Iwi mourn the death of Sir Wira Gardiner

updated By Wena Harawira

Sir Wira Gardiner has died after a long illness. He was 78.

His wife, former National cabinet minister, Hekia Parata, said Sir Wira died at home with his family in Gisborne. 

A tangihanga will not be held, at the express wish of Sir Wira, to "prioritise public health and the demands currently on frontline workers". However, a memorial service is planned at a later date.

Sir Wira Gardiner was of Ngāti Awa, Ngāti Pikiao, Whakatōhea and Te Whānau-ā-Apanui descent.

He had a long career as a senior public servant. He was the first director of the Waitangi Tribunal, the first chief executive of the Ministry of Māori Development (Te Puni Kōkiri) and the first Māori to be appointed as the national director of Civil Defence.

‘We share the loss’

Today Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said Tā Wira "left behind a legacy that cannot be measured". 

"A tireless advocate for his people, he has been a trusted and respected advisor to all shades of government for decades.

"Throughout his many roles it has always been clear that he has been there to improve the lives of others, and he did. His legacy has helped shape Aotearoa," the prime minister said.

The chair of Te Pūtahitanga o Te Waipounamu, the Whānau Ora Commissioning Agency for the South Island, today said he shared with the nation an overwhelming sense of loss at the passing of Tā Wira.

"I had the great privilege of spending time recently with Tā Wira, in the context of his leadership of Oranga Tamariki," Te Pūtahitanga o Te Waipounamu GPL chair Tā Mark Solomon said.

"As part of the Ministerial Advisory Group to Oranga Tamariki, we worked closely with Tā Wira in his role as acting Secretary for Children and Chief Executive of Oranga Tamariki. He was the perfect partner to our relationship. We needed management authority and direction to place priority on the relationships with whānau and Māori.

'Be strong'

"We needed that instruction from the top to entrust decision-making and funding to Māori; and to be committed to developing a positive culture. In true military fashion, Tā Wira set about constructing his game plan and the results were immediately obvious."

"In the announcement made of his role with Oranga Tamariki, Tā Wira shared words of encouragement which I think epitomise his approach to bring us all forward with him: "Me kii pēnei ki a koutou katoa: Kia kaha. Kia maia. Kia ū tātou. Continue to be strong. Be courageous. And you will succeed. Your success is our success."

"Over the years I have also appreciated his leadership and wise counsel in his various roles with the Waitangi Tribunal, the Iwi Transition Agency and Te Puni Kōkiri. Moe mai e te rangatira. Our loss is enormous."

"We remember his significant imprint in the building of the Whānau Ora approach, through the transformation he led to commissioning," says Helen Leahy, Pouārahi of Te Pūtahitanga o Te Waipounamu.

"Since its inception in 2010, the Government's investment in Whānau Ora had focused on achieving outcomes with provider collectives. Whaea Tariana (Turia) wanted to see increased emphasis on the uplift in whānau capability. Tā Wira was called in to create a more flexible delivery mechanism which would see direct investment, located closer to whānau."

"Tā Wira oversaw a wide review of options, eventually recommending the establishment of commissioning agency functions in 2013. It was a significant departure from the original model; requiring substantial policy, structural and financial reform to support the commissioning approach. Tā Wira was up for it." 

"Enduring impacts'

"With true grit and steely determination he led the change process, and the 'commissioning for results' model was introduced. It is now a core delivery model, focused on building whānau capability to self-manage. We are indebted to the inspiration and ingenuity of Tā Wira in providing an option which would have enduring impacts for whānau across Aotearoa."

"Our love and sympathies are with his darling Hekia, his children and mokopuna, and the whānau pani who grieve over a husband, father, brother, koro and very good man."

Māori Development Minister Willie Jackson said Tā Wira used to tell a story about his high school teacher who told him at the age of 15 he should leave school and go work on the railway because that was the limit of his capacity.

But Jackson said Tā Wira's capacity for service had no limit. "He gave to his country as a soldier, to his people as a leader, to the public as a servant and to Māori as a trailblazer.

"Sir Wira has held numerous positions throughout many governments from across the political spectrum. One of the most symbolic to me is as the founding director of the Waitangi Tribunal and the first chief executive of Te Puni Kokiri.

"I would like to think that Te Puni Kokiri was moulded in his image. Today it stands as a ministry committed to serving our people as its founder, Sir Wira, would have wanted.

"Sir Wira was a storyteller. Over a cup of tea he would share tales from his time in the army or about the history of the Māori Battalion. He was also renowned for putting those stories on paper - with many of his books staples in Māori households across Aotearoa.

"His love for literature comes as no surprise. He told me when he built his house in Ruatoria he built the library first - then all the rooms for humans.

"Although he is no longer with us, his stories and his books will inspire many generations of Māori for years to come." 

'Dedicated to the nation'

Sir Wira served in the Vietnam war and retired as a lieutenant-colonel, the highest-ranking Māori officer at the time.

He gained degrees from Canterbury University and Kings College at the University of London, and wrote extensively on a range of subjects such as kapa haka, the Māori Battalion and a biography on the life of former minister of Māori affairs, Parekura Horomia.

Building Māori-Crown relationships was his speciality especially in Treaty of Waitangi settlements, fisheries, broadcasting, local and regional government and tertiary education.

Sir Wira was also known as a "trouble shooter". Before his illness he was appointed as the head of the embattled children's agency, Oranga Tamariki. He also led a controversial review of Waikato University's Māori faculty following claims of racism by Māori academics. 

Sir Wira served his own iwi of Ngāti Awa by establishing Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi and served as its deputy chair.

In 2008, he was knighted for his services to Māori and in 2012 was awarded an honorary doctorate in Māori development.

In her statement, Hekia Parata described Sir Wira as a man who was ‘dedicated to the nation of Aotearoa-New Zealand and faithful to the Māori people’.