A Kiwi at the Top

1962 Postcard of the United Nations building

It felt like being in a fairytale. There I was, a country bumpkin on the 37th floor of the United Nations Building in New York, interviewing a man second only to Secretary-General U Thant himself.

When I left my job at The Press, Christchurch’s morning newspaper, to go abroad in 1962, the paper’s editor handed me a list of names. “These are New Zealanders who have done something interesting with their lives. Track them down and send me back some interviews,” he said.

On the list was Bruce Turner, Controller of the UN Secretariat. In a letter to parents, I described him as “A typical Kiwi cUN postcard backharacter, in spite of the smooth polish of diplomacy. Very shrewd, and a hard-case sense of humour. We waited in his beautifully appointed office on the 37th floor while he concluded an urgent meeting on the Congo, and even while we were there, there were at least 10 interruptions – news coming in all the time of countries deciding to buy bonds to support the Congo operations, missions to authorise and statements to sign. He has control of all the financial side of U.N. – which in effect means the whole show. Meanwhile we joked about where in N.Z. he would retire – decided on Tauranga [my home town] because it was near his friend in Hamilton who owned a brewery.”

UN clipping

I was pleased to receive a byline for this story. The photograph is by Tony Eppstein.

Here’s a transcript of the interview.

1962 Bruce Turner interview

Eminent New Zealanders seem to go in for bee-keeping. Sharing the occupation with Sir Edmund Hillary is Mr Bruce Turner, Controller of the United Nations Secretariat, who once kept bees in Rangiora.

Although he claims that his rise to the position, second only to the Secretary General, U Thant, is quite accidental, the list of his successive occupations suggests a developing administrative and political sense—bee-keeper in Rangiora, surveyor’s assistant in Canterbury, clerical cadet in the Government Valuation Department, reference officer in the Parliamentary Library, private secretary to Mr Walter Nash (then Minister of Finance).

In 1941 Mr Turner became Second Secretary in the newly opened New Zealand Embassy in Washington and in 1945 he accompanied Mr Peter Fraser [the NZ Prime Minister] in the New Zealand delegation to the preparatory commission on the first session of the new United Nations.

“Here Mr Fraser had the misguided generosity to lend my services to the first Secretary-General, Trygvie Lie, and I haven’t been able to get out of it ever since,” Mr Turner said recently in New York.

Vast Responsibility

On him rests the responsibility for all financial aspects of the organisation’s activities. “And since everything we do involves money, this means, in effect, the whole lot. The position would be comparable in New Zealand to that of the Treasury, the Auditor-General and in some respects the Public Service Commission, all rolled into one. Sometimes I suspect that I don’t know entirely what the job involves myself,” he said.

His department prepares in advance a budget of regular expenditure. This includes the administration of the secretariat in New York and the branch establishments throughout the world and the cost of peace-making missions to all parts of the world.

After this has been approved by the Administration and Budgetary Committee of the General Assembly, commonly known as the Fifth Committee, the money is collected on a quota system, based on the capacity of each member government of the United Nations to pay. This quota is periodically revised by a committee of ten experts.

But for extraordinary expenditures, such as the United Nations Emergency Force sent to the Middle East in November 1956 and the force sent to the Congo in July, 1960, a separate budget is required, although the proportion borne by each country remains the same.

A Major Problem

Here lies one of Mr Turner’s biggest headaches. Certain countries claim that they have no legal liability for their quota of this extraordinary budget. Meanwhile, funds are running low, but the need for maintaining forces in the Congo continues.

He explained the issue of 200 million dollars worth of bonds. If all are sold, they will provide sufficient resources to meet existing obligations and to maintain the present scale of action until the end of 1963.

Mr Turner put the problem in the smoothly rounded language of diplomacy and press statements: “On the success of this bond issue depends the future of the whole organisation and its peace-keeping operations.” He broke off to joke grimly: “Oh well, if it fails, this place will be blown up and I will be out of a job.”

He spread his hands lightly round the pleasant wood-panelled room with its quiet beige and jade upholstery. Heavy curtains hid a view of the East River and Brooklyn in the early evening. On a low table, beside a bowl of spring flowers, a handsome Maori carving gave a hint of the occupant’s country of origin.

“Some day I might retire to New Zealand—that would be the normal procedure for any expatriate New Zealanders,” he said. “It would be somewhere with a warm, mild climate. Tauranga perhaps—that is not too far from my friend in Hamilton who owns a brewery.”

Meanwhile, like all other employees of the United Nations, he must be a world citizen and his shrewd brain and unassuming manner are used to smooth the way of diplomacy at the top administrative levels. Messages and telephone calls continued to pour into his office, telling of Government decisions on the bond issue. The maintenance of forces in the Congo, while still a grave problem, seemed a little more hopeful.


Maureen is exploring the contents of an old black filing cabinet in her attic, which contains 55 years of her writing notes


10 Responses to “A Kiwi at the Top”

  • Gretchen duFresne:

    Hi, I am Bruce Turners great niece. I have been searching recently for more info on uncle Bruce. With all the talk of Helen Clark, I have been proudly referring to him with only limited information. Great to find this! the time we spent time with him, he was living on the Northshore of Auckland, then moved to Redcliffs, north of Brisbane, where I had a wonderfully entertaining weekend with him and his wife in my late teens.

  • Maxine, could you please ask Clive for me. I know Bruce Turner retired from his UN position in 1972, but could not find any further references to him, except for how legendary he was as UN Controller.

  • Alice Richards:

    So enjoy reading your descriptive visit with Mr. Turner’s interview and the coincidence of he wanting to retire in your home town. Well, I see Tony was photographer for you, even then. Great!
    Wonderful writing,

  • Maxine Binning:

    Hi Maureen,
    I have read this article with great interest. I did not remember Bruce Turner but I do remember meeting Mr Peter Fraser several times when my late husband and I were promoting Fencing in Wellington and Napier/Hastings. He was quite charismatic and knowledgeable about fencing a sport you do not expect many people to be.
    Wonderful reporting Maureen, remarkable in all its detail. I wonder if Mr Bruce Turner did retire to Tauranga and whether my brother Clive, ever came into contact with him. Clive is an engineer and has had many dealings with events in Christchurch especially since the ongoing earth tremors and liquifaction.
    Keep digging, it is helping me with my recollections!
    Cheers Maxine

  • Devreaux Baker:

    This is fascinating Maureen!

  • Jeanette Boyer:

    I had the same question as Karen: Did he retire in Tauranga? We know what happened to the “journalistic couple,” but I’m also curious as to what transpired for Bruce Turner.

  • Linda Foote:

    Gosh, for flightless birds, those kiwis sure get around!

  • Fascinating! Did he ever retire to Tauranga? Is there still a brewery in Hamilton? So cool that you and Tony were a “journalistic couple” way back then. And still are!

  • This exploration is turning up so much, Maureen! Thanks for digging through things and bringing them into our view!

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