The rise of former GP Shane Reti up the National Party’s ranks has been fuelled by a meticulous attention to detail, Dileepa Fonseka reports

Ask Dr Shane Reti for more details on any one of National’s health policies and he’ll pull out a folder full of tabs, clear plastic pockets, and lists with handwritten notes in the margin.

Every headline policy has been numbered and broken down into sub-points and sub-points of sub-points.

The details aren’t written anywhere on the final policy document. They exist solely for Reti’s peace of mind.

“I love the detail. If I understand the detail there’s no question you can ask me, there’ll be no audience I can stand in, no podium I can stand beside where I won’t be able to answer the questions.

“I like to be able to understand the detail and then I can build the whole picture from there.

“If I only understand this [higher] level there’s going to be a question – there’s going to be something underneath that – that I won’t know and I need to know that.”

Along with larger ticket items the National Party’s health policy this time around was littered with smaller initiatives, including a return repository for unexpired, unused pharmaceutical drugs.

“I’m very good at taking chaos, and filtering.”

Those kind of details make Reti’s eyes light up as he describes them – even though he knows they’ll largely go unnoticed and unreported.

He puts his obsession with building a bigger picture from ground-level detail up down to his history as a General Practitioner (GP) with a speciality in dermatology.

“When I get a referral from some of my colleagues it’s ‘Shane they’ve got a red scaly itchy rash’. Every single time that’s what it is.

“So you take this red scaly rash and then you run it through a diagnostic and you break it down through an algorithm until you’re getting it into sub-components.

“I’m very good at taking chaos, and filtering.”


He took over National’s health portfolio amongst a sea of chaos.

Not just Covid-19, but two leadership changes and the abrupt exit of Michael Woodhouse from the portfolio after it was revealed he had received confidential information about confirmed Covid-19 cases.

Reti describes the health portfolio as a “massive big amorphous beast” where any change to it can cause a lot of unintended consequences. 

“It’s why I have some sympathy for Chris [Hipkins] for example because you push on one side of health and this amorphous beast will bulge somewhere [else].

“And unless you’ve got experience you never will guess where the bulge is going to be.”

Knowing the detail

Reti is a man of routine. When his office was at Bowen House – across the road from Parliament – he walked the long way into the house.

It was an opportunity to ask himself three questions: What is my purpose? Why am I here? Am I effective?

“That becomes my compulsory moment. Am I still doing the job I need to be doing?”

Reti does all his own speechwriting and wants every speech of his to be worthy of critique in a first year English or Politics class.

It requires him to maintain a gruelling research and writing schedule to make sure he never delivers a “fill-in” speech. He admits his need to prepare thoroughly can hamper his ability to speak off the cuff the way other politicians might.

”But, if you know the detail. And if you know the detail as well as anyone else in the room you can speak authoritatively.”

And he laughs when asked how he maintains a work-life balance. He believes he understands the importance of it, but says his children are all grown-up and his family have given him permission to devote “110 percent” to this job. 

“It’s what I do. I live and breathe this role.”

Heading to the States

He’s had a purpose of some kind all his life. When he was eight years old he started carrying around a small medical kit in his lunchbox with cotton wool swabs and a couple of plasters.

He doesn’t remember when or why the dream of being a doctor took hold. Then again he doesn’t remember ever losing it.

Reti and his four siblings grew up in a state house in Hamilton. During the day their father was a carpenter. At night a commercial cleaner who vacuumed floors and cleaned toilets.

“I worked the hardest that I’ve ever worked. I mean every waking hour.”

He says the whole family had a sense education was a ticket to better things.

By seventh form (Year 13) Reti was picked by Rotary for a rare year-long homestay experience in the United States. It exposed him to wealth he’d never seen before. His host family were multi-millionaires and would travel around the country in a private plane.

“I [saw] pictures of him playing golf with Clint Eastwood.

“So you can imagine going from working class Māori in Hamilton to a host family that’s ‘Wow!’.

He also saw the responsibility his host – the biggest employer in town – carried on his shoulders. Every decision he made on the factory floor would reverberate through the whole community. 

“I watched and saw him come home and worry and ponder. If there was a change in one of the shifts people were going to be laid off, potentially, and that was going to have a big impact through the town.

”That was a real learning experience I wouldn’t have had at 17 if I’d stayed in Hamilton.”

Reti took over at a time of great turmoil within National. Photo: Marc Daalder

The whole experience might have broadened Reti’s perspective, but it meant he hadn’t completed seventh form when he returned.

His only way into the medical profession was a “non-standard” one: to get good grades during a one-year science course.

“I worked the hardest that I’ve ever worked. I mean every waking hour.

”I’ve still got my result slip from [the University of] Waikato. I’m not going to tell you the results, but I still look at them.”

Reti would return to the United States a while later. This time in 2007 after he’d moved to Northland, spent 20 years as a GP and served three consecutive terms on the Northland District Health Board (DHB).

He became a New Zealand Harkness Fellow to Harvard University. The fellowship was for one year, but they invited him to stay on as an assistant professor.

“Culture trumps everything. If you don’t understand the culture of a community. The culture of a country. You will not be able to deploy health policy that matters.”

Working out of Boston he would read the Boston Globe and Wall Street Journal then scout CNN every morning to keep track of developments across the board including small details like who scored well for the Celtics.

It was all part of a bid to make sure he was never left out of the informal water-cooler discussions at his workplace which kicked off at 10.30am every day.

“That’s a discipline and a habit that I have here today. I wake up. I scout all of the media. I scout my emails. I look at what’s happened offshore and I make sure I’ve got myself as up to date as I can be. And I start the day.”

’Get the workflow right’

His stint at Harvard was largely focused around the use of data and electronic tools for medicine. It included helping deploy health information technology to medical clinics in the Middle East. Another instance where small details on the ground would end up having major policy implications.

Once, after deploying a diabetes screening tool they developed, Reti and others started noticing people weren’t filling in a lot of important health data where it was meant to go.

Health professionals were putting their readings into a comment box at the end instead – because it was quicker that way – which stopped the data from being tabulated correctly.

“If you don’t get the workflow right people won’t do it or they find a workaround which isn’t what you intended. That’s a problem in health. It’s a real problem.

“Culture trumps everything. If you don’t understand the culture of a community. The culture of a country. You will not be able to deploy health policy that matters.”

Walking in both worlds

He credits Maori culture for a lot of his own personality traits from a fondness for storytelling to a sense of spirituality. The latter seeps out every now and then – like when he describes first seeing Tane Mahuta, our largest known kauri. 

“It’s almost a visceral experience. You come around the track and then suddenly Tane Mahuta is there. This massive giant rising into the clouds.

”And just for a minute you think ‘I need to bow to you’.”

After medical school Reti made the move north to re-connect with his roots. His Father’s family come from Russell and his mother’s great-grandparents landed at Hokianga.

He would discover other callings in Whangarei too. During his stint on the Northland DHB he became a qualified chartered accountant after board members noticed he had a knack for financial reporting and digging into accounts.

Discovering National 

Reti also discovered the National Party after his move north, largely thanks to his predecessor in the Whangarei seat, Phil Heatley, who took him along to a party meeting in Greenlane about 15 years ago.

“It affirmed what my thoughts had been that ‘yeah, this is the value set that works for me – that I’ll tag my colours to – these are the principles that I share and this is my team’.”

When Heatley was about to announce his retirement Reti – who was still at Harvard back then – received a phone call from some people in the local electorate leadership team asking if he’d be interested in taking over the MP’s seat. 

He counts himself privileged to be able to walk in both the Māori and Pakeha worlds, but acknowledges National has a challenge to show Māori what they can do for them.

At the moment he believes this message is being drowned out by other voices, but that doesn’t mean National should stop trying.

“Many people can say fine words. That’s easy, but who can understand the detail and the workflow that can actually deliver it for you?

”That’s the part that gives Māori time to ponder for a moment.”

His solution is always to point to the positive things for Māori that happened under the National Party’s watch. From the establishment of Māori wardens to kōhanga reo. 

”When I’ve been in meetings in the North with Māori I’ve heard the conversations in the background: ‘oh, but he’s National. He’s blue’. 

Then he hears them say “Yeah, but he delivered our children”.

”And it’s alright. Everything’s alright after that.”

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