Former NZNO head remembered

October 1, 2020

Former national director/chief executive of NZNO Brenda Wilson died peacefully at her home in Invercargill last month, aged 83. She had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease three years ago.

Brenda WilsonWilson held NZNO’s top job for six years, from late 1994 to December 2000. She took on the role two years after the amalgamation of NZNA and the NZNU, and oversaw a number of key financial and structural changes during that time.

The mid-1990s onwards was a stressful time for nursing due to the Employment Contracts Act and the competitive health model placed on NZNO and its members. “The casualisation of the nursing workforce, part-time jobs, constant restructuring and cuts to nursing jobs were done deliberately to create a nursing shortage and destroy nursing. This was to create a market for a new generic health worker,” she told Kai Tiaki Nursing New Zealand in her final interview in December 2000.

Steering NZNO through these National Government years was hard, she said, with Health Ministers Jenny Shipley and Wyatt Creech mostly refusing to meet NZNO. “The Ministers could choose to ignore what nurses said, even though we were the largest body representing nurses.”

Wilson saw a huge scope for nurses in primary health care. She also campaigned hard for nurses to be seen as “leaders in health”. She took a strong stand on behalf of NZNO members against some of the 1998 Ministerial Taskforce on Nursing’s recommendations, a move which did not endear her to some nursing leaders.

Wilson trained as a nurse and midwife in England, and arrived in New Zealand in 1967 to join her sister Jean, also a nurse, accompanied by her young son Joseph. She worked as a midwife in Canterbury for a number of years, eventually becoming second assistant matron at Burwood Hospital, then chief nurse of the Canterbury District Health Board.

Former NZNO professional services manager Susanne Trim worked with her at Christchurch Hospital and NZNO, and describes her as “an emancipatory and truly inspirational leader dedicated to developing nursing to its full potential”.

Before joining NZNO, Wilson was executive director of the Asthma Foundation for five years. She received the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to nursing in 2000.

After leaving NZNO, she and her partner, former NZNO president Judi Mulholland, moved to just north of Whanganui to a lifestyle block. They had many adventures travelling around New Zealand in a house truck Wilson had designed and had numerous overseas trips. Wilson owned and managed the Catlins Holiday Park, turning it into an international destination, before the couple finally settled in Invercargill.

Wilson is survived by her life partner Jude, son Joseph, three grandchildren and one great-grandchild.