Guy Richardson Powles was born at Otaki, Horowhenua, on 5 April 1905, the son of Jessie Mary Richardson and her husband, Charles Guy Powles, a sawmiller. His father, who had fought in the South African War, was to serve with distinction in Palestine and France during the First World War, and became chief of staff of the New Zealand army in 1923. Guy attended Island Bay and Thorndon schools, and then Wellington College, where he was an enthusiastic senior cadet and became platoon commander. He joined the Territorial Force Regiment of New Zealand Artillery in 1923 and was commissioned as a second lieutenant three years later.
Known by his friends as Dick, Powles studied law at Victoria University College. In 1927 he completed an LLB and was admitted as a barrister and solicitor of the Supreme Court. He then joined the law firm Brandon, Ward and Hislop, later becoming a partner. On 20 January 1931, in Lower Hutt, he married Eileen Nicholls; they were to have two sons.
While at university Powles had been a prominent debater and represented Victoria on a tour of the United States. He was a foundation member of the executive council of the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs in 1934, and became the institute’s secretary. He was also chairman of the editorial committee responsible for publishing Contemporary New Zealand (1938).
In 1940 Powles transferred from the reserve of officers to the New Zealand Artillery. The following year he joined the New Zealand Temporary Staff and in 1942 he was appointed to the New Zealand Staff College, where he attained the acting rank of lieutenant colonel. In response to his request that he be posted overseas, in July 1943 he was appointed to command the 144th Independent Battery, 3rd New Zealand Division. After a period in New Caledonia, the battery was transferred to Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. On 15 February 1944 Powles, now a major, led his men in the Allied assault on Nissan Island. In April the battery was disbanded and he commanded the artillery draft that returned to New Zealand. He was attached to the branch of the adjutant general in Wellington, and in December 1944 was appointed director of personal services. He was posted to the retired list with the rank of colonel in 1946.
Powles’s interest in international affairs led to his being asked by the Department of External Affairs to join an informal working party on issues arising out of the Japanese surrender. He was seconded to the Prime Minister’s Department in December 1945 and appointed first secretary (later counsellor) to the New Zealand Legation in Washington DC, where he was alternate New Zealand delegate on the Far Eastern Advisory Commission (soon to be replaced by the Far Eastern Commission). In this capacity Powles visited Japan in January 1946, where he was profoundly affected by the devastation caused by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and incendiary bombing of Tokyo.
Powles worked with the Far Eastern Commission in Washington until November 1948. He once described the commission as ‘my baby’ and his published dispatches to Wellington evidence his skill with the written word and his willingness to take an independent position. He favoured a less harsh treaty with Japan than his department in Wellington, arguing that Japanese industry had to be revived to help rehabilitate the East Asian economy. He was able to press this view with, he claimed, some effect when he accompanied Prime Minister Peter Fraser to the British Commonwealth Conference on the Japanese Treaty Settlement held in Canberra in August–September 1947.
When the New Zealand government moved in 1946 to bring Western Samoa under the trusteeship system of the United Nations, Samoan leaders petitioned for self-government. This prompted Fraser to establish a council of state, comprising a New Zealand high commissioner and three Samoan fautua (chiefly advisers); Guy Powles assumed the post of high commissioner in March 1949. He was able to establish a close relationship with the two surviving fautua , Tupua Tamasese Mea’ole and Malietoa Tanumafili II, and together they oversaw a series of constitutional changes that culminated in the establishment of the independent state of Western Samoa on 1 January 1962.
Ministers and officials in Wellington were not always ready to respond to Powles’s firm initiatives, and he found it necessary to apply constant pressure to maintain the momentum towards self-government. At the same time, he was working with skill and sensitivity – and a growing appreciation of Samoan culture and tradition – to prepare Samoans for the responsibilities they were about to assume. He and his wife, Eileen, won their respect and high regard. However, the strength of Powles’s personality and his heavy involvement in Samoan affairs led to a change of high commissioner in the run-up to independence, and in 1960 he was appointed New Zealand high commissioner to India. He had been made a CMG in 1954, and in 1961 he was knighted for his services to New Zealand and Western Samoa. Later, in 1993, he was to receive the Order of Tiafau, a high Samoan honour.
While in India, Powles was also accredited as high commissioner to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and as ambassador to Nepal. He chose to return to New Zealand in 1962, because he and his wife, Eileen, were having health problems after their long period in the tropics. At that point the newly established post of ombudsman became available, and on 1 October 1962 Powles was unanimously appointed to the position by the House of Representatives.
New Zealand was the first country in the English-speaking world to introduce the office of ombudsman. Based on Scandinavian precedents, the office was designed to provide an avenue of redress to individuals with a legitimate grievance of unjust, unreasonable or discriminatory treatment by public officials. When he was sworn in, Powles claimed that he was ‘Parliament’s man – put there for the protection of the individual, and if you protect the individual you protect society’. Initially, he faced suspicion from the public service and politicians. However, the methods he evolved for handling complaints, which were investigative and consultative rather than adversarial, combined with his independence and concern for ‘fairness, reason and fairplay – with not a little compassion’, won acceptance for the office. Ministers and the public service came to welcome the protection it offered.
Powles also succeeded in establishing the public credibility of the ombudsman, both in New Zealand and overseas. He realised that the office had to be sufficiently well known to attract complaints from all strata of society. He faced prime ministerial opposition to some of his publicity proposals, but the detail of his reports to Parliament and his willingness to explain his work by public addresses and writing helped to build confidence in the office and his management of it. He was in demand for addresses abroad, and lectured widely on his work and on related themes of administrative justice. The concept grew rapidly, and by 1998 there were over 230 state or national ombudsmen in 85 countries.
Government confidence in the office became such that the ombudsman’s responsibilities were extended to cover hospital boards and education authorities (1968) and territorial and other local government authorities (1975). From 1971 to 1973 Powles was also race relations conciliator. He undertook special inquiries into the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service (SIS) and the Auckland maximum security prison at Paremoremo. Designated chief ombudsman in 1975, he retired on 5 April 1977. In September 1976 the International Ombudsman Conference, meeting at Edmonton, Canada, carried a unanimous vote of appreciation and respect for Sir Guy Powles. From May to October 1978 he was resident consultant at the International Ombudsman Institute in Edmonton.
In his speeches Powles frequently developed the theme of the rights of the citizen. For him the final end of the state was to make men and women free to develop their faculties. He believed that this freedom carried with it the right of dissent and protest. Critical of conformity and apathy, he called for the understanding, recognition and practice of the principles of dissent. In his view, the only moral restraint on protest and civil disobedience was that it should be non-violent.
Accordingly, Powles did not hesitate to express views on public issues and showed an extraordinary willingness to become associated, often as patron or president, with a wide range of organisations and groups. His experience in Japan led him to argue that nuclear weapons were contrary to the laws of God and of man. He gave enthusiastic support to the campaign for an International Court of Justice ruling on the legality of nuclear weapons. He was a patron of the New Zealand Foundation for Peace Studies, the New Zealand section of Amnesty International, the Environmental Defence Society and the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand, and was a member of the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship. He also took a prominent part in the Coalition for Open Government, and advocated legislation to free up access to official information.
Powles maintained his membership of the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs and was its president in 1945 and again from 1967 to 1971. He was closely associated with the International Commission of Jurists based in Geneva, being vice president of its New Zealand section from 1963 and a commissioner from 1965. A founding member of the New Zealand Commission of the Churches on International Affairs (1964), he later served as a commissioner of its parent body. He was also a consultant to the New Zealand Commission of the Churches on Human Rights and a member of the council of the International Institute of Human Rights, Strasbourg.
The South Pacific continued to be a focus of Powles’s interest. He organised New Zealand’s South Pacific Year 1971, was a member of the Lepers’ Trust Board, and was patron of Samoan and Tongan university students’ groups. He was also a patron of the New Zealand India Society. Victoria University of Wellington conferred an honorary LLD on Powles in 1969, and in 1979 the Wellington District Law Society elected him as an honorary member. In 1990 he was made a member of the Order of New Zealand.
Powles was a practical idealist. His military background and legal training gave him an analytical approach and a respect for conformity and discipline that could amount to rigidity. On the other hand, his humanitarian instincts, curiosity and sense of fairness led him to become a liberal activist, a characteristic that prevailed as he grew older. All of this he tempered with a quiet sense of fun. Sir Guy Powles died in Wellington on 24 October 1994. He was survived by his wife, Eileen, on whose support and understanding he relied during a happy marriage, and by his sons.