Long journey from high-school dropout to top Maori leader

Wira Gardiner has come a long way from his regular position at the bottom of his Whakatane High School classes.

Almost five decades later, the founding head of the Waitangi Tribunal says his teachers probably spend a lot of time scratching their heads at his achievements.

Yesterday, Mr Gardiner added one more to that list - becoming a Distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the Queen's Birthday Honours for his services to Maori.

As well as founding and heading the tribunal and Te Puni Kokiri (the Ministry of Maori Development), Mr Gardiner has commanded troops in battle in Vietnam, advised tribes on investment opportunities and helped to mediate and negotiate Treaty of Waitangi settlements.

He and wife Hekia Parata run a consultancy, Gardiner and Parata, and he also has a separate mediation company.

But he says that when he left the Army in 1983, aged 39, he was not setting out on a mission to improve the lot of Maori.

"The kind of things we tend to do - my family, my wife and I - is we don't look forward a great deal.

"We work on the premise that one door closes and another opens and pretty much that is what has happened over the past couple of decades.

"It happened that every door that has opened has presented a challenge that's been exciting, stimulating and worthwhile in contributing towards development, mainly in the Maori area."

Mr Gardiner says he is gobsmacked by what Maori have achieved in the past two decades, with Treaty settlements enabling tribes to move past a grievance mentality to unlocking their economic potential.

A senior figure in the National Party, Mr Gardiner's political affiliations have not stopped him working closely on Treaty settlements with governments led by both the main parties.

He says the Tainui and Ngai Tahu settlements were landmark "breakouts" for Maori and the central North Island "Treelord" deal, which he has helped the Crown prepare, will produce similar benefits.

As chairman of the commercial entities of his Ngati Awa iwi, Mr Gardiner says he is highly conscious of the development opportunities such settlements unleash.

"I think the next two decades are going to be great for Maori children and my children and grandchildren. I think they've got a world I never saw happening 15 or 20 years ago."

Mr Gardiner says his personal journey from high school failure to successful public servant and businessman was underpinned by the skills he gained from 20 years in the Army.

But he says there is no reason other Maori young men who are struggling at school can't do the same.

"I think the simple message, if ever there was a simple one, is get some determination, set some objectives. They don't have to be 10-year visions, just get up in the morning and commit yourself to do well. It's surprising what will happen."


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