Amanda Malu, who heads Whānau Āwhina Plunket. (Photo: Estella Misa)

Plunket occupies a special place in the hearts of many mums here in Aotearoa. Some 85 percent of newborns are seen by Plunket nurses — but only 50 percent of Māori babies. That’s a worry given the importance of the first 1000 days of a baby’s life, and it’s one of the challenges for Amanda Malu and her team. 

The Kāi Tahu woman who’s led the 114-year-old organisation for the past seven years seems to have been destined to take Whānau Āwhina Plunket into the future. As she explains to Dale in this interview, her connection to Plunket goes all the way back to the beginning.


Kia ora, Amanda. Your CV tells us that you did heaps of interesting mahi before you signed on as the Plunket’s CEO. But perhaps some things are just meant to be — because, all along, you’ve had whānau links to Plunket?

Gosh. I still get goosebumps thinking about that connection. 

I came to Plunket seven years ago. And I soon decided that this was an organisation that I could see myself working for, long-term. But I didn’t come here knowing that I had any personal connection to the Plunket story. It wasn’t until I started delving into the history that I learned about that.

If you’ve read anything about Plunket’s history, you would’ve come across the name of Dr Frederic Truby King. And you’d be forgiven for thinking that he’d singlehandedly founded Plunket. But that’s only half the story.

Truby was the superintendent of the Seacliff Asylum, north of Dunedin, in the early 1900s. And he lived in Karitāne, just a few kilometres from Seacliff. 

He’d started focusing on paediatrics and child welfare because his adopted baby daughter wasn’t doing well. And he became convinced that, if babies were better nourished and mothers had more support, then child mortality rates would fall. And he began to promote his ideas.

Well, it turns out that my great-great-grandmother, Mere Harper, and another older tohuka, Ria Tikini, lived in Karitāne. And they were practically Truby’s next-door neighbours.

Mere and Ria were both of Kāi Tahu and Kāti Huirapa descent. They were healers and midwives — and they’d delivered dozens of babies over the years.

In 1906, when Ria was 95, they brought Tommy Rangiwahia Mutu Ellison into the world. 

Tommy’s older brother had died as a baby. So, when Tommy also became ill, Mere and Ria took him to Truby King — and Truby took Tommy into his home and, under their combined care, he thrived. And within a year, the Karitāne Home for Babies opened. That was the beginning of Plunket.

So, these two wāhine — one of whom was my great-great-grandmother — were there on Day One of the Plunket story. 

But I didn’t know any of this until I started reading about the first Plunket baby — who was Tommy. And when I saw his full name, the penny started to drop. 

I knew that my great-grandmother on my dad’s side had married twice, and her second marriage was to Matupara Ellison. And I remembered hearing about an Uncle Mutu. 

So I jumped on the phone to my older sister Wendy. “Mutu Ellison was the first Plunket baby. He must be our relation, right?” And Wendy said: “Of course he was! That’s Uncle Mutu.” 

So it turned out that my Uncle Mutu — my grandmother’s half-brother — was the first Plunket baby.

And then when we talked some more, I found out about Mere’s role. And I was like: “Oh, my gosh.” I couldn’t believe it. I’ve had a photograph of Mere on my bookshelf for as long as I can remember. I knew she’d been involved with healthcare back in the 1900s. But I had no idea she was one of the founding midwives of Plunket.

After that, it became a bit of a mission for me to make sure the stories of Mere and Ria were told. And it highlighted for me how the lives and achievements of wāhine Māori can just vanish from the official record. 

Mere Harper (left) and Ria Tikini. (Photo supplied)

Awesome, Amanda. And I gather all this burst into colour when you took the Plunket leadership back to Karitāne last February. Can you talk us through that hui? 

We decided to celebrate Plunket’s 110th anniversary with a noho marae at Puketeraki Marae.

It had been hectic and, during that run-up, the anniversary felt like one more thing on a long list of busy-ness. But, when I arrived, that stress just melted away. 

My sister Wendy travelled down from Morven to do the karanga and lead us on to the marae, and my cousin, Suzanne Ellison, was performing the karanga on the home side. All of my family was there, my mum and my brothers and sisters. That was so special. 

It was like a homecoming. It affected me on a really spiritual level. 

It was just incredible to go back and lift our tūpuna out of the shadows, and to say: “These women, they were part of the story. So, let’s raise them up.”

While we were there, we unveiled our new visual identity, and in the tohu designed by Len Hetet, which is called Ngā Pae o te Harakeke, Mere and Ria are represented right at the heart of that design. 

I love that they’re there in the heart of who we are again. 

The pōwhiri at Puketeraki with Amanda’s sister Wendy calling the Plunket team onto the marae in June. (Photo supplied)

Thanks, Amanda. Would you be kind enough to describe your clan to us?

I’m the youngest of five. I was born in Blenheim and grew up in Christchurch. But I’ve always felt drawn back to Morven, in South Canterbury, which is where my dad, Winsom Heath, grew up. 

Back in the day, Morven was a bustling village, and Dad grew up there on “Māori Road”. It’s a very Kāi Tahu story, in a way. A blend of farmers and the local Māori community who pitched in together to build the Māori Hall down at Waihao.

My mum, Helen, who’s a pretty cool woman, is Pākehā. English, Scottish and Irish. She’s 85. Dad passed away at 65. 

Growing up, we’d also spend our holidays in Karitāne, which is where my dad’s mum, Ripeka, is from.

And what about your schooling, Amanda?

I went to Wharenui Primary in Christchurch. Except everyone called it “Warranui” back then. I look back now and cringe. Then I went to Christchurch Girls’ High. 

I grew up feeling very proudly Māori, but I didn’t have the reo. My dad didn’t have it, so that’s why we missed out, and it wasn’t even an option at high school. 

So, on the one hand, I grew up feeling strongly engaged in who I am, but at the same time, I felt disconnected. 

At high school, I competed in Manu Kōrero — speaking English, of course — and I learned how monocultural my school was. 

In the first competition, I had a support crew of three, including my mum and sister. It was surreal to be surrounded by these strong kaupapa Māori schools with their big support groups. 

What did you speak about? 

I’m embarrassed to say. It was a kind of “Why can’t we all just get along?” speech, about how we could solve our problems if we all just came together as New Zealanders. I was Pollyanna-ish, I guess. I look back now and shake my head: “What was I thinking?” But it was all I knew at the time. 

That’s a very nice term you use — Pollyanna-ish. Since your school days, things have changed, though, haven’t they? And we’re now expecting schools to weave more real history into their teaching these days.

At school I studied Tudor England, or something equally ridiculous, and I couldn’t have told you anything about New Zealand history. 

I think it’s  a terrific step in the right direction now. And I think the fears that teaching more New Zealand history is going to cause difficult conversations are poorly thought out. Difficult conversations are what we need! 

So, even here at Whānau Āwhina Plunket, every staff member at Plunket is doing an online programme that we’ve had developed. It’s called Being a Better Treaty Partner, and it’s designed to teach the history that people weren’t taught in school, and it also talk about privilege, implicit bias and racism. 

Fantastic. Being a Better Treaty Partner. Did you champion that, or was it something that Plunket had already started before your arrival there?

One of the things I’ve been pushing in my five years as chief executive is understanding the organisation’s own whakapapa, and being open about owning the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Part of that has been bringing back the story of Mere Harper and Ria Tikini — and acknowledging Truby King’s unacceptable views on eugenics and the harm that those views have caused for Māori. 

Two and a half years ago, our board agreed to prioritise outcomes for Māori because there’s been a lot of talk about equity but not a lot of prioritisation of resources to achieve that. 

That commitment has really helped. And the Being a Better Treaty Partner programme is something we piloted early in the year, and it got fantastic feedback from the mostly Pākehā staff who completed it.  

So, I made the captain’s call that it’d be compulsory for every staff member in the organisation. We hope everyone will have completed it by the end of this year.

It seems that you were destined to take up this work at Plunket. But I know you also had a long time in other mahi after varsity. 

Probably the most significant role I had was the first. I was lucky in that Lincoln University took a risk in appointing me as their first Māori liaison officer, Te Pou Hereka. I wasn’t a fluent speaker — yet they chose me. 

None of the other universities had a Māori liaison officer at the time. Back then, liaison officers were usually retired male Pākehā teachers sent out to recruit students.

So, I turned up — and I’d have been a third of the age of some of these men. And I was charged with recruiting and supporting tauira Māori to study at Lincoln. 

For five years, I travelled the length and breadth of the country talking about tertiary education and about Lincoln. 

Often, I was just encouraging Māori students to think about tertiary education. Then, I was supporting the students who did enrol — who I felt enormously responsible for. 

That was the most magical experience in my life, and it set the foundations for my career. 

I decamped to Wellington in 1996. I worked for the Central Institute of Technology (that’s now Weltec) and then I spent four years at the Maritime Safety Authority. 

I then did four years at the Families Commission, and we launched the “It’s Not OK” family violence campaign in that time. 

From there, I went to the Tertiary Education Commission, then did a short stint at ESR (Institute of Environmental Science and Research). And I came to Plunket seven years ago.

David Ellison holding a photo of his father Thomas Mutu Ellison, Plunket’s first baby. David is the upoko for Puketeraki Marae. (Photo supplied)

Plunket is a massive organisation, isn’t it?

We are big. We have around 1100 staff. There’s a corporate support office here in Wellington, but the vast majority of our staff — including about 650–700 nurses — are out working in communities. Then there’s the kaiāwhina and health workers who support our Plunket nurses and families as well. 

Our core service hasn’t changed. That’s visiting homes and hosting clinics for families. Our reason for being is to support parents and ensure that babies get the very best start in life. 

It’s pretty simple. But, still, we’re unique in the world. 

And we celebrate that. But I also know you are very frustrated that so many families, sadly most of them Māori or Pacific, are in poverty. Your thoughts there, Amanda?

That’s one of the key drivers of the change that we’re trying to bring about. We see 85 percent of newborns — but only half of the Māori babies. 

Our responsibility is to make sure we’re doing everything we can to deliver the services that families need, when and where they need them. And to make sure that, where possible, we’re giving more to those families who need more. 

That’s a real challenge for us, because we’re a universal service. We have 114 years of national expectation that everyone who has a baby will get a Plunket nurse who visits them. 

I think that’s going to have to shift because of the money. There isn’t a limitless resource. 

So, we’re challenging ourselves to make sure that the whānau who are in most need of our support are getting that support. 

That doesn’t mean that other families will miss out. But it may mean they get a slightly different version of the service if they’re already coping and confident and the baby is developing well. 

If we can free up some resource, or spend more time with families who aren’t doing so well and need more support, then that’s good for everybody. Because those first 1000 days of a child’s life are so important. 

Awesome, Amanda. And do you have children yourself?

Yes, I do. Between us, my husband and I have six children in our beautiful blended Māori-Sāmoan whānau. We have three girls. Mamaeroa, Whena and Talosaga, who are 26, 23 and 21. And then three sons — Ulutoto, Rihari, and Patrick, who are 26, 24 and 19. 

Thankfully, they’re all grown up now — our youngest is nearly 20 — so we survived getting them through to adulthood.

You’re a prominent wahine toa and we’ve got many Māori women now taking the helm of top organisations and assuming roles previously unavailable to them. And they’re doing a great job, aren’t they? 

Yes, it’s fantastic. We’ve spent a long time talking about getting more women into leadership roles — but what wasn’t being raised in those conversations was: “What about wāhine Māori?” 

I just love it that we’re seeing more and more Māori women step up and lead strongly, but with heart as well. 

Over my career, I’ve watched a generation of women leaders who had to duke it out with the men on their way through — and their leadership style reflects those battles. 

But I see, in a lot of Māori women leaders today, a beautiful mix of strength and heart. You need that strength and heart in equal doses. 

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

© E-Tangata, 2021

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