Lianne Dalziel’s life with Rob Davidson: The rough diamond who caught her eye and captured her heart

Wednesday would have been Lianne Dalziel and Rob Davidson’s 20th wedding anniversary. In an exclusive interview, the city’s mayor talks about saying goodbye to her ‘soulmate’ and about the life they led. Louis Day reports.

“The thing is, Rob wanted to go to sleep and not wake up and that is what happened.

“It is not something we talk about as a community, but supporting someone when they have a terminal illness, the best thing to do is understand what they want to do.

“I did not want it to happen but I wanted it to be as easy for him as possible.”

Three months on from his passing, Dalziel is still adjusting to life without her Rob. Wednesday would have marked their 20-year wedding anniversary where they planned to have a celebration at the Great Hall, the same site where their love for each other was consecrated in marriage.

“It is very sad. We both had wanted to bring people together, people who celebrated the wedding 20 years ago.”

Davidson, a prominent lawyer and man who dedicated a lot of his time and energy into community causes, was Dalziel’s “soulmate”.

“We kind of just knew each other, he wasn’t perfect and I’m certainly not. But we understood each other, we didn’t really need to explain anything to each other because we just knew. We liked the same things, liked the same movies, we had been fascinated with American politics. So yeah, I haven’t got anyone to talk to anymore, not like him, that’s what’s hard.”

While missing out on the opportunity to mark her 20-year anniversary with Davidson is a bitter pill to swallow, it is also the little things for Dalziel that sadly serve as a reminder of what she has lost.

She fights back tears when she recalls a recent example of this when she was in the process of buying an annual pass for Christchurch’s inner-city tram service.

When told a pass would only cost $69, she was baffled.

“I said to them: ‘Is that all?’

“I thought it was about double that and then I suddenly realised I was buying for two and not for one.

“That to me, that kind of sums up, you know, what it’s like. I worked out what it was for two because I have always bought for two. So in a way that is the answer to the question you asked about life now compared to life before, little things like that remind me of what I have lost.”

While Dalziel is constantly confronted with reminders of Davidson, she finds solace in the pounamu pendant which hangs around her neck. Its eye-catching appearance does not begin to scratch the surface of the story behind its being.

The fish-hook shaped pendant was initially given to Davidson as a birthday gift from Dalziel’s family. She did not expect to see it again after she chose it for Davidson to wear in his casket.

“She [the funeral director] said she had never ever seen this before but it has come back in one piece. This is a piece of pounamu that has been through the fire [cremation] with Rob, so now I have got a piece of him with me.

“She [the funeral director] said they have seen broken pieces before, but they have never ever seen it [pounamu] come out intact. Now it has come back to me, so that was special, I feel like I have got him with me.”

Another tribute to their all-enduring bond can be found not far from the pendant hung around Dalziel’s neck. In what was her first, and will be her last tattoo, two butterflies are depicted on her back, representing the protagonists in Chinese love opera, Butterfly Lovers, the Chinese equivalent of Romeo and Juliet.

“The message is that he has always got my back and that’s how I feel.”

The tattoo not only holds great magnitude as a gift from Davidson given to Dalziel only weeks before his death but also in its tribute to Chinese culture, something which he held very close to his heart.

Davidson also boasted a number of tattoos from his youth, Dalziel “didn’t like them at all”. Dalziel’s disliking of Davidson’s tattoos from his youth was one of the reasons he in the end got them covered with Asian tattoos. Dalziel now describes her own tattoo as her “constant companion”, keeping Davidson close and their stories intertwined.

Their story began in 1995. Dalziel, who was a member of Parliament at the time, had been invited to speak at the Engineers’ Union about MMP ahead of the following year’s referendum on the matter.

After making her presentation, she took questions from the audience. One man caught her eye.

“There was one guy that asked more questions than anyone else and I thought gosh he asks a lot of questions. He was certainly engaged and interested so I certainly noticed him.”

Her first impressions of the man was that he was “quite good looking.” That man was Davidson.

“Some people, they might smile but you can tell they’re not really smiling because their eyes don’t smile. But he was somebody that smiled with his eyes as well.”

In spite of initial attractions, the pair both had their doubts anything could ever come to happen between them.

“Pinky Agnew who was our wedding celebrant a few years later when she was reflecting on our meeting, she said that I thought he was probably married and he thought I was probably up myself because I was a politician. Fortunately for us, neither of us was right!”

Dalziel recalls their wedding as if it were yesterday. A smile spreads across her face when she recounts Davidson’s speech.

“Rob posed a series of reasons why he might be marrying me. After all the different reasons he could conjure up, he announced it was none of these, the reason he was marrying me was section 5 of the Evidence Act 1908: No spouse can be compelled to give evidence for the prosecution [of their spouse] in the court of law. He would be free to come home and unburden himself with how he had been speeding on his motorbike secure in the knowledge that I could not be compelled to give evidence against him. ‘You’re the lawmaker, I’m the lawbreaker. You make ’em’, I break ’em’.”

Dalziel described her relationship with Davidson’s motorcycles as “love, hate” with one ride on one of his many motorcycles almost bringing their marriage to an early end, she joked.

She needed a lift up to Picton where she and Davidson would be starting a road trip around the South Island with their friends.

“The girls were going in the car and the boys were going on their bikes. That meant I had to get from Christchurch to Picton so I could get into the car and the only way was to go on the back of the motorbike.

“He knew that I was really really nervous so all the way up to Cheviot, it was great, he was amazing, it was a really gentle ride, I felt that he had really understood that I was nervous, I didn’t feel nervous at all anymore, I was leaning with the bike, it wasn’t going too fast, it was great.

“So we stopped at Cheviot to have a cup of coffee on the way and I said to him: ‘I just want to say thank you, you have been amazing, you have really respected how fearful I am on the back of a bike, so I just really want to say I really appreciate it.’

“Now, he heard something else, he heard me say: ‘yeah, I’m comfortable now you can go for it.’ So all the way from Cheviot to Kaikoura I was working out how I was going to kill him and divorce him! He couldn’t hear me punching him and screaming, it was terrible, I am sure he did it deliberately. By the time we got there, I was in a bit of a mood.”

While this experience left Dalziel in a bit of a state at the time, she is now able to look back on it in laughter. A plethora of precious memories like this one were forged between the pair.

She speaks fondly of the first time they had been overseas together.

“We went to Paris, I had never been to Paris before and he hadn’t either. We just walked everywhere.

“We walked down the Champs Elysees, we climbed up the Arc de Triomphe, climbed up the Eiffel Tower, it was just amazing.

“It was just magic and that is a very happy memory.”

Scotland is another place that holds meaning to them both. They visited Dundee in the mid-90s where Davidson’s father was from.

They unknowingly made their final trip there as a couple last year.

“He found his grandfather’s grave last year and so he bought the plot and fixed the gravestone because the headstone had been pushed over, so he had it all fixed and had his father’s details recorded there as well.”

The family plans to return to the site one day to bury some of Davidson’s ashes there.

Davidson was finding more and more out about his origins throughout his final chapter.

“I wish we had longer,” Dalziel says.

“He already searched his Scottish history so he met up with some cousins he hadn’t met before in Scotland last year so he managed to trace that connection. But one thing he never had searched was his birth mother’s history, his father was his [biological] father so he knew who his father was, his mother he had not searched her history. So hedid a DNA test and discovered he had Ngai Tahu connection, his great-grandfather was Ngai Tahu.

“So we had a very moving gathering at Tuahiwi where that history was acknowledged. I would have liked him to have a bit of time to research more of that.

“He had started to discover the Maori side, there is more to that story that his sons are finding out which means the story continues but it would have been good if he could have shared that. He would have really enjoyed getting to know that side of him.

“Rob grew up thinking he was first-generation New Zealander but actually he had generations on his mother’s side he didn’t know.”

Davidson’s belief he was a first-generation New Zealander was why he felt so connected to new immigrants.

“He had lots of close friends that were different cultures.”

He had a particular affinity to Chinese culture, adoring Chinese food and visiting the country two to three times a year, leading to him forming some strong bonds within the community.

A friend of his from China, who owned a middle school within a deprived area of the Guizhou region sponsored Iris Luo, a student from the school, to go to New Zealand and get a degree in law.

Davidson gave her part-time work at his law firm Davidson Legal Ltd to help her through her studies.

Luo was admitted to the bar recently, making her the first person in her village to possess a university degree. She paid tribute to Davidson after doing so.

“Another amazing man I wish to thank is Mr Rob Davidson, the founder of Davidson Legal Ltd. There were thousands of times that I wanted to give up during the years in law school, it was his encouragement and support that led me to walk through the dark and stand here today, unfortunately, we lost him in this tough year but I am sure he can hear us from the heavens,” she said.

Other recent tributes include one from a judge, who made reference to Davidson when reading an affidavit that was filed by him during a court case. The judge referred to Davidson as a “fine lawyer” and “remarkable human being”.

Davidson was committed to helping people out, especially where he felt there was injustice, Dalziel says.

“It’s why he did so much pro bono work as a lawyer. He always felt that people should be given an opportunity to succeed.”

She says this was down to Davidson himself being given the opportunity to succeed.

A piece from the Weekend Press published 20 years ago titled Coming Out of the Dark paints a very vivid picture of Davidson’s life.

He was born after his father had an affair with a 17-year-old woman, a ward of the state who was living with Davidson’s grandmother. Davidson was secretly adopted back into his father’s family where he was raised by his father’s wife, believing she was his mother. Discovering he was adopted later on in life “rocked his adult world”.

In the piece, Davidson said he believed his father’s wife resented him, which would have contributed to what was a troubled upbringing within a working-class family, with beatings not only at home but also at school and at the hands of the police – nothing out of the ordinary for the 1950s.

Over a period of three years before 1970 he was convicted of disorderly behaviour, burglary, willful damage, breach of probation and insulting language.

But as Dalziel explains, he was given the opportunity to fulfil his true potential.

“There were 10 positions at Canterbury law school at the University of Canterbury for people that were educationally disadvantaged that had the potential to give back to their community.

“He was a train driver, that was his full-time job, but he also represented the locomotive engineers’ union association. Because of his active interest in the community and representation, he was seen as someone that could give back to his community which he has done in spades obviously so he was given preferential entry into law school.

“This is no mean achievement to go to university and get a law degree. He started his degree when he turned 32, having left school at 15 and he has now got a successful law practice, so it is an incredible achievement.

“I am sure one of the proudest moments of his life was being admitted as a barrister and solicitor of the High Court in spite of his troubled start.”

Davidson went on to pour his heart into a number of causes. He acted as chairman of the Aranui Community Trust from its inception in 2001 which has worked for improved community outcomes for almost 20 years now, supporting the construction of the Aranui Wainoni Community Centre.

“He had come from Woolston, he had felt very much at home in Aranui.

“I know he felt an incredible sense of achievement and I feel it too, I am so proud of what they were able to do. He didn’t do it on his own and he never took it as something he had done on his own, it was always something he had done with the community.”

Davidson’s work in Aranui is only the tip of the iceberg.

His dedication to the Police Managers’ Guild Trust as its lawyer and confidant for 25 years led to it establishing a scholarship in his name upon his death, he was also recently made a life member of the Labour Party. Davidson also served 25 years as a board member and periods as chairman, on the Salisbury Street Foundation which aims to rehabilitate and re-integrate serious offenders into society. Other acts of service included serving on the board of community health centre Piki Te Ora and the Male Survivors of Sexual Abuse Trust.

Davidson had an “insatiable interest in people”.

“He would talk to people in a really deep way where he would get to know all about their background. So if we went visiting anywhere where we didn’t know anyone it wouldn’t take him long to strike up a conversation with someone. He would know all about them in a very short space of time.”

He also possessed a unique brand of humour which left him with a habit of not taking authority too seriously.

Dalziel struggles to contain her laughter when sharing a story about Davidson from his train driving days, one of the stories told by Davidson’s close friend Dave Stanford at his funeral.

Upon the arrival of a group of high-ranking officials from Wellington at a railway station Davidson was working at, he decided to have a little fun. He found the biggest dog he could get his hands on, put it in the driver’s cabin of the train, got the train running and lay down on the floor so when the train drove past the delegates, it looked like it was being driven by a large dog.

Davidson maintained this sense of humour throughout his closing chapter.

“He was still the same Rob. He had a great sense of humour, he would just joke about the drugs he was on.”

The couple were given the news of Davidson’s diagnosis only weeks after attending the Cancer Society Ball in 2018.

“It was just a huge shock, he seemed invincible really, probably because of his motorbike riding and speeding. He seemed to have nine lives, well more than nine lives. He did come off his motorbike more than once in the time we were married, I won’t go into details, but he walked away from both of them.”

This news had initially delayed her decision to run in last year’s local body elections, but due to Davidson responding well to treatment she decided to stand for the mayoralty a third time in the December of 2018.

However, Davidson began to stop responding so well to treatment in June 2019.

This came right in the lead up to that year’s local body elections in October. Dalziel was in the end comfortably re-elected for her third term as mayor but Davidson’s response to treatment continued to wane.

“He did go on another drug but it was not successful at all. We were just waiting for him to go on a trial for another drug and he was going to go in for that and then the lockdown happened and they cancelled the trial, but then they opened it up again and by then he was not well enough to go on the trial.

“I wish we had got him on it sooner, I don’t know whether it would make a difference or not, I don’t know, you can’t tell.

“He had an aggressive cancer right from the start, it was a high-grade cancer. But I think we both had been encouraged by the positive reaction initially that we thought we had a lot longer than we did.

“I felt like we were going to have a few years ahead of us but things change.”

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