Page 1: Biography
Laking, George Robert
Diplomat, departmental head, ombudsman
This biography, written by Ian McGibbon, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2019.
George Laking was one of New Zealand’s key twentieth-century public servants. In a career lasting more than 40 years, he was adviser on international relations to successive governments and an important diplomat during the Cold War. After his retirement from the public service he had a second influential career as an ombudsman and in law reform.
Born in Onehunga, Auckland on 15 October 1912, George Robert Laking was the second of five children of tailor Robert George Laking and his wife Alice Francis Wilding. Brought up in a strongly Methodist household, he remained a lifelong churchgoer (though he eventually became an Anglican). Following primary education at Onehunga and Te Papapa, Laking attended Auckland Grammar School, where he was an able student.
On 18 February 1929 he joined the public service as a clerical cadet in the Customs Department, which at that time had some responsibility for external trade relations. He studied part-time at university, initially accountancy and then law, graduating from Victoria University College with an LlB in 1935. As a Customs clerk, Laking shuttled between Auckland and the department’s head office in Wellington, to which he returned in March 1939 to work in the field of import control. He sang in a Bible Class quartet with Alice Evelyn (Patricia) Hogg, whom he married in Wellington on 13 April 1940. They had a son and a daughter.
Second World War
Noted for intelligence and initiative, Laking quickly made his mark in the Customs Department, earning promotion to assistant examining officer in 1940. The following year he won a two-year public service administration scholarship and began studying for a Diploma in Public Administration (DPA) at Victoria University College. Japan’s entry into the Second World War in December prevented him from completing the course. Called up for home defence service on 20 January 1942, Laking was withheld on appeal but directed to work in the food controller’s office in the Marketing Department instead. Within days, his former Customs colleague Foss Shanahan, head of the Organisation for National Security in the Prime Minister’s Department, had secured Laking’s services as his assistant. He was soon an integral part of the wartime administration.
In 1943, as part of a reorganisation that led to the establishment of the Department of External Affairs, Laking was formally transferred to the Prime Minister’s Department. With the two departments effectively unified — they were both headed by Alister McIntosh from 1945 — he found himself engaged in a range of external matters, eventually being given the rank of second secretary (diplomatic). In December 1944 he made his first overseas trip, to Western Samoa and the Cook Islands, with Peter Fraser, the first visit to Apia by a prime minister. After serving in New Zealand’s delegation to the final meeting of the League of Nations in Geneva in April 1946, he visited Berlin, which provided ‘a disturbing introduction … to the reality of war’.1 Later in the year he visited New York and Washington for meetings of the League’s successor, the United Nations (UN). In the late 1940s he oversaw New Zealand’s interests in the Australia–New Zealand Secretariat and UN trusteeship matters, especially relating to Western Samoa. In 1947 he went to Samoa with a UN special mission and attended the meetings in New York that discussed its report. By 1948 he was responsible for the administration of the two jointly-managed departments.
London and Washington
Laking’s first diplomatic posting was as counsellor in the New Zealand embassy in Washington, where he arrived in January 1949. Responsible for the embassy’s administration among other things, he impressed Ambassador Sir Carl Berendsen with his sound judgement. Laking continued to be involved in trusteeship issues, representing New Zealand on the Trusteeship Council in 1949 and 1950, and for three months in 1951 visiting Ruanda-Urundi, Tanganyika and the former Italian Somaliland as a member of a UN mission. In the absence of Berendsen’s successor, Leslie Munro, he became de facto ambassador in Washington in 1954. It was a valuable experience, not least for the high-level contacts he made. He was part of the New Zealand delegation at the conference in Manila in 1954 that resulted in the Manila Pact, from which emerged the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization.
Laking returned to Wellington in March 1956 as acting deputy secretary of external affairs, and focused on improving the department’s administrative structure. In 1957 the newly-elected Labour government under Walter Nash procrastinated in appointing a high commissioner in London and a senior official was needed at the high commission there. Nash appointed Laking deputy high commissioner and official secretary on 24 July 1958. For the rest of Labour’s term in office, Laking acted as high commissioner, dealing with the ‘imminent and possibly cataclysmic threat’ to New Zealand’s economic well-being posed by Britain’s flirtation with the European Economic Community (EEC).2 He negotiated a trade deal with the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) and in 1960 was appointed ambassador to the EEC. Laking also represented New Zealand at independence ceremonies in Nigeria and Jamaica.
In 1961 Keith Holyoake surprised Laking by appointing him New Zealand’s ambassador in Washington. As ambassador, Laking relished his return to the US capital, and the task of expanding New Zealand’s profile in a vast country. Travelling extensively, he undertook numerous speaking engagements. He represented New Zealand at the funeral of assassinated President John F. Kennedy. Of perhaps greatest significance was his encouragement of a New Zealand military role in the ill-fated campaign to prevent South Vietnam falling under communist domination. In advising a reluctant Holyoake that a contribution to the allied effort there was necessary to maintain the ANZUS alliance, he reinforced arguments McIntosh and the military authorities were already making in Wellington. He remained in the Washington post until 1967.
Foreign Affairs and Prime Minister’s Department
As an experienced official, Laking was touted as a possible head of several departments in the early 1960s, but he was not tempted. With the more senior Shanahan having died, he was McIntosh’s heir apparent, and in early 1967 he was appointed secretary of external affairs (from 1969 secretary of Foreign Affairs) and head of the Prime Minister’s Department. He proved an effective adviser to Prime Minister Holyoake, though later admitted that their relations were ‘perfectly amicable but not close’.3
Laking brought to the role a judicious, pragmatic and clear-headed approach, as befitted a senior civil servant conscious of his constitutional responsibilities to provide impartial advice to the government. He was also open to a wider vision of New Zealand’s place in the world than existed among the public and the government, whose eyes remained firmly on London. His long service in Washington, unparalleled among career diplomats, had convinced him that ‘the world had changed profoundly and that, if New Zealand was to have any place in it, that would not be achieved under the cloak of old associations’: New Zealand must look beyond its comfortable relationship with a fading Britain.4 He was convinced, especially by controversy over Vietnam and Omega (the 1968 plan to establish a US Navy navigational station in New Zealand), that the department must do more to inform the public on foreign policy issues than had been the practice under his predecessor. In a major change of approach, he began speaking about such issues and briefing journalists, always with great care not to enter into debate on government policy.
Laking deftly steered the prime minister through the complicated shoals of withdrawing from Vietnam, adjusting to Britain’s reduced presence in South-east Asia and redefining New Zealand’s relationships with both Europe and China. Among the most difficult issues that confronted the government and its advisers was the planned South African rugby tour of 1973, strongly supported by the public but likely to damage relations with African countries and result in civil unrest in New Zealand. In his final year in office Laking’s role was complicated by having to serve two masters: when John Marshall became prime minister on 7 February 1972, Holyoake continued as foreign minister.
Although mandatory retirement loomed in October 1972, Laking reluctantly agreed to Marshall’s request that he serve on until after the general election, which to his surprise the Labour Party won in a landslide. He assisted the new prime minister, Norman Kirk, during the transfer of power and in dealing with the urgent issue of diplomatic recognition of the People’s Republic of China in the aftermath of US President Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to Beijing. Among his last acts before relinquishing his posts on 31 December 1972 was ensuring, with Kirk’s support, that long-serving colleague and friend Frank Corner succeeded him as secretary of Foreign Affairs and head of the Prime Minister’s Department. But his hopes of being appointed high commissioner in London came to nothing.
Laking later described the next three years as the worst of his life. He offered his services to Kirk in August 1973, but the prime minister was in no hurry to accept, perhaps put off by Laking’s social links to prominent National Party luminaries. Kirk eventually invited Laking to open an embassy in Iran, but died before the plan could be implemented. In the meantime Laking tutored in law at the Technical Correspondence Institute, chaired a regional committee for the Educational Development Conference in 1974, sat on the board of the New Zealand–United States Educational Foundation and helped direct the company Command Services (later Crothalls).
In October 1975 Chief Ombudsman Guy Powles, looking for a successor, secured Laking’s appointment as the second ombudsman. Laking duly succeeded him as chief ombudsman on 6 April 1977. From September 1978 until his retirement in October 1984 he also served on the new Human Rights Commission, a role that he later described as a ‘dreary saga’ and his ‘penance’.5
For nearly a decade Laking immersed himself in the problems of accountability of public servants, and the transparency of government processes and privacy in an age of burgeoning digital technology. He served as the first privacy commissioner for the Wanganui Computer Centre housing the criminal database and other information on citizens in 1977–78, developing procedures for individuals to access information held about them. As ombudsman, he contended with two major changes — the extension in 1975 of ombudsman jurisdiction to cover local authorities and the assumption of responsibility in 1982 for reviewing complaints against denial of official information requests. He largely defined the process by which his office carried out the latter task, which greatly increased its workload. Of liberal bent, sympathetic and compassionate, and determinedly approachable, he took seriously the need to protect the rights of ordinary citizens in the face of an ever more intrusive and imposing state. Police accountability proved an especially vexing issue. His report on police treatment of protestors during the 1981 Springbok rugby tour bolstered the case for an independent police complaints authority. Throughout his term, he assiduously educated the public on the ombudsman’s role, speaking to audiences all over the country.
Laking also became heavily involved in law reform. He sat on the Public and Administrative Law Reform Committee from 1980 to 1985 and chaired its successor, the Legislation Advisory Committee, from 1986 to 1991. During this period, Laking grappled with legal issues relating to the sale of alcohol. He chaired a working party whose 1987 report ushered in a major change in New Zealand’s alcohol legislation, opening the way for a seismic shift in New Zealand’s drinking culture by introducing a simpler, more liberal regime. Later, he chaired a working committee that revised the country’s customs legislation, reducing the status of the department in which he had started his career.
In keeping with his belief in the need to better inform the public about foreign policy, he spoke often at seminars, conferences and meetings. Active in the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs after his 1972 retirement, he presided over it from 1979 to 1984. He also chaired both the Wellington Civic Trust (1985–86) and New Zealand Oral History Archive Trust (1985–90).
A colleague later described Laking as ‘a courteous but formidable personality, leavened by a sardonic sense of humour’.6 To others he was a ‘dry raconteur’, who ‘sat motionless with hooded eyes upon a lily pad and every now and then his tongue lashed out and caught a fly’.7 Above all, he was a consummate public servant, always conscious of his role as an impartial advisor and executor of the government’s policy or as Parliament’s officer. Discreet, detached and trusted, he used his behind-the-scenes role to exercise great influence on a range of international and domestic policies.
Laking was appointed a companion of the Order of St Michael and St George in 1969 and promoted to a knight in the same order in 1985. He died in Wellington on 10 January 2008, aged 95. Patricia, whose own contribution to his diplomatic and public service careers was substantial, had died in 2004.