Tasked with scrutinising the agencies of state, Peter Boshier says being chief ombudsman is all about fairness and empathy. Michelle Langstone finds outf how life has prepared him for the role.
Portraits by Edith Amituanai.
Peter Boshier was robbed at knifepoint in a home invasion in Suva in 2002, had his eye severely gouged, and didn’t know if he’d live through the ordeal. At the time the judge was on an 18-month secondment to Fiji, to work in judicial training. He didn’t expect the incident to impact on his work, but it did. “I think it’s quite good for me to have been a victim,” he says. When police came to question him and his wife about the two men who robbed him, he couldn’t remember anything about what they were wearing, or what they looked like. In those moments between life and death, he froze. “It taught me to be less harsh on people who didn’t have a clear recollection of an event that happened.”
Back in New Zealand, presiding in court around adversarial lawyers who wouldn’t accept victims’ claims that they couldn’t remember, Boshier changed the way he allowed lawyers to question victims: “I used to stop lawyers in their tracks after that, who had given victims a hard time. I used to say: you can ask, but not as harshly. I don’t want you doing that, that’s not fair.”
Peter Boshier is finely attuned to fairness. He spent several decades as a lawyer and a youth and family court judge, and now he’s chief ombudsman, a job that deals in ensuring fairness. Boshier says that once upon a time, the expectation of the role was to just get the job done, and perhaps: “To be seen and not heard in an ivory tower.” But now, under his leadership, the chief ombudsman and his office are making an effort to be public facing, transparent and communicative.
Essentially the job is to independently investigate complaints against government agencies. Boshier’s team have been responsible for investigating everything from the Ministry of Education’s process around school closures, to the Covid-19 lockdown conditions in prisons this year. Last week the office came out with its report into the Oranga Tamariki child uplifts, an area Boshier says he has “lived and breathed” in his life as a judge. He’s witnessed firsthand the impact of unsettling childhoods on outcomes for everyone involved. I ask him if he saw a lot of difficult things during his time in family court. “Yeah,” he says simply, looking down at his hands, then up at me with the expression of someone who holds those memories close to him “Yeah.”
Peter Boshier’s face runs with deep grooves, like the trunk of a tree. It’s a face of character, one you could imagine on someone who spends a long time out at sea, or working the land. If he weren’t wearing a sharp suit and colourful tie, and if his voice weren’t so modulated and articulate, you could easily imagine the chief ombudsman in another kind of vocation all together.
We sit down in a bland conference room in the Auckland office, and Boshier turns his laser-like focus on me, still in his chair, and thoughtful. When I ask him questions, he often has several answers, and canvases exactly how he will answer before he does so. The years of needing to communicate clearly have not worn off. He says my name frequently, maintains eye contact throughout, and is measured and considerate. His only concession to informality is that he says “gotta” instead of “got to.” It feels like something from his upbringing, a little kink he couldn’t iron out with years serving as a judge.
Boshier, the youngest of three children, grew up in Gisborne: “I saw the social issues around me. We weren’t wealthy, we were poor. You made do, and you used resources, and I think you have a deep sense of appreciation, not of entitlement.” His upbringing has deeply informed his work in court. He is familiar with how dispossession at a young age can impact the arc of your trajectory; he saw it all around him growing up, and he saw it in his own mother, who he speaks about with fondness: “My mother, always a very intelligent person, but, a child of the Napier earthquake, and so her career, or her potential, was severely impacted by the earthquake, and a large amount of dislocation. The kids were split up and sent off with relatives to live for some years.”
Despite her difficult start, or perhaps because of it, Boshier’s mother was always ambitious for her kids, encouraging them to strive. She was the one who told him he could succeed in law. “I came to law school feeling that I needed to put my heart and soul into this, this was not just going to fall like an apple off a tree. So right the way through I felt that you need to work really hard to achieve something.”
Knowing how easily his life could have taken a different path, in court with young offenders he always tried to see the person in front of him, not just the misdemeanour: “You’re trying to see that you’ve got someone who’s gone off track, that it’s not as if they’re a hard criminal at this stage. So what should the response be? Should it be a punishment, or should it be a reprimand, and a wish to get that person turned around?”
Boshier is a believer in restorative justice, and that family is crucial. In 2000, dissatisfied with the outcomes for youth in the Auckland court where he resided, he helped create the Tamaki Pathways Trust for at-risk youth. The trust’s aim was to help young kids who were just starting to offend, in the hope it could turn them around. “When there was an outcome in the youth court, we made sure that it happened. We got that person into their community and people who were available to help them were actually teamed up with them, instead of people walking out of court and nothing happening.”
The trust was based out of Glen Innes, and formed with assistance from Ngāti Whātua, and the officer in charge of the Glen Innes police. Boshier is philosophical about humanity, and at heart an optimist: “I want to say to myself that inherently we are good” he tells me, pressing his fingertips to his heart with a light touch. “We’re all born good, I would think.”
Boshier is not someone to settle on a situation that could be improved, and he’s shown that in his time as chief ombudsman as well: “We were slow as a wet week!” he jokes, of the state of the ombudsman office when he arrived in 2015. Back then there was a staff of 70 and a backlog of files stretching to 640. Now there are 140 staff, and they’re on top of the workload. There has been a Māori advisory group set up, which Boshier is quite delighted by. “I now have these very feisty, wonderful Māori women like Dame Naida Glavish who give me a hard time! And they do it in a lovely, direct, honest fashion, that’s no holds barred and I like it, because I know what they’re saying.”
The ombudsman’s office worked the whole way through the first Covid-19 lockdown; inspectors were out making an effort to get into correctional facilities to check inmates were receiving the appropriate care while the prisons were trying to prevent Covid-19 from spreading. Recommendations were made around the prisoners being able to access fresh air more regularly. As we head into our second lockdown, Boshier is confident those recommendations will be carried out: “I think prisons will be upholding good practice because the chief executive of Corrections makes a point of communicating with me often … We will ensure that no matter what level New Zealand operates at, we will maintain meaningful oversight of all of the places of detention.” The second lockdown is business as usual for Boshier and his team: “We want to work throughout, no matter what level we are on, as normal.”
He’s having a busy year, but it’s nothing compared to the pressure of his former role in court, where every day the schedule was overloaded: “I’d turn up and want to do the really best I could, and then I found that I was never going to be able to … I found that stressful. The imbalance of me wanting to be the best I could for people, and finding that if I did that, I was never going to get through the work. ”
The chief ombudsman role is different to his former career, in that you can “control the flow” of the work, and streamline processes much more efficiently, says Boshier. The job has “gotta be one that’s all things to all people. You can’t just be for instance a lawyer applying the law. That’s only part of it. You’ve gotta be a human.”
I get a sense from Peter Boshier that he never wants to let anyone down. In his time as a judge he pushed not only for youth, but for the Pacific Island communities he felt were at a disadvantage in the court system. He’d been doing youth court work in Manukau, and seeing a lot of Pasifika kids coming through: “We weren’t reaching what had affected them. Where do you fit in in terms of your country? Where are your parents? What is their connectivity?”
He felt they were being failed, by not having their culture understood and acknowledged within the judiciary process. In 2000 Boshier travelled to Samoa, to do work around family violence in the community. Samoa was already in his heart, because of friendships he had formed in his early days as a lawyer. The work was a privilege he says. He was given an honorary matai title of Misa, and it’s clearly something he cherishes. Our photographer, Edith Amituanai, tells him she’s from Falelatai, the district where Boshier’s matai title comes from. There is a tangible shift in his demeanour, and he expands with appreciation.
He’s come over all sunny, and I ask him when his love of the Pacific began. “You know when you’re a little kid, and you’re looking through your parents’ attic? There were these photographs of the war in the Pacific and these shells,” he says, his blue eyes very bright. His love for the Pacific was “seeded” as a little boy, hearing the stories his father told about being stationed in Vanuatu (at the time, the New Hebrides) in the second world war.
The first time Boshier visited Vanuatu, he made sure to go to Luganville, where the NZ base was stationed in the war, and where his father spent such an amazing period in his life. He broke off a chunk of the old airstrip for his dad, he tells me, miming holding something in gently cupped hands: “I brought it back and put it in a box for him. There were tears down his cheeks.” There is silence after this, and I notice Boshier’s own eyes have filled with tears. His expression is one of mild surprise, but also acceptance; he loved his dad.
There’s a lot of empathy and consideration in the way Peter Boshier expresses himself. I don’t know why I’m surprised by that, but I am. It’s heartening to see someone carry their knowledge into a new role, reflect on the things they could have done better, and implement those ideas. It feels as if Boshier is always looking for the lesson. When I ask him what he’s most proud of achieving during his time as ombudsman, the first thing on his list is the outlawing of tie-down beds in prisons. After a report into the treatment of five prisoners back in 2017, tie-down beds were finally removed last year for good. The process took too long, which angered Boshier, but the result was significant from a human rights perspective. It’s one of several occasions as ombudsman that Boshier has looked after the welfare of prisoners..
It must be an unusual feeling, going into the prisons that he sent people to as a judge: “I guess it makes me aware of the enormous responsibility that the system has in sentencing people.” Boshier agrees it would be valuable for our court judges to see inside the places they send people. It may affect the incredibly high rates of incarceration in New Zealand. He tells me about a friend of his, a judge in Fiji, who overturned a decision in court: “There was a contested bail decision, so he went to Suva prison to have a look for himself at what the conditions were like. He said: ‘I’m not going to do this. I am not sending someone to that place.’”
That’s an example of a judge being sensitive about a person’s welfare, he says, which isn’t always possible in an overloaded court system. It comes back to seeing every person as a human being. Empathy is a driver for Boshier. “I think the job of leaders is to make sure that there is empathy to the people under their watch. It’s easy to be arrogant. It’s so easy to exercise power and control.” He hopes his staff feel the Office of the Ombudsman is led by empathy. It is, he says, “Probably one of the best jobs you’re ever likely to do.”
Boshier is six months into his second five year term as ombudsman, and he’s happy to continue as long as he can. He sees the position as a “potent” one that can bring true change, and hopes the public feel confident bringing their concerns to the office. “I’m really driven. I want, when I leave this job – whenever that is – I want the office to be just as respected as it always has been, if not more so. What really matters to me is that as many New Zealanders as possible think that this is a great place to go, and we’re proud of it.”
When I signal that our interview has come to an end, Boshier instantly turns back to Edith. He’s under time constraints, but still chats away, sharing anecdotes, and looking at the photos she has taken, clearly chuffed to be in her company. As he’s being bustled up by his communications manager he takes a moment to show us out, and to exchange words in Samoan with Edith. I can see the pleasure it gives him to speak the language again. He walks away with a broad smile on his face.