Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

Vale Sir Wira Gardiner, Māori statesman

Respected Māori leader Sir Wira Gardiner dies aged 78, NZ Herald, 18 March 2022

One of Māoridom’s most respected figures, Sir Wira Gardiner, has died aged 78.

Gardiner (Ngāti Awa, Ngāti Pikiao, Whakatōhea, Te Whānau-ā-Apanui) was a soldier who went on to become a celebrated public servant, serving as a founding director of the Waitangi Tribunal.

He died at home with his family in Gisborne, a family statement said.

“In accordance with his express wish that public health be prioritised, and the demands on frontline workers be recognised, there will be no tangihanga for Wira at the marae,” the statement said.

“At some time in the future, when our country is restored to ordinary life, we will gather to mark Wira’s passing, acknowledge his contribution, and celebrate a good life well lived.”

His family thanked staff at Whakatāne’s Kathleen Kilgour Centre, which provides radiation treatment for cancer patients.

Tributes have started flowing for a man described as a Māori statesman with a love for people.

“A large and significant totara tree in the forest of our people has fallen,” said National Maori Authority chair Matthew Tukaki.

He described Gardiner as a change agent, a servant of the people and someone who made a real difference in Te Ao Maori and Te Ao Pakeha.

He had recently worked alongside Gardiner when he was appointed acting chief executive of Oranga Tamariki.

“Over that time we worked together day in and day out on a kaupapa close to both of our hearts but for me it was the opportunity to see the legend in action; of navigating complex situations, the use of diplomacy, a mind as sharp as wit could have all combined with the beating heart of a man centred in aroha and the kaupapa.

“If it is one thing I learnt from my mate it was that when you combine aroha and kaupapa you will never be let down.”

Others described sadness at the news saying he was a man who crossed many divides to bring people together and left a significant legacy.

Former National Party leader Judith Collins said Gardiner was much respected.

Gardiner had served in the army and went on to hold several leadership roles as a public servant, including a founding director of the Waitangi Tribunal, founding head of the Iwi Transition Agency and founding CEO of Te Puni Kōkiri, the Ministry of Māori Development.

He chaired the Tertiary Education Commission, Te Papa museum’s board and the Local Government Commission, as well as holding senior positions.

He was also a respected Crown facilitator and Treaty negotiator.

In November last year he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Waikato.

The author of seven books spanning a range of topics including haka, the Māori Battalion and political biography, he was made a Knight of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2009 for his contribution and services to Māori.

“A Vietnam Veteran who never forgot his less fortunate mates. He was a man of standing, who was always a gentleman.”

Sir Wira Gardiner is the author of seven books spanning a range of topics. Photo / Leah Tebbutt.

Born in Whakatāne, Gardiner was educated at Whakatāne High School, the University of Canterbury and King’s College, London.

In October last year, Gardiner stepped down as Oranga Tamariki’s acting chief executive, after taking more than a month of medical leave.

He had taken the role in February after embattled chief executive Gráinne Moss stepped down.

His appointment followed months of scrutiny over the agency’s controversial practice of “uplifting” predominantly Māori infants into state care.

Gardiner had served in the army and went on to hold several leadership roles as a public servant, including a founding director of the Waitangi Tribunal, founding head of the Iwi Transition Agency and founding CEO of Te Puni Kōkiri, the Ministry of Māori Development.

He chaired the Tertiary Education Commission, Te Papa museum’s board and the Local Government Commission, as well as holding senior positions.

He was also a respected Crown facilitator and Treaty negotiator.

In November last year he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Waikato.

The author of seven books spanning a range of topics including haka, the Māori Battalion and political biography, he was made a Knight of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2009 for his contribution and services to Māori.

In 2008 Wira Gardiner was knighted for his services to Māori. Photo / Ross Setford.

Back in 2019, the former professional soldier published a book called Ake Ake Kia Kaha E! Forever Brave.

“This is probably the biggest but the easiest book I have ever had to write. I never had writer’s block or moments of doubt and my pen just kept flowing, well metaphorically,” Gardiner said at the time.

In May 2016, he travelled to Greece and Crete to visit battle sites where the NZ Division fought in April and May 1941, matching the theory from his book with the actual locations of the battles.

He was raised by te reo speaking parents in Rotoiti but did not learn the language until aged in his 40s. He later spoke candidly about the challenge and importance of mastering the language.

“My hapa, or my sins, were numerous, but the listeners, even though you could see them screwing their faces up, nevertheless they paid me the tribute of not saying ‘E noho ki raro, kāti ki te waha – sit down and shut up’,” he told The Spinoff in December last year.

Gardiner is survived by his wife, former National MP Hekia Parata. The couple had two children.

He also had three other children from his previous marriage to former MP Pauline Gardiner, including film producer Ainsley Gardiner. He was also koro to many mokopuna.

“You have left a huge legacy, one that would probably be unmatched”

Te Pāti Māori party co leader Rawiri Waititi said Wira had been a guiding light for Maori – especially his Ngati Porou people.

“I thank you for the support you gave me in my political career your council, your advice and koha you gave for the two campaigns I have run in. You were proud to know that Te Whānau a Apanui was sitting in parliament and representing our people. You have left a huge legacy, one that would probably be unmatched. We are proud to call you our own and now it is time to rest,” Waititi wrote on Facebook.

Māori Development Minister Willie Jackson said Wira had the ability to work with everyone in the political spectrum.

“He was so influential and the number one Māori public service in our history. He came to see me when I became Minister of Māori Development to offer any help he could.

“He was the fix it man and it didn’t matter if was Labour, National or Māori Party. Wira would help.”

Jackson said Wira could also be quite crass.

“He had a language at times that some didn’t like. Like the time him and Hone Harawira had a dust up at Waitangi Marae.

“Wira or Hone weren’t going to back down to anyone.”

Jackson said he would remember Wira as a mate and real decent bloke.

Council of Australasian Museum Directors c/o Mr Brian Oldman, South Australian Museum PO Box 234 Adelaide, South Australia 5001 Australia, © CAMD 2022
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