For a five–star superwoman, Caren Rangi has been able to keep a suprisingly low profile. She’s still very much a Cook Island Māori even though she was born, raised, and schooled in Aotearoa. But, from her Napier home, where she lives with her freezing works partner and two children, she’s taken on a host of high–level roles in health, education, broadcasting, business, the arts — and in leading the recent Whānau Ora review. It’s that sort of non-stop action that led to her being awarded an ONZM last year. In this interview, she tells Dale about some of what she’s been up to.
Kia orana, Caren. I’m assuming that’s the right greeting for a Cook Island Māori, but I imagine there’s some variety in the dialects of the 15 main islands in the Cooks. And perhaps you’re one of the many who’d prefer that the country was no longer called the Cook Islands?
Well, I’d rather it wasn’t, because that name is a result of people coming from afar and deciding what they’d call our country. And there’s an interesting debate going on now about us getting back to having a Māori name. Our problem, though, is that we didn’t ever have one name for our group of islands. We probably had four or five names. So there isn’t just one right one.
And, as for the greeting, that can depend on where you’re from. My mum, Berry, is from Manihiki, a little island in the northern group. And although my father, Tupuna Rangi, is from Rarotonga, the main island, his dad was also from Manihiki where the customary greeting is Tēnā koe.
But you were born and raised here in New Zealand, weren’t you? What was it that brought your mum and dad over here?
My mother came out here for school in the 1960s. She was very bright and had gone to Rarotonga because it was the only place where you could go to college. She passed New Zealand School C there. One of the first in the Cooks to do that. Pretty cool, eh? And she was sent over to do her last year of schooling at Napier Girls’ High and Hukarere.
Dad was very clever, too. He and Mum had been sweethearts at school in Rarotonga, and he decided that, if he was going to keep hold of her, he needed to follow her. So he got himself a Department of Lands and Survey cadetship and he was sent to New Zealand, too.
After she finished at high school, Mum went to teachers’ college in Ardmore and then collected Dad from Wellington, where he was playing rugby for Oriental Bay, and they shifted down to Christchurch. Some might say that was an interesting step at that time because there were hardly any Cook Islanders there, but one of the reasons they went there was that they wanted to forge a life of their own.
So Mum became a teacher at Princess Margaret College and Dad worked for Lands and Survey, as well as playing rugby for Belfast and then for the Canterbury Māori team. They’d asked him if he was Māori and, of course, he said yes. Then, a while later, they asked him if he could lead the haka, and he said: “Aw, yeah. I could if you’ve got some drums.” And they said: “How far north are you from?” And he said: “Really far north.”
So that was the first time they’d had a conversation about him being Māori but not from Aotearoa.
Well, that’s neat a love story, isn’t it?
Yeah, it is. And they’re still together and they live around the corner from us in Napier. One of the reasons we shifted back there 11 years ago was so our kids could spend more time with their grandparents.
And where do you come in their brood?
Oldest. In fact, oldest of the oldest of the oldest for five generations back. Oldest girl, and that’s been quite an important factor for me in a number of ways. In terms of responsibilities, for a start.
But, in a long line of staunch women, I’m probably one of the least staunch to be honest. Although I’m the mother of the staunchest one and the daughter of the second most staunch, and granddaughter of the third most staunch. I’m pretty mild compared to them.
My grandmother passed away only last year at the age of 91. She and Mum and my grand-aunties would often talk about our grands who came before us. Like my great-great-grandmother who lived to the age of 104. They made them tough in those days in that northern group. And I think it’s really important that we role model strong leadership for women — not women by themselves but women alongside men.
Your early years, so I understand, were in Christchurch.
My brother Geoff and I were born in Christchurch at a time when very few Cook Islanders were down that way. There was Mike Pero and his family, there was us, and maybe two or three others. So it was interesting growing up there. And our parents loved it. But we left when I was seven because it was too cold.
So they looked around the country to see where Dad could get a transfer. Tauranga and Napier were two hot places they looked at, but Mum liked Napier so off we went. My schools were Tamatea Primary, Intermediate and High — and it was at Tamatea High that I took on my first real leadership role as the head girl. Fast forward thirty-five years and I’m chair of the board of trustees and our son, Mika, is the head boy. So we’ve kept up our connection with the school.
Then, from Tamatea, you headed off into accountancy. How did that come about?
Well, I hadn’t been into entertaining that idea at all. In fact, in my seventh form year, all I really wanted to do was become a professional dancer. That was at a time when Cook Islands dancers were going out in troupes internationally — and, for me, that would’ve been the ultimate because I’d been a keen dancer ever since intermediate school. But, of course, my folks didn’t approve of that so I went over to the dark side and did an accounting degree.
That came about because Mum had a mate, Marion Cowden, who was the manager of the local Audit NZ office. At that stage I didn’t even know what an audit was, but she told Mum that there were scholarships for tertiary study, and that could mean a job in the holidays and a job for a few years after. And she wondered if I’d be interested.
Given that I had no idea what I was going to do — and also that I wasn’t going to be a dancer — I thought it was as good an offer as any. So that meant that when I finished an accountancy degree at Massey, in Palmerston North, I joined the audit office and became a public sector auditor.
That doesn’t sound very fancy, but it was a really interesting job looking at how the public spends its money. So I had a year at home and then came to the big smoke in Wellington and was there for the next 20 years.
Originally, I was just doing bread and butter auditing, but then came the opportunity in the head office to do a one-year policy job and then seven years of management. There I was given lots of opportunities and challenges, like being sent to parliament to brief select committees by myself and fielding tricky questions from MPs. It’s the kind of stuff that, if it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger.
An accounting degree and all that Wellington work is about as far away from Cook Islands dancing as you can get. And it was bloody hard work. But it’s been a good base for a whole lot of the things I’m doing, especially on various boards.
Auditing and accounting expertise is so valuable for all businesses that I suppose your whānau would’ve been tempted to make use of your skills in all sorts of way.
It’s an occupational hazard. When you’re a designated chartered accountant, a top priority for you is that you’ve always gotta be on the door at the socials to get the money. You can’t just go off and have a dance. I’m still doing that at the age of 52. Yeah. Gotta count the money at the door. That’s my job at home. (Laughs.) But also you get hit up quite often to be the treasurer on such and such a committee. As recently as three weeks ago, I was on the door counting the money at our local Cook Islands hall in Flaxmere.
Good on you, Caren. That keeps your feet on the ground, doesn’t it? But let’s go back to your time in Wellington.
After I finished at the Office of the Auditor-General, I had a brief stint working overseas as a consultant before coming home to work in Māori community development for a small Māori consulting firm called Kāhui Tautoko. That was at the time when Māori health providers were just starting to develop — and they were followed, slowly, by Pacific health providers.
So I got to work for Tūhoe, and in Central Hawke’s Bay with Māori providers. And up in Tai Tokerau with Hauora and Hone Harawira’s radio station. And I loved it because I could see that, if that work was done well, New Zealand was going to be a much better place. And I still think that now. I absolutely subscribe to the idea that, if we get it right for Māori, we get it right for Aotearoa.
I’ve had lots of Māori women role models along the way and I’m always grateful to the Māori Women’s Welfare League for their support in starting PACIFICA and getting Pacific women organised and into our own organisations.
I did a stint as the national president of PACIFICA a few years ago and I’m really proud to have done that, following in the footsteps not only of awesome Pacific women leaders but awesome Māori women, too.
When it comes to Māori and Pacific leaders running their own affairs, there’s the problem that the Westminster system has taken over and dominates us. That’s happened right across the world wherever people have been colonised.
No doubt in the pre–European Cooks there was a sophisticated political system that moderated the behaviour of people in their own Pasifika ways, but that’s been dismissed or downgraded by the mainstream political system. So I wonder if you harbour some hope that one day we’ll get the best of both worlds with a merged parliamentary system that takes the best from both whaakaro?
We seem to have forgotten that, pre-colonisation, we’d always had our own ways of living and ruling and governing. And we wouldn’t have survived as a people if we hadn’t been organised and been clear about our roles and responsibilities.
Before colonisation, Māori here and in the Cook Islands were healthy. We were fearless, too. We were world champions in navigation and top scientists. That was a time that I hope we can go back to, when we were at the top of our game, and we were setting the rules for the game.
This might sound a little bit ungrateful, although it’s not meant that way. But, if I reflect on what people may refer to as the achievements in my life, a lot of them are achievements based on western measures. I got the degree, got some good jobs and positions on boards, and got the ONZM.
And look, I’m really grateful for that recognition but, if you ask me how I measure my own success, that’s being an awesome mother and daughter and partner, an active community member, being able to recite my genealogy back 10 generations, and being able to bring good cultural capital to New Zealand decision-making.
So I look forward to the day when our people can be setting our own standards of success and measuring ourselves against those standards. That other stuff is important, but it’s not the be-all and end-all.
I like your style. You’re sounding slightly radical, Caren Rangi ONZM. You’ve been on heaps of boards — and broadcasting is one. What are your observations there?
Well, broadcasting first and foremost sets the tone and flavour of our understanding of each other. It plays a huge role. And I fell into broadcasting, initially, when I was appointed to the National Pacific Radio Trust. I had no governance experience, but the idea behind the board was that it should be a board of Pacific professionals. So there were a couple of us who were accountants, a lawyer, business people, too — and it was really exciting that we were getting a chance to set up this national radio network.
I’d seen my parents’ excitement the first time they heard on National Radio anything to do with the Cook Islands, whether it was music or drums or whatever. And I knew about the importance of radio for our Pacific communities. So I was keen to support that initiative.
It was hard work, though — and it was basically starting from scratch. The first cheque I wrote as treasurer was for $7 million for 17 transmitters. My hand was shaking. That was a good 16, 17 years ago now. These days, we’ve got Niu FM running fine and 531PI. So we have Pacific voices, Pacific music, and Pacific news governed by Pacific people. And that’s really cool.
Not that it all went smoothly. As part of the set-up, we had a fairly public stoush with the provider of our radio service. And I had a difference of opinion with the chair at the time and decided that the most responsible thing I could do was resign, because I couldn’t continue to be on a board where I felt my views weren’t aligned with the leadership.
But it taught me how important it is to be at the table. So I started looking around at tables to be on. NZ On Air was probably my first big board. I loved it. I was on there for six years. And I’m proud that, during my time there, there was a first ever Pacific broadcasting strategy which set the basis for wonderful initiatives like Coconet TV.
It might’ve been different if there was no Cook Islands voice at the table. I don’t know. It could’ve been all right, but you’ve got to be at the table to contribute effectively and to get some things done.
Your work has led to all sorts of different opportunities, especially in encouraging more Māori women on to boards. And leading to you chairing the Whānau Ora review. Let’s touch on that for a moment, because many people see Whānau Ora as one of the most significant changes in delivering social services in New Zealand history. What do think about that whole review now?
When Peeni Henare, the minister, asked me to be the chair, one of the factors for me was that I was already on the board of an organisation called Pacific Home Care Services, which was started by two elderly Cook Islands women and has been around for 30 years. It became a Whānau Ora provider and I saw first-hand the difference it made for whānau.
There was no longer outside institutions bringing ready-made solutions and saying: “Here, we’ve got one of these for you. Will that do?” So I’ve been a supporter of Whānau Ora, both as a philosophy and as a practical approach.
So when I was invited to chair the review, I was keen to help because I felt there was so much misunderstanding about what Whānau Ora is and isn’t. For instance, there were the myths that it’s just for Māori or that it’s just a Māori Party thing. Or that it’s not going to last much longer. All of these things were just untrue. I felt that the review was a good chance to finally get a clear picture of Whānau Ora — and we could get an up-close look by talking to whānau and asking: “Does it work? Does it work for you?”
I’m really happy with the report that we wrote and I feel confident that Whānau Ora brings positive change for whānau. It’s a bit early to say that it’s sustainable change because, after all, in this form, it’s been around for only a couple of years.
It was a big piece of work, and I lived, ate, and breathed Whānau Ora for nine months. But we produced this clear picture for the government. And then Whānau Ora got an extra $80m in the budget. So, that’s pretty cool.
I understand that despite all your commitments here in Aotearoa you’re busy with other work back in the Cooks. And you’re spending a week there every second month. But you’re also often in touch with Ngahiwi Tomoana who, like you, has some enterprising ideas, such as marketing our fish under a Hawaiki brand and firming up the ancestral connections between Māori and our Pacific whānau.
The Takitumutanga which he’s working on has been a fabulous example of what we might do as Māori combined if we really put our minds to these connections. Tama Huata was a huge supporter of re-cementing our Takitimu-Takitumu connections across Aotearoa, Cook Islands, and Sāmoa, and he was supported by Ngahiwi. It’s just gone from strength to strength. What I love about living in the Hawke’s Bay is that it feels so good to have that connection with local iwi. It really is special.
I give Ngahiwi a hard time, because I’ve told him that our relationship should enable us to vote in the Ngāti Kahungunu elections. He hasn’t let us yet, but I’m working on him. We’ve got the next Takitimu festival coming up next year. That’ll be a time that we can connect and celebrate.
Almost finally, Caren, I note that you weren’t able to follow up on your professional dancing ambitions. But I’m hoping you can still shimmy with the best of them?
Oh yes. I still can and still do, although no one pays me to do it. But that’s all right — I don’t care. But I do love it. It’s in the blood. My dad was a very good drummer and composer, so growing up and being able, in suburban Hawke’s Bay, to express myself as a Cook Islander through dancing and singing and teaching has been, and still is, important for me.
And your plans for world domination by the Cook Islands?
I’m not sure how feasible that is, but it started when I was out one night with some fellow Kuki mates: Adrian Orr, Hamish Crooks, and Alfred Ngaro. We were reflecting on the fact that, for a relatively small country — there’s about 130,000 of us globally — we’ve got a whole lot to celebrate. We’ve got people who’ve done really well in their fields, and we don’t, as a community, celebrate their achievements nearly enough.
And we talked about whether, if we were to keep growing our level of influence, we could eventually see Cook Islands world domination. Hashtag CIWD. That’s how it started. And, as much as we laugh about it, it’s been a mission of mine to keep reminding our community that we should celebrate every time we’ve got something to celebrate.
In fact, it’s got to the point where people are sending me details of Cook Islands achievements. And there was talk on Tagata Pasifika the other week about an example of Cook Islands World Domination. So I hope we keep hearing about more of our fabulous people who’re doing wonderful things.
And finally, finally. Could we have just a little more about your family?
Well, I’ve got one brother, who I mentioned before. There’s only two of us. Me and Geoff. He’s the father of a five-year-old and a 23-year-old. We lead quite different lives. But having him nearby as one of my touchstones helps me keep in touch with what’s real for single parents who are struggling to do the best they can.
I’m lucky I’m surrounded by people like him and my darling McKenzie, who’s the best freezing worker in the boning room at Silver Fern Farms, Takapau. I feel really lucky that I get to do lots of fantastic things but I’ve got people around me who keep me grounded — and keep me on the door at socials. And they include our boy, Mika, who’s 18, and our daughter, Kaiata, who’s 12 going on 25.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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