This story first appeared on Te Ao with MOANA (Māori Television)
By Ximena Smith, Te Ao with MOANA
Sir Wira Gardiner studied the art of war at King's College in London and is a former Army Lieutenant Colonel. But when it comes to identifying the 'enemy' in his new role as acting Chief Executive at Oranga Tamariki, he said there isn't one.
"What we have is a common goal of our tamariki and mokopuna. Anybody who stands in the road of us providing safety and security for our children and mokopuna is probably the closest that I would come to describe as the enemy."
Sir Wira Gardiner sat down with Moana Maniapoto (Te Ao with MOANA) in his first media interview since his appointment. Sir Wira has a six-month brief to restore public confidence in the long-beleaguered agency. He'll report to the new Ministerial Advisory Board (Sir Mark Solomon, Dame Naida Glavish, Shannon Pakura and Matthew Tukaki) established on Feb 1.
The former soldier told Maniapoto he was determined that aroha must be at the forefront of any decision.
"I want to see ngākau aroha (compassion) in the process so that before you implement the final step of the law ... an S78 uplift without authority, which is an extreme case, that we've used every means possible," said Sir Wira, referring to the 2019 Newsroom investigation that sparked a public backlash.
"It wouldn't have been any harm to say taihoa (wait). Let's just pause. Let's have a korero."
Only this month, Stuff reported on a woman who, while at a park with her children, received a text from an Oranga Tamariki social worker advising that they intended to pick her children up. Sir Wira acknowledged he had received a letter from a Christchurch GP acting on behalf of the distressed mother, in which the doctor described Oranga Tamariki's actions as an "act of extreme, over-zealotry behaviour."
"It's easy for me sitting in Wellington, making judgements on an operational basis when I don't have the full facts," Sir Wira told Moana. "And given that these are highly emotional, highly charged environments and the correspondence is very strong, I need to understand what happened. And if we made a mistake, let's go and apologise for that mistake. And more importantly, how can we do it better?"
The acting Chief Executive confirmed his mission was to stabilise the organisation, deliver a roadmap to the Government and regain public confidence in the agency. When questioned about his previous roles fronting controversial Crown policy, Sir Wira cited his training as a soldier as a precursor to a life of public service, saying that if the purpose and kaupapa are good and honourable, he'll be "right there" to serve.
When he was 10, the former Army officer described how he was up before the courts for leading a shoplifting gang and was "probably a year, two years away" from being sent to a borstal detention centre.
Instead, Sir Wira was sent by the state to live with his grandparents on their Te Teko farm until he was 18. He credits his kaumatua for providing him with safety, security, and guidance. He said his experience as a ward of the state had influenced his approach in the Acting Chief Executive role.
"I have a natural anathema to big residences to put young people in. And we're shifting the nature of our policies within Oranga Tamariki to have houses of three or four rooms with a caregiver. Smaller numbers allow the caregiver to awhi (cherish) and look after the young people that come into our care."
Over the years, Oranga Tamariki has had several name changes and a dozen restructures. Still, one main critique has persisted: if most children in state care are Māori, why has the Crown not devolved resources and decision-making power to Māori?
Claimants to the Waitangi Tribunal challenge the Crown's right and wisdom to determine policy, allocate resources, and decide who in Te Ao Māori the Crown will engage with. That inherent power imbalance between Māori and the Crown within the way Oranga Tamariki and other government agencies operate is not something Sir Wira tried to dispute.
"The current system is essentially the government departments contract to providers. And in its purest sense, a commercial contract is a master-servant relationship in which the holder of the funds is the master, and the recipient is the provider. And that is the current contracting regime governments run."
Sir Wira believes that communities need to be worked with and listened to. Allocation of resources and, if necessary, legislative change will then flow from this.
Regarding what specific model Oranga Tamariki will adopt to help facilitate an equal power-sharing relationship with Māori, Sir Wira seemed open-minded. He told Maniapoto that as far as he's concerned, though, the "sole safety test" is what will guide his decisions. If a particular approach can improve the safety of just one tamariki mokopuna, then he will do it. The complete dismantling of Oranga Tamariki, however, does not appear to be on the cards.
"I think the issue of dismantling an organization is easy to say, not necessarily easy to do… actually, you do need organizations of the government managing some of the interface between the government's laws in a sense and the people who are at risk. I think there'll always be a need for an organisation like Oranga Tamariki. It might change. It might shrink, but there'll be some hard issues somebody has to take responsibility for."
And on the topic of responsibility, Sir Wira was clear that blame and responsibility should not solely rest on the shoulders of Oranga Tamariki.
"When things go wrong, we blame Oranga Tamariki. We blame the government. What about ourselves? What about our Māori communities? What about our whānau, whanau whānui (extended family)? Why do we remain silent? I think we, as Māori, need to take responsibility and call it out as well. And that's what I'm doing right now."
Watch the full interview video of Te Ao with MOANA at the top of the story.