It was a sunny Friday afternoon and Denis O'Reilly, "resultant" rather than "consultant", is putting a bit of theory into practice. He's just mown the lawn, and says it feels like he's just climbed Mt Everest.

As it happens, he'd also just written to Minister of Employment Willie Jackson about how to get the job done, as in harvesting the new apple crop when there's apparently a seasonal labour shortage.

It's a bit bigger than mowing the lawn, but with years of experience he says if everyone applies a bit of commonsense and rationale it's a much smaller Everest.

"We need to approach this as group work," he says. "Work as a team."

Denis O'Reilly in 2009, graduating with a Masters in Social Policy from Unitech in Auckland. Photo / NZME
Denis O'Reilly in 2009, graduating with a Masters in Social Policy from Unitech in Auckland. Photo / NZME

Like a sports team, he says. "The rationale is, you pick them up in a van, they've got their mates, they've got their coach, they've got their manager, they're happy."

This is no sudden thought, for Denis O'Reilly has been on this buzz for as much as four decades, driven by the belief that everyone has a primeval need for group association, and that everyone who is physically able can be employable, if only the appropriate tools and environment were put before them.

Essentially, there is almost no one who is unemployable, he says at his Waiohiki home, with somewhat more authority than some may care to give him credit for.

To use his own words, he comes from an "eclectic life experience, a wide range of training, and an unusual cluster of skills", where to call it "unusual" is an understatement.

He's trained in the priesthood, he's completed a Masters Degree in Social Practice and was a selected member of a Commonwealth Studies programme at Oxford University, he was manager of Marketing and Communication with the Department of Internal Affairs, and he was Director the New Zealand Millennium Office which set the scene for how New Zealand would celebrate departure from the 20th century and the arrival of the 21st.

He was a Hawke's Bay rugby league representative, who went on to chair the league and manage one of its biggest events, a 1992 match involving then-glamour Sydney side Manly Sea Eagles in front of 12,500 people, and he can korero with the best of them on the paepae.

But he is, as is perhaps most commonly referenced, a life member of Black Power, which he joined in 1972 on the back of community activism in Wellington, part of his "sense of mission around issues of social justice".

It was that move which brought him alongside Prime Minister Rob Muldoon in the mid-70s, and picking up the wero to apply his skills to the good, the start of a a pathway which would lead to him becoming the prototype detached youth worker, and a field worker with the Department of Labour's Group Employment Liaison Service, of which he became chief executive.


Thus, the recognition of an ideal that he saw that if gangs were such a problem, then it was better to work from within, rather than from outside.

For a bloke who some recognise may have been equipped to one day, himself, be a Prime Minister, it was a big step.

He says he's proven in the meantime "that it can work", yet finds "we've" come the full circle from the days from the days of Parliamentarian Ken Comber's Committee on Gangs (1981), in that when it comes to employment it's not the gangs or the individuals that are hard to deal with.

"It's the system," he says.

"We have gangs, we will always have gangs, why not make them work gangs," he says, outlining the plan to form groups into teams, where individuals progress in the same way they might through the football club, from reserve, to amateur player, to leader and to professional, which might be went they are formally hired by the employer in their own right.

It's a pathway with measures of moral persuasion and sense of purpose where the success stories become those of both the team and the individual, he says.

"It's like, I'd like to be on that team, and when they do get the results...We're all elated."

The fact is, we have been there before, but the arrival of the Fourth Labour Government (1984-1990) saw the "deconstruction" of work schemes, in the face of some criticism made for all the wrong reasons.

With the decline in the work population came an explosion of the prison population, he notes. Now, New Zealand has the choice of which it prefers.

In simple terms, he advocates a group of, say seven, plus two "reserves", and a captain and a coach, hired, as a group, knowing that as a group, it will turn up. In more simple terms. "It's a vanload," he says.

He says the use of imported labour is effectively the same thing and a good model — groups of people who come to New Zealand who work and play together — and the model has to be used with the New Zealand labour pool as well.

"People work best when they work collaboratively," he says. "There's room for both".

"There are people who may not work individually, but put them together and it's a different story," he says.

"They can work together, they can sing together, they can play together. They're happy."

"The thing is, we actually have no choice," he says. The apple crop is growing exponentially and there have to be people to harvest them.

"We've just go to take a deep breath, and get back to some rationality," he says "How might we make it work?

"The thing is, it's a win-win for everybody."