If you were going by Matthew Tukaki’s school achievements, you wouldn’t have put much money on his being the most likely kid to succeed. As he tells Dale in this interview, his education story was nothing if not consistent: he didn’t pass anything, but he had a good time.
Fortunately, that wasn’t the end of his story. He went to Australia, like so many New Zealanders, and made his mark in a number of high profile roles, including as head of Drake International, as a broadcaster and entrepreneur, and more recently as the chair of Suicide Prevention Australia, which he joined after his best friend took his own life.
He’s still based across the ditch, but we’ll likely be seeing a lot more of him in Aotearoa as well — he chairs both the Māori Council (Auckland district) and the National Māori Authority. Here he tells Dale about the path he’s been on.
Kia ora, Matthew. Let’s start with your people. Can you tell us about your nuclear whānau and the wider Tukaki clan?
I was born and raised in Upper Hutt. My dad had the best first name I’ve ever heard: Midwinter. His middle name was Tahunarewa. So it was Midwinter Tahunarewa Tukaki. From Matakana Island, just off Tauranga. Matakana Island is very much known for the valiant nature of its people, so it probably set the scene for a large part of my life.
Dad was a Māori Affairs trade trainee. And then a plumber and gas fitter and an A-grade squash player who passed away when he was just 46 years old from an aneurysm. He was your stereotypical cheeky Māori. And while he was really good at what he did as a plumber, in our house the hot tap was the cold tap and the cold tap was the hot tap, and if you wanted a bath you’d have to run the hose through the window.
My mum, Margaret O’Flaherty, is Pākehā, and also from Upper Hutt. She worked in the Ministry of Transport. They were both incredible human beings. We didn’t have much, but what we had was hard worked for. Dad worked a couple of jobs. He did plumbing and also shift work at the Dunlop tyre factory in Upper Hutt. He did roofing, he did all sorts of stuff.
Mum was the same. As well as working at the Ministry of Transport doing licences, she’d work at a coffee shop in Maidstone Mall and she’d pull pints at the RSA in Upper Hutt. It was a house full of love, but it was also a house of hard work.
I have three siblings. My older brother, Reuben, lives back on Matakana Island doing share-milking and farming. My sister, Rachel, works at the Ministry of Transport. And my little brother, Michael, is Willie Jackson’s chief of staff and used to be the principal secretary for Parekura Horomia, all those years ago, when Parekura was Minister of Māori Affairs.
So that’s my little nuclear family. I’m Ngāi Te Rangi. Mataatua is our waka. My middle name is Tamahae. Although my middle name should be spelt with an “e” on the end, Dad didn’t know how to spell it properly on my birth certificate, so he spelled it with an “i”. So I’m forever having to fill out land variation forms to correct the spelling in my middle name.
Tukaki is our tupuna from Te Kaha. He sits on top of Tukaki marae. And Tamahae was his son. Down the line of Tukakis, my grandfather was Tamahae, I’m Tamahae, and my nephew is Tamahae. So, very fortunate whakapapa, I think.
It’s a very interesting one, too. With a name like Midwinter, I’m assuming your dad was part of the urban drift. What would you say about the surge towards the cities of the 1950s and how that’s impacted the Māori world?
Well, it’s interesting, it played a part in my life, too. I was no good in school. School didn’t agree with me, and I didn’t agree with it. I think Mum pulled me out before I was going to get suspended. I was dispatched, like my father was dispatched many years before, to Papatoetoe, where my house parents were Ben and Bella Tari. Their son, Peter Tari, was a local cop. So, of course, there was no getting out those windows at night for naughty business.
But I was kind of like my dad. I drifted towards the big urban centre. When you’re from Upper Hutt, you think Auckland’s the biggest place in the world. They sent me there because there must’ve been opportunities, because there wasn’t much going on in Upper Hutt.
Dad, on the other hand, grew up on Matakana Island before they shifted to the mainland to be with my nan and my pop. Like many Māori, he was sent away on a training course to get a trade, to have a job, and next minute, he finds himself in Upper Hutt of all places, because that’s the place that they could afford.
Dad was there with Mo Pene, Jack Te Whetu, Toi McRoberts — all of them came from right across the centre of the North Island towards the coast. All of them ended up on Gemstone Drive in Upper Hutt. They all married girls from Sacred Heart or St Mary’s College. All of those girls were friends from both schools. It must’ve been one hell of dance.
Dad had the garage at the back of the house, and that’s where everyone would come to party. The guitars would be out. The long neck bottles. Crates. And the chat would be humming. Of course, they didn’t have to drive home because they all just lived up the road. And their children, when they had children, we became friends and went to the same schools together. Everyone’s children hangs out with each other.
You went to St Patrick’s in Silverstream, which is a private school. I suppose that was a sign of commitment from your folks.
I went to St Pat’s because, on the Pākehā side of the family, Mum’s brothers all went there. My older brother and my younger brother also went to St Pats. For me, the experience was quite challenging. I was in this place where I didn’t know who I was.
I was 13 years old, I was rebellious, I was naughty, I was the class clown. I was all the nightmares a teacher doesn’t want, wrapped into one bundle. And I was thrown into this network of really rich kids. And, of course, we didn’t have a huge amount of money.
One day, Dad dropped me off at school outside the front gate in this old beaten-up Morris Minor. And he tooted the horn, and everybody watched as I got out of this car that looked like it came from the wreckers yard. For me, it was just confronting.
The one thing I got from school — because I didn’t pass School C, I got nothing — is I met some good mates. I’m going to Switzerland to be the best man at the wedding of one of my best mates from school. Thank God he’s married into a family with a lot of money or else I wouldn’t be getting on to that plane!
So school was a different experience to me. I was not academically inclined back then. A lot of the teachers had the approach of “read this book, learn this theory, you need to know this because this is what you will do in life.”
But I had this business studies teacher by the name of Paul Ellis, and he said something really interesting to me one day. He said: “Teaching is an art. It’s something we make up every day. Whatever you choose to do in life, you’re going to be making it up every day.”
And here I am, still making it up every day. You often walk into things and you don’t necessarily know what you’re doing, but you try to figure out the right way of doing things by not being boxed into conventional thinking.
You know, Matthew, I assumed you’d gone through varsity and everything because you’ve certainly had some high profile mahi across your career. Who were your mentors and the influences on you? What were you reading or listening to or seeing that helped shape your attitude towards some of our societal challenges?
Everything. Everything, is my answer. I would sit and read the newspaper. I’d read the business section of the Dominion Post. I’d also read the Turf Digest because Dad loved the horses, and now I love the horses, too. I would read voraciously. I wanted to know what was going on in the world in which I lived, and I didn’t know what it meant back then. It was like me trying to find out who I was and my place in the world.
I remember when CNN started up, I thought: “Wow, that’s the best thing since cornbread. That’s awesome. I now can see what’s going on in Africa and all those places.”
When world events begin to take shape and you understand where these countries are, you begin to learn about the history of the issues in those countries.
One of the best things Mum did when I was a boy was to take me to an electronics shop and buy me an old green screen computer. Partly, I conned her by saying: “If you buy me a computer, then I’ll do better at school.”
Obviously, that didn’t happen. But the computer came with this encyclopaedia programme called Microsoft Encarta. All of a sudden, I didn’t have to rely on the Funk & Wagnalls. Encarta had world history, everything. You learned about these personalities on the world stage, and here as well. In the Māori world, Titewhai Harawira, Dame Whina Cooper, Sir Graham Latimer, who were all paddling a different paddle but in the same sort of waka — Māori affairs.
That was just incredible to me. I sucked it all up. I learned about what was going on in my world.
Well, it certainly led to some interesting opportunities for you. I was looking at some of your roles: Drake International, UN, suicide prevention. What attracted you to that corporate world, bearing in mind that initially you thought you were going to be a tradie?
By that stage, trade training had changed considerably and included business studies. So I did the New Zealand Certificate in Business. I didn’t pass it. The story of my education is nothing if not consistent: I didn’t pass it, but I had a good time.
Still, I needed a job, and my first real job was at the Ministry of Social Welfare in Lower Hutt. It was just file purging, ripping pieces of paper off files and throwing them in the bin for shredding. After that, I applied for a job as a local case manager.
All of a sudden, I’m thrown into this world of granting people unemployment benefits, DPB, invalid benefits, and all this other stuff. Plus people coming in needing special needs grants for food and clothes.
I was giving people grants that I knew they couldn’t pay back, and it was really abhorrent to me. It also gave me an insight into both the world of extreme poverty and the world where some people play the system.
I didn’t like it, so I applied for a job at the Bank of New Zealand in customer service. I ended up as a personal banker in Lower Hutt. All of a sudden, I’m giving out overdrafts, credit cards and loans. Again, I’m in a position where I’m giving money to people that I know can’t afford to pay it back, and I’m thinking: “Shit, this is not me.”
I got out of it and went back to polytechnic to try that again, and moved home to Tauranga with my nan. I lived in a little orange caravan on her front lawn called The Bubble. I met a lot of people, had a lot of fun, and, of course, I ended up not passing.
Ultimately, I found myself in Lower Hutt in a job with a software company. Interestingly enough, it was that job, selling training for courses and conferences, that gave me the connection to the outside world. I’m selling this conference into Australia, and I think: “Maybe Australia is where I need to be. Maybe I need to fly away.”
So I got myself a $2,500 credit card and a passport, and my dad dropped me off at the airport in Wellington. And I was off on my big adventure.
Interesting stuff. And that’s morphed into an interesting life. Let me ask you something. Did having a Māori name ever hold you back?
No, it didn’t. I never saw that being a barrier. I was more concerned about not having enough money to move forward. I was fiercely proud of being Māori, and I still am. And also fiercely proud of being from Matakana.
I had no job to go to in Australia, but I knew something about recruitment, so I rang a recruitment agent in Australia, a guy named Justin, and I put on this thick Australian accent. The one thing I knew about recruitment agents is that they all go to the pub on a Friday. So, I’m like: “G’day mate. I met you at the pub last Friday.”
I mean, I’d never been out of the country before. I hadn’t met him at the pub on Friday. I was calling him from New Zealand before I even had my passport in my hands. He said: “Oh, yeah, yeah.” Recruiters — they love to lie. He said to me: “What job are you looking for again, Matt?” I said: “Anything in sales and business development.” He said: “I’ve got something for you.”
A week after I landed, I had my first job interview and got my first job in business development, selling software education training. And it was magical because the insecurity I had about my financial situation was all of a sudden gone.
Here I am, earning this magical number of $65,000, plus superannuation. When I was in New Zealand, I was on $25k per year. All of a sudden, I had this amazing job gifted to me because I used the same technique that Māori have used for a long time, which is the art of storytelling. I told a story to get myself into a job that I had no skills or qualifications to do.
And Justin, the recruiter, ended up being my best mate. Not only did he end up being my best mate, but he’s also the reason I ended up being involved in suicide prevention.
How did that work?
You know how it is. Your career grows, you become busier, you tend to lose sight of everyday things. I was flying between a multitude of countries. Justin would call and say: “Let’s get together for a beer.” And I’d say: “Yeah, yeah, next Friday.” And Friday would come and I would’ve forgotten about it.
And then Justin took his life. And though there is never a simple reason for suicide, I was so angry with myself for not recognising what he was going through, and that a simple beer could’ve made a whole difference. I don’t fully understand why he did what he did, but I was at a stage in my career where I could exert influence. So, I decided to use that influence and got involved in suicide prevention.
We’ve got deplorable stats here for suicide in New Zealand, particularly among our young, but certainly not restricted just to that age group. We’ve just had Gumboot Friday. Mike King is doing what he can, and I can sense some similarities in your approaches. What would you say of his efforts and others?
Let me touch on the situation in Australia first. When I joined Suicide Prevention Australia, I did so because of Justin. I wanted to find something that I could do, something I could contribute to an organisation.
Well, that organisation was broken. It was about to lose its Commonwealth contract, it had lost its influence, it had lost the trust of its membership, you name it. It was operating out of a two-bedroom apartment in Sydney.
So, I and one of my other mates, Murray Bleach, joined the board. Murray took on the chairmanship and I took on the governance side of things. It’s been eight years since I joined that board. I’m now chairman of the organisation and I can honestly say that that hard conversation we had all those years ago has turned into a massive amount of reform.
And while we’ve got a long way to go, we are far from where New Zealand currently sits. I came home four years ago, under the impression that New Zealand was doing much better than Australia. In fact, I found a system that was much more broken than we ever had in Australia.
Today, in Australia, we announced $465 million in additional investment in suicide prevention. And, the big one that Māori could be taking note of — we now have a $15 million investment in the establishment of what will become Indigenous Suicide Prevention Australia.
So, instead of a Pākehā voice or a Pākehā-type organisation, it’s up to indigenous people to set their own course. Not only set the course — they need to be in charge of it. They need to govern, administer and manage it. We’re a long way from a Māori organisation taking this up in New Zealand. It’s scary.
Congratulations, Matthew. It’s warranted. My own whānau have had quite a lot of interaction with the Aboriginal community out at Redfern. We know that we have abilities to assist each other. What would you say that we can learn from our Aboriginal cousins? And what do you think they would benefit from most, from our experiences?
This might be controversial, but I don’t think we can necessarily learn much from each other, other than the most powerful thing we can do is form collectives. We are first nations people, whether we be Māori, Aboriginal, or Papua New Guinean, Native American, Bolivian, or Peruvian. The common thread that links all of us is the mythology built around each of our own whakapapa.
The other thing that binds us is the art of the story. We have so much more in common than we have apart, and how we use that knowledge, our shared stories, is about collectiveness. I think we need to build stronger links with each other. Not necessarily to trade solutions with each other, but to understand how we can propel ourselves forward with the strength of where we come from.
What does that turn into? A united first nations people? I hope so. I’d love there to be that.
You seem to have a strong sense of social justice. When I look at the types of mahi that you’ve been involved in, a lot of it doesn’t seem prompted by the balance sheet. Yet I have a feeling that you could be a very wealthy man if you wanted to be. So, what’s the driver here?
You’re right. There’s no money in this. I don’t get paid a single cent. I just think that when you have the ability to influence things, or you can understand how you might be able to be a circuit breaker or switch things up a little bit, I think you’ve got a responsibility to do it. I think you’ve got a responsibility to act.
Now, whether that comes from my family, from Mum and Dad and the work ethic we grew up on — to be honest, I don’t know. What I do know is that, inside of me, there’s a great sense of, if you see something that’s wrong or broken, put your own personal circumstances to one side and act. Do something about it.
You’re a good communicator, so it shouldn’t surprise our readers to know that you’ve been a broadcaster as well with 2UE, a prominent Sydney radio station, or that you’ve written 10 e-books. How important have those communication skills been to what you’ve been able to achieve?
The first time I spoke in public was at the old Māori church in Ōtaki where I did my mihi. Once you’ve learned to overcome fear of public speaking, the world is your oyster.
With communication, there are four types of messages. You can choose to convey a message of woe, a message of hope, a message of aspiration, or a message of opportunity. I tend to go for those last three: hope, aspiration and opportunity.
We all know the first one. We don’t need to retell the woe. If you can communicate effectively around hope, aspiration and opportunity, you’ll get people to travel the journey with you.
But where does the hope, aspiration and opportunity come from? They come from listening. In order to communicate a message, you have to have listened to what the audience is telling you. Otherwise, you’re just making stuff up with no sense of direction at all.
Let’s talk about Māori. I’m pleased to see your involvement in our Māori political scene with the National Māori Authority, the Māori Council, the Iwi Chairs Forum and the numerous vehicles we have to advance taha Māori into the future. You’ve assumed a pretty prominent role here. You’re outspoken and challenging. That’s a breath of fresh air in many ways when we look at the Māori political world.
How do you sum up where we are at politically, both in central and local government, and what would you make of what’s a perceived standoff between the roles of the National Māori Authority, the New Zealand Māori Council, or the Iwi Chairs Forum?
I think we’ve got a long way to go. If we want to realise the aspirations of our true role as a Treaty partner, then we have to be honest about how far we have to go.
It’s not just Māori, it’s government, agencies, and the general New Zealand public and community. I think they’ve lost sight of what the Treaty actually means. Not only what it means to us as a nation, but what it means to us as Māori. There’s a tendency to see the Treaty as Māori, not as for all New Zealand.
We’ve had really strong leadership from different people at different times in the last 70 to 80 years. Apirana Ngata, Turi Carroll, Graham Latimer, Whina Cooper, Titewhai Harawira.
Now, I know what people say about Titewhai, that she’s just a serial protester, but you need that. You need people who are able to stand on the bow of the waka as the tide comes in and push back. Just like you need a Sir Graham Latimer who mortgages a house, or Sir Turi Carroll who forms a Māori Council, or Dame Whina Cooper who led a hikoi across the Auckland Harbour Bridge.
You need that sense of both push and pull in Māori leadership, and I think we haven’t set up our structures to better co-ordinate what that Māori leadership does, how it moves, and how it supports each other.
We’ve got a long way to go, but I have a real sense of renaissance of Māori leadership coming to the fore. I get pretty excited when I see people like Tane Cook, in his early 30s, from Mataatua, taking a prominent role when it comes to rangatahi. I was talking to him this morning about forming a Youth Māori Council like we did in 1968 and 1969.
What gives you most pride about our Māori people?
It’s got to be a sense of place. The one big thing that just makes me proud every single day is that Māori know exactly where they come from and who they are. We know our whakapapa, we know our place to stand. We know stories, we know all these things so we’re culturally connected as guardians of both the land and water. That drives purpose and passion. And I think this is something the Pākehā and non-Māori world don’t understand.
How confident are you the next generation of people will have the get up and go to move us forward?
Extremely confident. I hate it when people say: “There’s not that many talented Māori out there.” That’s nonsense. I come across Māori every single day that make me think: “Geez, you’ve got a huge amount of potential.”
I’ll give you an example: a fulla called Reuben. He recently graduated with a Master of Business Administration from Victoria University. We’ve pulled him into the bottom of the structure of the Māori Council to develop him up. We invited him to be an observer at the national hui of the Māori Council last November, as we did three other young people.
We’re trying to give as many young people with that sort of potential, with that aspiration to make a difference, to be, not on the sidelines, but actually included in what we’re doing. Give them an insight into how these old men, who are often criticised for sitting on the pae for too long, actually operate.
And, at the same time, I’m using it as a tool to say to the old people: “Don’t be afraid to give up the walking stick. Sit down and have a rest because we’ve got this group of talented Māori who are there.”
So, I’m not only hopeful. I know they’re there. And again, I couldn’t be prouder. They’re involved in some cool stuff. I sit down and have conversations with them about co-design and they want to know what’s going on in places like Ethiopia because they want to be involved in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. They’re involved in all of this stuff, which is incredible.
As we angle towards a conclusion for our conversation, a couple of very important things. What’s your go-to song on the karaoke unit?
Seven Spanish Angels, Ray Charles and Willie Nelson. That’s my go-to song. It was my dad’s go-to song.
My dad died three months after I arrived in Australia. When I came home for his tangi at Rongomai and we took him home to Matakana, there was this expectation I would stay. I felt the pull to stay. I’d lost my best mate. Dad would ring me every day. We’d share bets and we’d tell stories. It was as if he was living part of his life through me in a vicarious way. Mum and Dad were young when they had us. They hadn’t really lived their lives. Then Dad had an aneurysm and passed away.
But there was something inside of me that said: “Get on the plane and go back. You have a job to do.” So that’s what I did.
I’ve got to say, I’m so fortunate to have had a very strong father and mother. I speak to Mum every single day. Like Dad, she’s had a love of the punt, so we share our greyhounds.
Sometimes, as children, we don’t see the value and power of whānau. We rebel, we hit out, we speak and act all hōhā. It’s not until you get older that you realise that the people who shaped you are the same people who love you unconditionally. I was lucky. I was extremely lucky.
This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.
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