NZ Māori Council executive director, Matthew Tukaki. Image: Youtube

The firebrand: meet the new man at the helm of the Māori Council

They have a storied history, from Waitangi Tribunal triumphs to bitter infighting, but the current NZ Māori Council are reinvigorated and ready to make big changes on behalf of Māori in Aotearoa. However some people are asking questions about its new leader.

At the start of the year, after what felt like years of media silence, a spokesperson for the NZ Māori Council seemingly appeared out of nowhere to comment on every imaginable social issue, on every available platform. Searching the Google News vertical for the term “Māori Council” revealed 211 results for 2019. In 2015 there were 37.

Matthew Tukaki (Ngāi Te Rangi, Mataatua, Te Whānau-Ā-Apanui) was appointed as the executive director of the NZ Māori Council at its 2018 election. The council, established by the National government in the wake of the 1961 Hunn Report, is elected every three years. It’s comprised of three members from each of the 16 District Māori Councils, who represent around 300 Māori committees, many of which are dormant – these are the descendants of the marae committees of the early 1900s. The national council has an executive board of nine members, including the chair, former chief judge of the Māori Land Court Sir Taihākurei (Eddie) Durie, who will stand down from his role on November 30 after three terms.

Tukaki loves to talk. The 46-year-old is articulate and knowledgable on a range of subjects. Unsurprisingly one of his many former careers was in broadcasting. He can talk at length about the structure and history of the council and speaks passionately about the act that gives the Māori Council its mandate, including the parts that seem wildly obsolete.

One section of the Māori Community Development Act, passed in 1962, concentrates solely on the ‘Prevention of unruly behaviour’ including “riotous behavior” and drunkenness (the act also covers the promotion of friendly relations between “the Maori race” and sanitation). It’s an unflattering and outdated view of Māori. Over the phone I ask Tukaki if perhaps it’s time for it be retired. He disagrees.

“It is the last and final act of Māori representative voice through an act of parliament. Over the years many ministers have tried to get rid of it but there’s a reason the act exists even if some of the terminology might be a little archaic. In fact, it hasn’t been until the recent iteration of the council that I started to move to interpret it in a way that allows us to intervene on behalf of Māori, from someone living in Waikikamukau that has a problem with a government agency, right through to the big national issues. It’s a very special act.”

Section 31 of the the Māori Community Development Act 1962.

The Māori Council is also responsible for warranting Māori Wardens, a familiar and welcome sight at any large gathering and a position that commands the utmost respect in Māori communities. According to the act, one of the original powers accorded to wardens is the authority to pull drunk Māori out of pubs and confiscate their car keys.

Again, Tukaki doesn’t see this as anachronistic. “I’ll have you know, this New Zealand Māori Council would be very happy for Māori Wardens to start exercising that authority!” he says, laughing.

“When that was first written – it was largely written and guided by some very wise people including Sir Turi Carroll, who was one of the first chairs of the Māori Council – it was because we had a problem with alcohol back then. Today, while it might not be flattering, one could very much argue that drugs such as P and Ice have become a problem in place of alcohol, as it was defined back then. So I say, acts of parliament and legislation are not meant to be pretty but they’re meant to be able to be interpreted for whatever the challenge of the day might be.”

Over the years, the Māori Council has risen to some extraordinary challenges. In 1985 the Waitangi Tribunal heard the Te Reo Māori claim by the Māori Council, which asserted the Crown was obliged to protect te reo Māori under the Treaty of Waitangi. The following year te reo was made an official language of New Zealand. In 1988, led by Sir Graham Latimer, the Council prevented the State-Owned Enterprises Act from further alienating Māori land in the Supreme Court.

48 members of the New Zealand Māori Council at the 2018 Triennial in Wellington, July 2018. Photo: Māori Council

Tukaki reckons, however, that the most recent iterations weren’t exactly covering the council’s name in glory.

“Before me coming in 18 months ago, they were all fighting with each other. John Tamihere, Titewhai [Harawira], Donna Hall, Sir Eddie Durie, Maanu Paul, Des Ratama and Dick Dargaville, you name it. The last two terms of the Māori council, with the exception of this one, were all about legal action. It had nothing to do with the affairs of our people. It had everything to do with just not liking the other person. You know what? If you don’t like someone, that has nothing to do with the institution of the council. Go and get a hotel room!”

So we find ourselves in the era of Māori Council 2.0. A reinvigorated institution, a plucky new spokesperson, and a mandate to ensure Māori are represented on every issue.

The question for many remains though – who the hell is this guy?

In the past few months alone Matthew Tukaki has publicly called on the auditor general to look into the North Canterbury Transport Infrastructure Recovery plan, questioned Minister Eugenie Sage’s sale of 20,000 acres of forestry land to a foreign company, rubbished health agency Hāpai Te Hauora’s suggestion that cannabis legislation be “designed by and for Māori” (adding they should “stay in their lane”), and condemned claims by National MP Joanne Hayes that some Māori could end up better off if their welfare payments were cut.

He published a video for Facebook that made a number of recommendations for collaboration between Oranga Tamariki and Māori service providers, and in a ballsy commemoration of Tuia 250 that annoyed Shane Jones, wrote to the Pope to ask the Vatican to formally apologise for and renounce the Doctrine of Discovery.

He also took to the streets and gave a rousing speech to a group of striking workers outside SkyCity.

Tukaki’s gift of the gab and media ubiquity has given many the impression that not only is he a kūmara that knows its own sweetness, but that he is presenting his own ideas and thoughts as the Council’s.

He assures me that all of the messages and policies he presents in public have been discussed and vetted in advance.

“In April this year the district chairs met and they are the ones that decide on what we’re going to focus our time on. There were 32 motions passed at the meeting. Everything from ‘throw Don Brash to the Human Rights Commission’ right through to suicide, which is one of my background issue areas. So you go about methodically executing them as either the opportunity presents or you can kickstart the conversation.”

Other issues, he adds, are discussed in monthly meetings and then a smaller caucus deals with issues of the day that require a quick response.

“Myself, Henare Mason, my deputy chair, and Sir Eddie Durie, the chair of the council, we get together and strategise around what we might want to put out there. And then we socialise that within the executive committee so everyone’s on the same page.”  

The afternoon after our first conversation he appeared on Heather Du Plessis-Allan’s NewstalkZB show to talk about National’s proposal of a Strike Force Raptor-style task force to disrupt gang activity in Aotearoa. Tukaki spoke at length about the task force in Australia that Simon Bridges was hoping to emulate, its perceived success and its many failures. He went on to argue that a crackdown on international drug supply would have a far greater effect, and then proposed tighter border control and more customs agents posted in international ports as an alternative strategy, even naming the Asian and Pacific ports likely to be most effective.

Fascinated by the depth of his knowledge on a subject so seemingly unrelated to Māori concerns, and frankly suspicious of the idea that the Māori Council could have met in the two days since Bridges’ announcement and have already conceived a comprehensive strategy around border control, I called Tukaki back. I had to know, again, if he was really speaking on behalf of a quorum or just giving his own reckons, masquerading as Māori Council policy.

He is insistent that he has never used his position as the spokesperson of the council to say anything that wasn’t vetted by his executive board. Although, he adds: “There have been two occasions where I have specifically said in the media, this is my personal view. I did that on Thursday last week regarding the cannabis legislation.”

Tukaki had made comments on The AM Show that Hāpai te Hauora had no right to be commenting on the drafting of drug legislation and Māori economic interests, and instead they should only be focusing on prevention. Many were upset that not only was Tukaki publicly disparaging a Māori advocacy group but that he appeared to be doing so without council mandate.

I ask if he thinks it was an appropriate use of his position, to appear as a spokesperson but put forward personal views on an issue.

“I didn’t just put forward my personal view. The council’s view is encouraging all people to vote at the referendum and have their say either way. And I guess you could say that what came next, which was my personal view and very much agreeing with what Sir Graham Lowe was saying … You could argue that point …” He emphasises could as if to suggest that would be a stretch. “But in all of my appearances that one is probably the most personal view I’ve ever taken and even then it wasn’t very much a specific viewpoint.”

Tukaki relates the story of another time he spoke from personal experience about suicide in an interview with Lisa Owen on RNZ, after he had released some provisional national figures a day before the chief coroner’s embargo. “It was very personal. Three of my whānau had committed suicide in that 12 month cycle and I was frustrated with the process of how they were talking about releasing that data and getting all their stories right. I found that offensive. I was close to tears on that one, which I’ve never done in public before.”

Suicide is, unfortunately, a topic on which Tukaki is uniquely qualified to speak. He was until recently the chair of Australia’s National Coalition for Suicide Prevention and a board member for Suicide Prevention Australia. In an interview with e-tangata’s Dale Husband he revealed it was an issue that became close to his heart after his best friend took his life.

He spoke at length to Husband about his childhood growing up in Upper Hutt, about his whānau and his ancestor Te Kaha, about not being a great student at school but instead being an avid student of life. His gift of the gab has gotten him into careers he might otherwise have been unqualified for – as an office assistant for the Ministry of Social Welfare, later becoming a case manager. He worked in customer service for BNZ and worked selling training courses and conferences at a software company. Soon after he made the trip over the ditch to Australia where great success followed at recruitment agency Drake International.  

The only glaring omission from his CV seems to be any flaxroots advocacy roles for Māori.

This is one of the reason, it seems, he is rubbing people up the wrong way. I ask if he’s aware he has that effect on people. His response is a surprise.

“Thank you for asking me that question, no one ever asks me that! The answer is yes. I do get that I’m rubbing some people up the wrong way.”

He gets a lot of angry emails from politicians, he says.

“Then we have Māori leadership and Māori organisations. There are people that don’t like what I’m doing because it tends to disrupt both their business model and they feel as if I’m somehow disrespecting them. Which I don’t necessarily want to do but I sometimes have to remind them they have been involved in this business of providing services and receiving multimillion-dollar contracts over the years and yet we’re still not seeing the outcomes everyone was hoping for.

“So is it broken? Do we need to look at evolving it to the next level? While they might hate my guts, I’m the one out there really advocating for more investment to build their capability and capacity. They’re always getting short changed, there’s never enough money.”

He cites another recent disagreement with Hāpai te Hauora around vaping as a method to reduce smoking in Māori communities. The Māori Council have taken the stance that vaping and the vaping industry are as harmful as smoking and must be included in any smokefree policies

“I’m sitting in the airport lounge in Wellington. I had tweeted something that night about vaping because we are seriously having a look at vaping as a part of the primary health side of things. We’re involved in Wai 2575 [Health Services and Outcomes Kaupapa Inquiry] and we’re also looking at addiction in terms of mental health. We’ve already met with the Lung Foundation and the Asthma and Respiratory Foundation of New Zealand, on top of all the reports and analysis, well before Mihi Blair from Hāpai te Hauora picked up the phone.

“When she rang me, she laid into me straight away. ‘Who the fuck do you think you are? You don’t know anything. What’s your mandate blah blah blah’. I said, hang on, I’ve never spoken to you Mihi. And it spiralled out of control. Then all of a sudden the vaping industry were having a crack at me as well. I went back and said I get what you’re saying but I disagree with what you’re saying. And by the way, where do you get your money from? Who funds you? Anyway, that resulted in a complaint to the Māori Council. Council received the complaint, we talked about it, and it fixed our position even further.”

Hāpai te Hauora’s general manager of National Tobacco Control Advocacy, Mihi Blair, remembers the phone call very differently and says it was the second, not the first conversation she’d had with Tukaki.

“He forgot that I had met him at a ministry stakeholder engagement meeting. [The phone call] was the second time I had talked to him based on an email he sent to Q+A when they did a report on PMI [Philip Morris International] and vaping. The statement was basically lumping the vaping industry in with PMI. I’ve been in the tobacco control sector for a year and a half and they’re clearly two different sectors. So I messaged him through LinkedIn saying maybe Māori Council could talk to us to get some facts.”

She says she received no reply to her message, but eventually a secretary informed her that Tukaki was going to give her a call.

“He called me from the airport. I gave him an outline of my role and said I was very concerned with the statement he made on Q+A and I would love to offer him some support through the evidence we’ve got in terms of vaping. He proceeded to yell down the phone at me saying ‘who do I think I am?’ Do I not know who he is?’ He’s the Māori Council, how dare I tell Māori Council what to do. I said, I’m not telling you what to do, I’m just asking where you got your evidence from and I’m happy to help provide more evidence. He said ‘Are you telling me you support vaping? If you do, I’m going to hang up on you’. And I said yes, we support vaping as a quit tool. And he hung up on me.”

Blair isn’t surprised to hear that Tukaki’s characterisation of the phone call is quite different from hers, but she says she has a witness to the conversation. “I was in the car with my co-worker, she can vouch because she was like, ‘Oh my god, what just happened?’”

After the call, in a LinkedIn message that has been viewed by The Spinoff, Tukaki replied to Blair calling her “smart arse” and “rude”, with a demand for an apology by the end of the week. The message ends: “And for the record – you might want to consider throwing around assumptions Ms Blair.”

Indeed, his Twitter footprint indicates a confrontational approach to anyone that disagrees with his stance on vaping. He uses the word ‘idiot’ liberally in response to people who believe vaping can contribute to harm reduction and sneeringly refers to one Māori GP as “champion” in a series of tweets.

It gives a picture of a principled and uncompromising personality. But some will continue to question if that’s the right fit for a community that pride themselves on collective and collaborative action.

Leadership can be a thankless task, especially when you’re trying to earn the respect of the people you’re also trying to provoke. Tukaki has big plans for the council despite their limited budget (he works for free, he tells me. No salary, no stipend, nothing). Everyone else will have to have lump it for at least another 18 months. 

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“We’re about to announce on Saturday the establishment of a rangatahi NZ Māori Council, for the first time since 1968. That will give our young people a voice and by goodness, I would strongly argue that every other Māori organisation that’s been around for as long as we have consider doing the same thing. If there’s one thing Ihumātao showed me, it’s that the vast majority of people who were out there on the hustings were our young people. They are so sick and tired of the current crop of Māori leaders.”

Despite the criticism, he’s adamant that he answers to hundreds of committee and district council representatives around the country and will continue to disturb the status quo at their behest – and that it’s a framework all Māori are welcome to join.

“Rather than sit back and throw your remote at the TV every time you see a Māori leader come on that you don’t agree with, come and sit at the table, no matter where you are, and have your say.”

Even if he is, perhaps, the Māori leader a number of people would like to throw a remote at right now.


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