation and participation, whatever they do.”

Next career step was her appointment as chair of the Waitematā District Health Board, succeeding Lester Levy in June 2018. “One of the reasons I said yes,” explains Judy, “was so there was one female out of three board chairs in the Auckland metro region. While I had knowledge of health workforce issues, I had a very steep learning curve to understand other areas of the health sector.

“Waitematā is not only the biggest by population size, it also has extremely strong community networks both on the North Shore and in West Auckland. The strength of the Consumer Council, of the iwi partnership board Kōtui Hauora, and the strength of the Well Foundation, made me realise the expansive scope of health service delivery in hospitals and in community services. The experience reinforced my belief that women in health – nurses, carers, doctors, administrators – are under-paid both in parity and equity, and while it is slowly being addressed I can understand the frustration of health workers. Chairing Waitematā showed me every day how incredibly fortunate we are to have committed, caring and compassionate health staff who go to work, whether it is a pandemic or not, to try and help people and their families and whānau. While the media narrative of DHBs is often one of individual victim stories, I was struck by the huge support the public showed through letters and emails for the care they received from the public health system. I think those of us living on the North Shore are proud of our hospital and want to see it and Waitākere Hospital grow and develop.”

That role, of course, finished at the end of June this year as the new Pae Ora (Healthy Futures) Act disestablished the 20 DHBs and established four new entities: a new public health agency; Te Whatu Ora – Health New Zealand to lead and coordinate delivery of health services; Te Aka Whai Ora – the Māori Health Authority; and Whaikaha – the Ministry of Disabled People.

While Judy enjoyed her time as board chair, she says that the arrival of Covid meant that it was more hands-on and time consuming than she had anticipated. She was more than ready to take a break by the beginning of July, and while she admits to needing to adjust to days without the structure of a regular schedule, she is now enjoying swimming more often, and getting into the outdoors with “wonderful tramping girl-friends”. (They are doing Paparoa track in November.) She is also an “addicted gardener” at home and in a shared allotment, and is “very keen” on New Zealand art.

It may seem that she is slowing down, but don’t expect Dame Judy to slip quietly into full retirement. “I read and write. I hope to do a small equal pay book in the next year. Emeritus Professor means you’ve gone but retain some research or teaching interests!” she quips.