Rob Campbell. (Photo: Te Ao with Moana)

Rob Campbell got into a spot of bother early last month. In a social media post, he’d criticised the National Party’s plan for a reform of the government’s Three Waters policy. That wasn’t as politically neutral as he was expected to be in his role as the chair of the boards of two Crown entities. He apologised, but that wasn’t enough. The government dismissed him as the chairman of Te Whatu Ora (Health NZ) and of the EPA (the Environmental Protection Authority).

Rob is in his early 70s and has had a high profile career as an economist, trade unionist, businessman, academic and public servant, so there’s any number of issues he can discuss. But here he’s mainly talking about his fall from neutral grace.

He talked with Moana Maniapoto for Te Ao with Moana, and this is a lightly-edited version of their kōrero which screened on Whakaata Māori last Monday.


Moana Maniapoto: Some people in my circle have said you were the rockstar of the union movement — the Bono of the union movement. And then, they said, you went across to the dark side of the corporate and business world. Some haven’t quite forgiven you and are suggesting that maybe your recent comments are an attempt to redeem yourself. How would you respond to that?

Rob Campbell: I’ve heard that said. I guess I did have a period when I was a prominent union official and a political activist at the same time. I really blew up at a personal level and couldn’t handle many aspects of that.

(Moana: The “blowing up” reference is about his struggle with depression and alcohol which led to a decision to radically change his life. He ended up mainly in the business world, where he seemed to thrive. In 2017, for instance, he became the Deloitte Top Chair of the Year, and in 2019 was made a Companion of the NZ order of Merit for services to business and governance.

Then, only weeks ago he was sacked as the chair of Te Whatu Ora and the EPA for describing National’s alternative to Three Waters as “thinly veiled dog-whistling against co-governance”. He was accused of breaching the code of conduct for Crown entity board members — and the axe fell quickly.)

I’ve been saying things like that quite frequently about co-governance and about National Party and Act Party attitudes towards it. And the statement that was made by Christopher Luxon was quite clearly a dog-whistle to the racists in New Zealand.

You’ve suggested that your number was already up and this was just an excuse for the government to get rid of you. So, it wasn’t a surprise that you were sacked?

It wasn’t a surprise to me. I was aware some months before that there was pressure from some government ministers and from other ministerial officials. They didn’t like the way that I was performing my role as a chair. I was a more consistent and public advocate on equity issues than some ministers thought I should be. I spoke out on some public health issues, for example, on alcohol sales.

I guess you’d know that speaking out could be used against you — and you did it anyway.

Well, sometimes you’ve gotta do those things, if you believe strongly enough about them. I think we’re at a really interesting period in colonial history in New Zealand, where people are going to have to take stances more and more on what they believe in and where they stand.

I had a good laugh when I saw the news report of the prime minister describing the National Party’s Three Waters policy as “a dog whistle on co-governance”. And I thought: “Wow, Chris. Only a few weeks late but you sack me for saying that. But it’s  good that you’re on side, isn’t it?”

Is that because he’s a politician and you had a different role?

Yeah, that’s right. I had some rules that I had to obey. I think I was within those rules. But then it’s a bit like with rugby league players. They never think they’re off-side, do they?

But I’m not really arguing about that. The issues are far more important than whether I’ve got a particular job or not. I’m more interested in the efficiency and effectiveness, and particularly the equity of the health system. And, similarly, about Three Waters.

Christopher Luxon told me on this show that he’ll get rid of Te Aka Whai Ora, the Māori Health Authority.

I don’t know where Christopher Luxon gets his views on these issues, but he’s so badly wrong that it’s not even worth discussing that as an option.

I think the way that it’s been set up could evolve into something that did give Māori some genuinely by-Māori, for-Māori well-funded support for health services.

I know that the National Party had campaigned, and are still campaigning, against Te Aka Whai Ora, which they mistakenly think is an example of co-governance. They clearly want to eliminate anything that looks like any element of mana motuhake on behalf of Māori in the health system, probably everywhere else as well.

So it seemed to me exactly the sort of thing that the head of the health system, Te Whatu Ora, should be talking out about. And I don’t resile from that at all.

You could’ve stayed there, though, and proved them wrong by working with that new system that’s been set up.

Well, the system will go on without me. So yes, I could have. But, you know, there was a lot of dead rats having to be swallowed even in that structure.

I know you’ve been criticising the setup now.

I think that we have to rethink some parts of this. And my hesitation is not that I don’t have lots to say about the health system. I’m a little bit hesitant to be seen to be trying to tell Māori how they should play their role in it. I’m a big supporter of the people working in Te Aka Whai Ora and who are working in the kaupapa Māori activities all over the country in health. And I want to be as supportive as I can be.

The first thing is that they haven’t been given enough money. So there has to be a way, and Te Whatu Ora has to be pushing for a way, to get a whole lot of what is currently commissioned through Te Whatu Ora — get it transferred over into Te Aka Whai so that there’s some genuine pūtea for people to work with.

I think, secondly, there has to be some resolution of how this works alongside Whānau Ora. As I travelled around, it was really striking — and frankly a surprise to me, as it would be to many Pākehā — that, if you go to a kaupapa Māori health provider, you won’t find only Māori there. You will find an awful lot of Pākehā out there and not just during Covid times.

I remember this old Pākehā guy down in the Hawke’s Bay. I asked him why he was at this clinic? And he said: “Rob, do you know any other health clinic where they give you a cup of tea when you arrive?“

And I think a lot of Pākehā would be very surprised if we opened up a bit more about how that happens — and how it works. So that’s the hope that I see. And the more resources you can get into these services the better.

Incidentally, a little bit of the same is true in Pacific-based services. If you go to the Fono or to South Seas out south here, they’re not all Pacific Islanders who are going in and out of there at all. They’re people who are saying: “This fits the way I want to get my healthcare.” And that’s great.

You’ve said that you don’t believe we’re where we should be with health reforms, but that it’s a good start?

The only way to really make progress on that is the devolution of power over health decision-making, to the Indigenous people themselves — and money to go with it.

We know the problem and we know the solution. Some people don’t much like the answer. They want to try and pretend that you can use the old system which created the problem to solve it. That won’t do it.

So, it’s not a question of being party political. It’s just something that’s demonstrably wrong.

Are we getting any closer to the real business of co-governance with the health reforms?

I didn’t think that the health reforms are really a form of co-governance at all. Te Aka Whai Ora is clearly a Crown agency. It’s not an agency of Māori. It wasn’t created by Māori, and even things like the iwi Māori partnership boards which are being established, are an imposition on Māori — it’s giving them a way to participate in the Pākehā health system.

I think and hope that will be reasonably effective. But it’s yet another Pākehā invention as to how Māori might participate. I think that, given the quality of the people and the strength of the feeling that there is within Māori, particularly in the health sector, they will make more of it than that.

But they need a lot of friends. They haven’t got enough power, they haven’t got enough money and understanding of what the role of kaupapa Māori health services could really be in our new health sector. So, you know, we need to keep promoting that, but it’s far from co-governance.

So, if you’re that interested, why don’t you just zip it and stay in the job and do it?

Well, I guess I’m not a zip-it sort of person. If you have a public position of any kind, why don’t you use it? You wouldn’t find a public health person who wouldn’t be arguing with you that, in fact, control of water’s critical to health. Equally, they would argue that having tangata whenua involved in how health and how water is run in the country is pretty intrinsic to our whole way of life.

Did any of your board members offer to step down in solidarity with you?


Did you think about getting a union rep in?

Well, funnily enough, I did. I did talk to a couple of people in the PSA after I got sacked and said: You know, if only they’d told me I was a real public servant, I’d have come and joined the Public Service Association.

(Of course, he would’ve. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, during the giddy days of trade unionism, Rob Campbell was front and centre. And he was the arch nemesis of the then prime minister Rob Muldoon, who accused him of being a closet communist. He sat at the top table of the Federation of Labour. He was a union official, an economist, and an outspoken critic of the Vietnam war. And then he was gone. He was off to corporate boardrooms and life as a professional director.)

You know, I don’t think I was ever particularly comfortable in much of that, but I did find a lot of it very challenging and interesting. I was able to do some pretty useful things, I think, in the boardroom, in terms of diversity and in trying to get a better understanding of broader societal issues and ecology issues into business.

My team and I used to share an office with a whole bunch of union organisers. They were advocating for workers at SkyCity which you chaired for a few years. And they were very upset about their inability to advocate very well there. How did those kind of tensions sit with you as a former trade union man at the top of these big companies?

Yeah. It’s very difficult in those situations. You’re trying to guide management to think holistically, making the point that, “Look, we do have a lot of very low paid workers here” — for example, SkyCity. And you advocate in that boardroom level that you should be doing this, you should be doing that, questioning their thinking about a whole lot of the aspects of what was going on in employment, and relationships generally in each of the businesses I was in.

So, you don’t have absolute influence as a board. You’re not issuing instructions to management very often. I think you do occasionally have some influence. But it’s very distressing to be in the privileged position of being on a board and have workers who are at the very low-paid end of the spectrum either striking or pushing for something that you believe they should be getting.

I understand why Iow-paid people and why unionists felt that way. I have empathy for that. I tried to do what could be done from that level. But at the end of the day, their claims were right, and the business was wrong.

Someone described you to me as a “Rogernome”. How do you feel about that?

No, I was never a Rogernome. In fact, if people knew the history, they’d know that when (Roger) Douglas and (Richard) Prebble, for example, introduced GST, it was me and Peter Harris who led the opposition to that around the Labour Party conferences. A lot of those things, in fact, I was openly opposed to during that period. So, I was never a Rogernome in that sense.

Well, how would you describe your political outlook now?

I’m probably a conservative socialist, if anything.

Where’s your thinking landed now?

My thinking has landed at what a shame it is that when I was a student and people like Ngā Tamatoa and the Polynesian Panthers were articulating very clearly issues that are very real today, I looked at them, admired them, worked with them on some things, but never stuck with it.

I think that most of the answers lay there at that time between the kind of movements that were developing amongst Māori and Pacific Islanders. There was energy in many unions at the time, and energy around the peace movement and around women’s movements and other things.

But the fact that we were never able to coalesce that energy into something that created a better society tells you that we would’ve been miles ahead of where we are now if we’d managed to do it. So, collectively, my generation missed the boat.

Did you know Syd Jackson? Because he was our rockstar — the rockstar of the Māori union movement and a wonderful, wonderful man.

He was indeed. Head of the clerical workers union and very much a leader at that time in what was a difficult environment in unions for Māori. There wasn’t a strong recognition of Māori independence, probably a bit of a reservation about it. And his ability to be Māori but to also be a strong unionist, and very much a leader, was, I think, critical to change.

Both of you had that university background and went into the union movement, which was quite unusual in those times.

Yeah, that’s absolutely right. We were young upstarts at the same time.

So, finding yourself an outsider after more than three decades in the corporate world, you found your way back home with the help of David Letele’s gym in Eden Terrace.

I got on a fitness journey. It’s a journey which has helped my brain more than it’s helped my body. And it’s just given me a whole new perspective on our communities and our life. Dave has introduced me again to groups of people, Māori and Pacific Island people in particular, but also lots of Pākehā working-class people as well who I’d lost contact with over those years when I was exclusively in a corporate environment.

And it has sort of re-grounded me and re-energised me to some extent about what really matters. He has this kind of boundless “just do it” attitude. I realised quite how cautious I was and how I needed to have a bit more courage and stand up for things.

You talked about how policies and words like “diversity” and “inclusion” sometimes can distract us from addressing the fundamental wrongs of a system. Can you explain that?

Yeah. I’ve been a big advocate, through my business career, of diversity and inclusion. And the more I thought about it, the more I thought: Okay, so starting off with gender, we’ve got more women in management and health. We’ve got women in reasonable proportions in the senior positions. But what’s really changed for women?

Are things really improving for women in respect to health? And I’m not entirely sure. For example, there’s been quite a long exercise to even get a women’s health strategy included in the health plan and pretty slow progress being made on it.

You think you can solve one problem but you’re not really solving it. You are getting, for example, women in positions or Māori into positions (or whatever group it is that you are focusing on) into those positions. But it’s all about, how do we get Māori on to our boards? How do we get Māori to fit into our system? And that’s not equity. That’s actually, funnily enough, it’s what we used to call assimilation.

I was going to use that word.

Diversity and inclusion can become just that. Which I think is why sort of intellectually the whole indigenisation thrust is so strong, isn’t it? Which is to say: “No, we actually don’t want to just be half of your board. We want to indigenise the way we do this thing.” And that’s where equity will come from. It’s much more challenging.

(Rob believes that only a genuine partnership, a Tiriti one at that, can move the country forward.)

How can we look at this together from the two world perspectives? What can we bring together usefully? There’s a lot of it that can combine and we can work together on. How do we recognise differences, and do that in a respectful way so that we can all progress?

And, in fact, we won’t get an answer. How will we get healthy futures unless we have good water, unless we have good housing, unless we have good education, unless we have the right kind of income supports for people?

You won’t get pae ora (healthy futures) from simply flasher hospitals. We need more nurses and doctors. They won’t get you pae ora. That can only be done on the basis of looking at the worldviews that there are in this place — seeing how those worldviews can be accommodated, and seeing where those worldviews have to just respect each other.

I’m always interested in how we progress these conversations because I wonder whether, depending on the different people we talk to, we have to frame things in economic terms or whether it’s justice or self-interest, so that people can actually see that the end game is to have a flourishing, happy, beautiful Aotearoa. You know what I mean?

Some of this is hard, isn’t it? Some of this means we do have to shift the way we think about the world. It’s not all just about economics. It’s not all just about deficiency and those kinds of things.

A lot of this is about genuine cultural acceptance and genuinely wanting to reverse colonialism. Because if you don’t reverse colonialism, how can you deal with the outcomes of colonialism?

When you have discussions with people in the various networks and groups that you are a part of, how do you land the concept with them?

I’m a little bit gutless about it, to be honest. When I’m talking with Pākehā friends, I normally talk about the pragmatics of it. How else are we going to solve this problem if we don’t involve Māori? Well, this is what kaupapa Māori services do. This is how it works. Have a look at this Whānau Ora service, for example, or this and that — and sell it to them that way.

And so, you don’t necessarily start with Te Tiriti, although in my heart and my mind, that’s probably a sounder place to start. You’ve got to sell it how you can sell it. You know, in the Environmental Protection Authority, which for some scary reason they also sacked me from, we were making much stronger steps towards what I thought was much more like power sharing.

I think it’s the power sharing bit that’s getting up some people’s noses.

Oh, yes. Well, it’s not surprising, is it? Some people don’t like having power being taken off them. I can understand that. And one of the difficulties that I’ve really only realised in very recent years for tangata Tiriti is that we have a lot of ambivalence in our minds about what our stand is about being part of this country.

And I think a lot of Pākehā find it quite challenging to see the assertion of Māori sovereignty or whatever name you care to give it. They don’t feel they have something similar to grasp hold of. And I think what I’d say to other Pākehā is that you can find that rock, actually, in the place you probably would least want to find it. But it’s in the Treaty.

The status of tangata Tiriti is somewhere that you can stand and be strong and understand your part in this whole process. We can’t sort it by saying: “Oh, we’ll fix this, and we’ll make Māori equal here. Or we’ll help this that little bit here.

All that’s good. But the only real answer is having something that we can share, which is basically the foundation we have in the Treaty of Waitangi.

Now that’s, of course, a red flag to a lot of people, isn’t it?

Yeah, it probably is. But sometimes the hard answer’s the right answer, isn’t it?

This is an edited version of an interview which screened on Te Ao with Moana on Whakaata Māori on April 17.

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