Dame Cindy Kiro is our new governor-general — New Zealand’s 22nd, so we’re told by those who’ve been counting — and the fourth woman to be appointed to that position. The three other women to serve their five-year term have been Cath Tizard, Sylvia Cartwright and Patsy Reddy. All dames, like Cindy, and high achievers, too.
Cindy’s pursuit of a deeper understanding of the systemic issues behind some of our most entrenched social problems has led to achievements in the academic world — including at Auckland University, where she was Pro-Vice Chancellor (Māori) — and to key roles, such as Children’s Commissioner, from 2003 to 2008,
Here she is, chatting with Dale about how her background, and especially her focus on enlightened social policy, has prepared her for her new job.
Tēnā koe, Cindy. Ngā mihi and congratulations on your new mahi. I’ll start off, as I often do, talking of names. And your name is quite unusual, isn’t it?
Yes. Alcyion Cynthia are my legal names. People will have heard them when I swore the oaths. I don’t know how a pōhara kōtiro (a poor girl) from the wop-wops of Te Tai Tokerau ends up with two Greek names. If someone can solve that little challenge for me, I’d be very interested.
But I do have a feeling about why, and I think it’s related to the Māori Battalion and World War Two — the close relationship between the New Zealand army and what happened in the Greek islands in particular.
And one of the things that made me think of that is a trip I made to Crete for an NGO that I was working with at the time. We had our international meeting in a little fishing village.
It was at the end of the tourist season — and to say that the locals were fed up with tourists, particularly English-speaking ones, wouldn’t be an understatement. They were not pleased to see any more visitors.
We were sitting in a little taverna over the water, and the waiter came around, and, as he put the menu in front of me, he said: “Māori?”
First of all, he said Māori, not “mow-ree”. And I said: “Yes, from New Zealand.” He was so happy to meet someone who was Māori from New Zealand.
That told me about the way in which the legacy of New Zealand’s war effort in Greece is still remembered, even up into the present. They haven’t forgotten the heroic deeds of Māori who went there and became part of their community, who protected them. And they still recognise and celebrate that today. So that could be one explanation for why I ended up with two Greek names.
You studied epidemiology in Italy. And, looking at your photograph, I thought you can probably pass as an Italian wāhine as well.
They did think I was a local mamma. And, when I was in Washington DC, people thought I was Latino. They thought I was Chinese when I was in China. Most people work out that I’m Māori here in Aotearoa New Zealand, so I consider that a pretty good success rate.
What interested you about epidemiology?
I’d taken a great interest in the importance of public health and in the opportunity to effect change at a systemic level in a way which could benefit many people, not just individuals.
So, I was drawn to understanding the patterns of illness and disease. I couldn’t have foreseen at that time that Covid-19 would be here with us, but of course Māori do remember — and vividly remember — the “Spanish flu”. They also remember tuberculosis and the other epidemic diseases that have killed so many.
Those memories are still quite raw in places, and I know that Ngāpuhi have been talking a lot about that in light of the Covid-19 epidemic and the importance of protecting our population.
I know you’re from a whānau of six from the north. Will you describe your upbringing and where it was, and about the lines you carry?
Kiro is my mother’s maiden name — Ngawaiunu is her first name. My grandfather’s name was Te Rangi Haeata and my grandmother was Hukatere Miha Maihi from Te Tai Tokerau.
My father’s name is Norman Simpson. He was born in the north of England and left school at 14. Everyone in his village went down the coal mines at 14, but he didn’t want to work in the mines so he joined the British Army. He moved to Australia when demobbed and then came to New Zealand for a brief holiday — which obviously lasted a long while.
My brothers and one of my sisters have the name Simpson. The other sister has Kiro. I have the name Kiro because I was one of the mokopuna raised by our grandparents.
My grandmother, in particular, was steeped in knowledge of tikanga and whakapapa, and she wanted me to be with her. So, I took on their name and was with them for part of my young life, and then with my father and mother, although I went by the surname Simpson at school.
I like to think I had the benefit of being brought up in both a traditional Māori family, where Māori was the first language, and also a modern family. My grandparents didn’t speak to us in te reo. They spoke to each other and all their visitors in te reo, but they were of the generation that had been punished for speaking it, so they spoke to us in English. They believed that was the right thing for us.
I grew up with an overwhelming sense of responsibility, being the eldest of the mokos who were whāngai’d by their grandparents, and also being the eldest of my five siblings.
Tuakana status is interesting, isn’t it? It’s not something you choose, but it’s a responsibility that weighs heavily on those who have that role. How did it sit with you and influence the sort of person you are?
It’s probably had quite a profound influence, although one of the things that’s instructive is that I still am close to all of them. We don’t differentiate the way that other families might. My first cousins are as close as brothers and sisters, and we still are a loving extended family. It just so happens that I remember changing their nappies.
You ended up down here in Tāmaki. What brought the family to the big smoke?
They were like many of the people in the Māori diaspora. It was increasingly difficult to sustain themselves doing farm labouring work. They wanted the bright lights of Auckland, where there was a lot of work. It was a magnetic place. New jobs were emerging. Lots of opportunity for young people.
So, my grandparents moved to Ōtara and then to Māngere, and they formed tight bonds with their neighbours, some of whom were related by blood, but many of whom were related by common experience.
My grandmother and grandfather were both part of the National Māori Council when it was being formed. My grandmother was also a JP. I went to her swearing-in at the Ōtahuhu District Court, something she was immensely proud of — and we were, too.
At her swearing-in, a whole heap of tough-looking guys showed up wearing their gang patches. They all called her “Ma,” because she used to go around policing the neighbourhood, with her Māori Warden’s outfit on and her hair up in a bun. She was in her 60s then.
She’d tell them off. She wasn’t scared of anybody, and she’d tell them what they should be doing. But she was also running the community gardens and got them working to provide food for the local community. She was a very community-minded and community-involved person.
But I always remember the image of her at this solemn ceremony and these rough-looking dudes saying: “Yes, Ma. Yes, Ma”, and being deferential to this old lady.
You went to Rutherford High School, and I can’t think of Rutherford without thinking of Dame June Mariu and others supporting our rangatahi in West Auckland. What connection did June have with you?
June was hugely influential in my school years, and I’ve credited her with helping to keep me on track in my school years. She was able to show me that it was a positive experience to be Māori, and also to aspire to be well-educated.
Another person who was influential was Pita Sharples. I was in his kapa haka group and ended up being in Te Rōpu Manutaki when Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip visited. That was the first time I met her. I was about 17 at the time.
I had a lot to do with Hoani Waititi marae, including being one of the founding members of the kura. My children, Kahu and Dylan, went there for a while.
I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but I went from third form right through to seventh form learning Māori in the first class where Māori was offered in secondary schools. Also in that class was Pio Terei, along with many other memorable characters. There was one Pākehā kid who was with us. That was Michael O’Reilly. And Pio, who’s a native speaker, was incredibly disappointed when Michael got top of the class.
I reassured Pio when I saw him recently that at least he was beaten by someone who’s gone on to become a leading professor in Polynesian and Oceanic languages.
Were you the first in your whānau to go on to varsity?
I was. I don’t think anyone in my family, including me, understood what university was. My family were slightly bewildered because I kept going to school. All of my cousins had stopped school after the fifth form. They went out and got jobs and were earning money, and I was still going to school, which seemed a bit odd to them.
But they were always supportive. They didn’t understand it, but they thought it was important. And they were very proud when I got both School Certificate and University Entrance — and then got bursary and went on to university.
That was quite a courageous thing on their part. To not really know what it means but to think it’s probably a good thing, and to be supportive of pursuing it.
I’m intrigued that you studied social policy. It’s not an area that many of our people delve into. Why was that important to you?
It’s like the question you asked about epidemiology. It’s because I thought it was a great opportunity to understand the bigger picture. It’s difficult to grasp how decisions made by agencies or the government affect the lives of individual people, if you don’t understand how that system works.
It was my desire to be able to helicopter over and also to zoom in on all of this. I wanted to understand it in more than just a fleeting way. I wanted to make sense of why things happened, how they happened, and where there might be opportunities to make improvements.
And that’s one element in this governor-general role. The opportunity to meet so many different people is something that I look forward to. For example, tonight at Government House, we’re hosting about 90 people from the international diplomatic corps, representing 45 countries.
The opportunity to meet with skilled and respected people who are promoting and looking after their countries’ interests, and to develop multilateral relationships, strikes me as both enjoyable and important for this country.
Tell me about your interests. How do you keep yourself refreshed?
I love being in the outdoors, in the natural world. I’ve done all the Great Walks, some of them twice, even though I’m not a natural athlete. I’m getting on a bit, so next time I think I’m going to do a guided walk where they carry your pack. You only carry a day pack. And then you have a hot shower and a meal. I think that sounds grand.
I’m constantly amazed at the beauty of this country. I can’t imagine being in a place that doesn’t have New Zealand’s kind of spectacular sights and wildlife, the birds and the lizards and the insects. To me the flora and fauna is just incredible.
I don’t want our tamariki and rangatahi to lose touch with the natural world. I want them to get out and enjoy it. To treasure it. To be curious about it. That’s what I want us to learn to do.
What was the most satisfying experience in your time as Children’s Commissioner?
It was the opportunity to speak independently with anybody about the needs of children. I could speak to the judiciary, I could speak to the executive, I could speak to parliamentarians. I could speak to the media, to community organisations, and directly to children and young people.
The role included monitoring all the children’s and young persons’ and youth justice residences. Each year, I’d visit them all and meet with the kids in there. The memorable thing is the opportunity to have open and honest discussions and even debates with all of them. And that’s something that’s not easy to come by in any career. I feel privileged to have had that opportunity.
During that time, you set up the Task Force for Action on Family Violence. Family violence has been a stumbling block for our wider nation, but particularly our Māori whānau over generations. And you called for more attention to be afforded it by all government departments. When you look at where we are with that, have we improved as much as you might’ve hoped?
I don’t want to comment on something that’s quite active, as I understand it. The government is doing something, and I’d rather leave that as a policy discussion for them.
But I can tell you that I spent a long time working to promote safe whānau, and certainly, as an academic, I focused on the importance of a loving adult being in the life of every child.
During my term as governor-general, one of the priorities is to shine a light on community organisations, iwi organisations and institutions that are doing work that promotes resilient, healthy children and young people, including tackling difficult issues such as mental illness.
These organisations are not all big. They’re sometimes community or whānau or hapū-based initiatives. I want to spend my term highlighting their work as a way of giving us hope that we can have a better future.
As a wahine Māori, you’ve broken a few glass ceilings, particularly in academia. What satisfaction do you derive from being the first to assume some prominent roles, such as Pro-Vice Chancellor Māori at Auckland University?
First off, I don’t think of myself often as the first to do anything. I see myself as wanting to do a role for particular reasons, and then doing what I can to secure it and getting on and doing it. Then I think about how I can mentor and encourage others to come through.
And I always see people of enormous ability who are capable of taking on that role. My goal is that, for every role which I have, I can identify at least two or three other people able to step into my shoes and take over that work. I feel that anybody in a position of leadership who doesn’t do that is failing as a leader.
You’re well aware that many of our people over generations have been critical of the Crown. Now you’re the governor-general, the Queen’s representative. Are you a monarchist? Or do you sense one day we may embrace republicanism? And how does that role sit with the many Māori expectations of self-determination and mana motuhake?
You’ve asked a lot of questions!
You can pick one if you want.
Do I take them in whatever order I want?
First of all, the question about our constitutional arrangements is entirely one for the public of New Zealand. That’s a decision that they’ll make, not me.
Obviously, I’ve sworn an oath to the Queen. I did that for my swearing-in. I stood and swore an oath to the Queen, her heirs, and successors. And when I swear an oath, I take to heart what my grandmother taught me from the early days: to do my utmost to uphold the spirit of what we say. So that’s what I’ll do. I will act in good faith in every way I can to fulfil my obligations to her, and to her heirs and successors.
The question about Te Tiriti and about Māori more generally is an interesting one, but it’s one that, ironically, I don’t feel at all conflicted about. I’m proudly Māori and I’m also proudly British, and many Māori have this dual heritage, and sometimes even multiple heritages. This is part of our modern experience.
We mustn’t ever get to a point of denying the truth of history or what happened, and that’s not at all what I’m suggesting. We have to own up to the difficulties of the past and we have to negotiate a way forward together in a respectful manner.
And, again, I hear my grandmother’s voice in my ears when she said Te Tiriti o Waitangi is a sacred covenant between two peoples. This was a woman who grew up at Waitangi, so that was partly her papakāinga.
I’ve been to Waitangi many, many times, and I will always engage at Waitangi and with Te Tiriti in a way that respects that sacred covenant and what that means in terms of how we negotiate the relationship and the partnership between us.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
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