Matthew Tukaki stepped down from an Oranga Tamariki advisory role into a job as head of suicide prevention. Photo: Screenshot 1 News

Comment:  Labour Party deputy leader Kelvin Davis gave some pretty sketchy reasoning when trying to explain why senior advisor Matt Tukaki was subjected to no real scrutiny when hired on $1000 a day. It seemed good enough for Davis that Tukaki was well known.

“I’d heard about the stuff he’d done apparently overseas,” Davis said. Which almost suggests media profile and promotion is now a factor in getting a high-level government advisory role.

That was Davis’ response when 1News journalist Yvonne Tahana raised serious questions about details of Tukaki’s CV that didn’t seem right. Davis’ excuse is rather thin because he appointed Tukaki to a crucial role as chairman of an advisory board that is supposed to be sorting out the troubled Oranga Tamariki. But instead of Tukaki being thoroughly vetted, Davis relied on what Tukaki said about his backstory in the media.

Tukaki has built that considerable media profile thanks to some lazy journalism that hasn’t bothered to ask some basic questions. It’s as if journalists are happy to find a Māori who will talk on any and all subjects if he is handed the mic. Pakeha journalists from across all sectors of the media – and a few Māori ones as well – have rushed to Tukaki to seek comment on all things Māori.

It appears this is based on a couple of things – he’s held (or given himself) important sounding titles that could give the impression he represents Māori. And he’s made himself available, with a lot to say. Most journalists have very few deep contacts in Māori circles so when they are compelled to do a story on some Māori issue they haven’t got many people they can go to when facing a deadline. Tukaki gave them an easy out.

Broadcasters couldn’t help themselves because he always had a controversial soundbite. There’s a tendency to try and find that definitive Māori voice who can provide quick quotes when some national issue requires a soundbite to drop into the “Māori say” slot. Tukaki has become a convenient go-to.

The problem is, no-one speaks on behalf of Māori. I doubt even King Tuheitia would make such a claim. There are a few Māori leaders who might be able to pull together a coalition of Māori voices to speak with unity on some kaupapa of the moment, but Māori have a jealous tendency to always retain the right to speak on their own behalf. Even a kuia of Whina Cooper’s mana struggled to hold together the coalition of Māori interests that swung in behind the Land March of 1975. What is so hard to grasp about this – Māori are as diverse in thought and opinion as any other group of people.

Tukaki has also been given a platform on Radio Waatea to have his say. Willie Jackson was the original version of this Māori shock-jock but he’s in Parliament and now Minister of Broadcasting, so Waatea obviously needed someone to fill in. Conveniently, Tukaki seems to endorse much of what the Labour Government is doing.

Tukaki did have a prominent role at the Maori Council but this soured when he was voted out at an election – a result he still refuses to accept – and the Council started looking at his time more closely. That scrutiny  led to the Maori Council making official complaints to police and others, including Jackson, as Minister of Māori Affairs.

On the Oranga Tamariki appointment, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of people who are more qualified and with stronger credentials in child protection than Tukaki. I’ve run across a number of people who are completely baffled at how he was appointed to such a crucial role. The general gist is, “who is this [guy] and how did he get that job?”

I started asking questions about Tukaki last year and followed up with further coverage in May. TVNZ’s Tahana has also found a number of reasons to question his standing. Here’s a roundup of what’s been reported so far:

  • Last year a letter was sent to Willie Jackson questioning the legitimacy of the Maori Council’s elections, elections that had seen Tukaki get voted out. This letter was written after Tukaki and others took a case to the High Court to try and challenge the elections. The case was tossed. The letter wasn’t signed but it had a list of names that was led by Tukaki. However, some people listed on the letter did not know their names were attached to the letter and did not agree with its contents.
  • After looking into their accounts the Maori Council made a complaint to the police about Tukaki and others regarding funds that were paid out at a time when no one had such authority post the elections. Newsroom has confirmed police received that complaint and were investigating.
  • I reported that a government contract Tukaki signed on behalf of the Māori Council when he was executive director was transferred to another entity under his leadership after he had left the Māori Council and no longer had authority to do so. This contract was for more than $900,000.
  • Yvonne Tahana’s reporting revealed Tukaki’s claims he led Drake International through the global financial crisis and held power of attorney for the Southern Hemisphere at the recruitment company weren’t so, according to the company. He’d held a general manager’s role for policy and government for a year.
  • He also claimed he was appointed by the Secretary General of the UN to a board. A UN spokesperson told Tahana that the role Tukaki had was an elected one and wasn’t a direct appointment by the Secretary General. Furthermore, Tukaki had to resign because of “an alleged serious breach of director’s duties, including misrepresenting himself at meetings with the Australian Government.”
  • Tahana also reported that Tukaki had overcharged Oranga Tamariki to the tune of $60,000. That amount was paid back.

That’s a fairly significant list of issues. Despite this, Tukaki has just been appointed to a government role in suicide prevention after stepping down from the role at Oranga Tamariki. 

It also seems someone within the Beehive may have been tipping off Tukaki about the media’s inquiries. It is starting to look like Tukaki is being assisted by government ministers and bureaucrats because any serious scrutiny could expose a lack of due diligence on their part. The questions over Tukaki as an individual also hang over the government that has appointed him, which in most cases would make such a person a political liability.

Many in the wider media have been conspicuously silent on these issues. To give the revelations air time could be a tacit admission that previous reporting and promotion of Tukaki could have been  naive and less than thorough. 

His time at Oranga Tamariki, on the Māori Council and appointment to the suicide body should surely be subjected to a whole lot more scrutiny by both the media and those in Wellington.

Aaron Smale is Newsroom's Māori Issues Editor. Twitter: @ikon_media

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