OBITUARY: Sir Robert Munro
Wednesday 23 August 1995
Munro's was one of the handful of white faces among the silent mourners. He was there to re-state publicly his belief in the rightness of the democratic process and his abhorrence of militarism in his adopted land; and to mourn the passing of a short-term Fijian head of government whose concept of public service and multi-racial leadership by example he admired and supported.
Bob Munro came from a distinguished and versatile New Zealand family with Scottish origins. His maternal grandfather was a direct descendant of John Knox. He and two of his four brothers were products of Auckland Grammar School, that crucible of scholarship and sport. One brother, Leslie, was editor of the New Zealand Herald; New Zealand's Ambassador to the United States and its first son to be elected President of the United Nations.
After taking a law degree at Auckland University College and becoming a barrister and solicitor in 1929, Munro went to what was to be the Suva law firm of Ellis, Munro, Warren and Leys. Fiji was his home for 65 years; and he worked, often voluntarily, but always with passionate advocacy, in its interests. In the process, his activities became broad and diversified.
Munro was appointed the founder Chairman of the Fiji Broadcasting Commission in 1953. It was a microcosmic model of the BBC, going out in English, Fijian and Hindustani. Munro was Reith-like in his defence of the Commission's public service duty and inde- pendence from official interference or pressure - a world away from the present instrument of an insecure government. "It was great fun at the FBC," Munro said later. "I wrote the policy before we started, with programming ideas from the BBC, NZBC, the ABC, VOA and elsewhere. We had letters from many countries asking for the low-down on broadcasting nationally, multi-racially and commercially. I found management and staff too operatic in temperament, and they had never heard their own programmes when something went wrong." The birth pangs and tough early years of the FBC all but consumed Munro. Then he found another pioneering venture of quite different kind to which to devote his extra-legal energies.
For 24 years he was first President of the Family Planning Association of Fiji; and for nine years of this also Regional Vice-President of the International Planned Parenthood Federation. He spoke for Fiji and the South Pacific at regional and international conferences designed to bring home to delegates and their governments the awesome consequences of uncontrolled national and world population growth.
Munro was gratified when the new Prime Minister of independent Fiji, Ratu Mara, invited him in 1970 to become the first President of the new Fiji Senate. For 12 years he presided over its multi-racial business, developing its character and procedures with dignity, humour and quiet impartiality. "Looking back," Munro said, "the Senate could have been more effective in my 12 years. I did not succeed in getting any of the members to make adequate use of questions and motions or to ad lib in debate. Inaccurate press reporting was a problem at times. On one occasion the senate debated Mrs Gandhi's proposed visit and next day the Fiji Times gave me three inches of quotes. But I had not spoken beyond putting the motion. I suspended the Fiji Times from the gallery for three months to their deserved chagrin."
Munro's interests ranged from sport - he had captained the New Zealand hockey team - to literature, music and his garden. He was President of the Fiji Law Society for two periods during its more secure years; and many a short-shipped Norwegian sailor found his way to the Norway Consular plaque outside the office of his law practice. His tall, angular physique and inclined head gave an impression of avuncular trustworthiness and concern for the maintenance of integrity, accountability and compassion in the conduct of public policy.
In his personal life, Munro was a private man. An "old-fashioned" family head with firm ideas about paternal example, he was greatly sustained by his wife Ragnhilde (Ranee), who shared and encouraged him in all his public activities. He is survived by her and three children: Michael, who joined the New Zealand Department of Foreign Affairs; Margie, like her mother, a trained nurse; and Alistair, a teacher who chose to work among the Maori people.
Robert Lindsay Munro, lawyer, administrator: born New Zealand 2 April 1907; Member, Fiji Education Board and Education Advisory Council 1943- 70; Member, Fiji Legislative Council 1945-46; Founder Chairman, Fiji Town Planning Board 1946-53; Founder Chairman, Fiji Broadcasting Commission 1953-61; President, Fiji Law Society 1960-62, 1967-69; CBE 1962; President, Family Planning Associ- ation of Fiji 1963-87; President of the Senate, Fiji 1970-82; Kt 1977; married 1937 Ragnhilde Mee (two sons, one daughter); died 12 July 1995.
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