Sir Jerry Mateparae: Ex governor-general combats sexual assault within NZ military

By Jessica Tyson

Former governor-general and Defence Force chief Sir Jerry Mataparae is breaking the code of silence over sexual harm and assault within the New Zealand military. He’s part of Operation Respect, a steering group tackling sexual assault and violence, harassment and bullying behaviour in the armed forces.

It was launched in 2016 but an independent review conducted four years later found significant barriers to its progress. The review said the programme lacked transparency and accountability of the NZ Defence Force’s progress in addressing and preventing harm. It also found the culture in the military still encouraged a “code of silence” preventing personnel from raising concerns of speaking out.

“It’s the addressing of sexual harm, sexual assault, and so on in the Defence Force. So I'm part of a panel of externals on this steering group, who just in some parts challenge, in some parts inform, the Defence Force about what it's doing,” Mateparae says.

Mateparae, of Ngāti Tūwharetoa and Ngāti Kahungunu, says the military has a long way to go in tackling sexual assault. During his time as a panellist in the steering group, he’s learned how people have lower levels of respect for others than he learned growing up.

Sharing the right things

“I always was of the mind that ‘Would you expect this behaviour to be okay for your wife, for your mother, for your sister, for you, for your best friend in terms of males versus females'. So that was always my reference board because that's how I was brought up," Mateparae says.

His role in the steering group is about “explaining to people that it's not only about what is acceptable for you and what you would do, but what the right thing to do is and sharing with them what the right things are to do.”

Mateparae has spent more than 50 years working in the public sector including top levels in the military before becoming New Zealand’s 20th governor-general in 2011.

He’s since settled with his wife in Kāpiti and Operation Respect is just one of many projects he’s been involved in since leaving the governor-general’s office. He’s also working on projects on diabetes, cardiovascular assessment and circulating tumour DNA, which can detect cancer in the blood. Closer to home in Kāpiti, he’s also part of a coastal panel monitoring rising sea levels.

Leadership in the military

Mateparae’s career in the military started at 17. He served in both battalions of the Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment from 1976 and with the New Zealand Special Air Service.  

“I had the unfortunate experience to have had some people killed on my watch. They were doing their duty for New Zealand in a dangerous situation and a dangerous place. 

"To engage with the family was probably the biggest challenge," he says.

“The biggest thing for me was to ensure the people I was with knew I was committed to them as much as they would be committed to the endeavour that we were about. That stems from being in the military because you rely on the person next to you. So it's making sure that that they were looked after, particularly in the sad times.”

Mateparae’s success as a leader led to him becoming the first officer of Māori descent to be appointed NZ Defence Force chief in 2006.

“One of the things that I enjoyed immensely was providing mentoring arrangements, not me mentoring people, but connecting some of my subordinates with people who I thought that they might learn some things from.”

Experience as governor-general

Mateparae was the second Māori to be made governor-general, after Sir Paul Reeves. He says his experience being knighted was a little different from most because he was knighted by the Queen at Buckingham Palace.

“Being able to meet her at Buckingham Palace, having a private audience together with my wife and three of our children, it was special, and she's just so welcoming. She sets you at ease. It was a great opportunity.”

Mateparae has been told he’s been lucky with the opportunities he’s been given but he has a different perspective on luck.

“I think I've been lucky but, behind it, you do have to make your luck and you do have to learn to make your luck.

"In all of it, I'm being reminded all of the time, it's about being kind to people. You do need to be kind to people because that’s what we are. Whether it's family, whānau or casual acquaintances it’s much better to be friendly.

Mateparae appeared on Te Ngākau Tapatahi, a show profiling Māori dames and knights. The new "series from the Māori Television newsroom is running this week on Māori Television at 12pm. Find the first five episodes on Māori+ now and the full series from Sunday, January 23.