As a Māori youngster, Ron Mark didn’t have a lot going for him. In 1957, when he was three, he was handed over to foster care, and a succession of Pākehā foster families in Pahiatua had a turn looking after him. A succession of schoolkids took their turn, too, in making life miserable for someone who was often out of step with them.
But, in his mid-teens, he joined the army — and that military experience over nearly 20 years, here and overseas, taught him lessons that led him eventually into winning two elections as the mayor of Carterton, where he still lives, and into 18 years as a New Zealand First MP. That included a stint as a minister looking after defence and veterans in the Jacinda-Winston coalition from 2017–2020.
Here he’s talking with Dale and touching on other interests, including Elvis and the concern that has, just this week, persuaded him to head for Ukraine and see what humanitarian help he can provide there.
Kia ora, Ron. As you know, in these interviews I usually start by focusing on whakapapa and on the guest’s early days. I know that you had it tough early on, but would you please be kind enough to start us off there?
No problem, Dale. Ron Mark toku ingoa. That’s the English version, which I was christened with, but, as I found out much later in my life, I was named after my grandfather, Rongowhitiao Arekatera Te Wera Te Puni Maaka. He got the name Arekatera gifted to him because of his fighting prowess. And I was his eldest grandson.
My grandfather had come across to the Wairarapa from Horowhenua, and married my grandmother, Matire, the granddaughter of Ngatuere, who was the paramount chief of Ngāti Kahungunu.
My grandfather, like a lot of Māori in those times, anglicised his name and became known here in the Wairarapa as Ron Mark. I’m very proud of my Māori name, because my ancestor was a fighting chief.
And, although there’s a lot of controversy about the Arawa Flying Column at that time of New Zealand history, it is what it is. And the irony is that my grandfather and his brother Topi led the Arawa Flying Column. They were of Ngāti Kea and Tuara descent. And they ended up fighting against the Crown, rather than for it, to retain ownership of what they had left of their land. It’s land that I hold shares in today.
Who raised you?
I was taken away my parents when I was three because of the dysfunction within our home. I and my two sisters were taken away. Lindy was adopted and Angela was put into a home. I don’t know much about her childhood, other than that she used to run away from different homes and foster parents. Things were very hard for her.
I was put into foster care at first with the Duncan family in Hawke’s Bay. Then I was moved down to the Seymour family, to Alfredton, in the Wairarapa. Looking at the files — which I got much, much later in my life — I saw that this happened at my father’s request.
From there, I was moved to the Wylie family in Masterton, then to the Fields just outside Pahiatua. Then I moved to another family, the Thorburns, at Mangamutu, also near Pahiatua. And from there, I was put formally into the care and custody of the New Zealand Army.
When I joined the army, the regular force cadet school went up to Waiouru for 12 months. I graduated and was discharged from welfare care at the age of 17 — and my last set of foster parents were no longer legally responsible for me, and had moved to Nelson. So I didn’t have anywhere to go home to from Waiouru.
The Horne family took me in as a young soldier in my first year in the regular force and gave me a home to stay at when I needed to come back to Pahiatua.
Both of them are gone now, but I still consider the Hornes to be my foster family.
So, from three to the age of 16, I think I had six foster homes.
When you look back on that, do you resent it or do you still have aroha for those who brought you into their whare, even though there were six families?
It depends what age you are when you’re looking back. When you’re a child, it’s very hard and confusing. You’re acutely aware that what’s happening to you isn’t normal, that other children don’t live like you. They have a mum and dad and grandparents and family that are theirs. And, as a young child and all the way through, you’re acutely aware that you’re only a foster child.
There are times when you resent your blood family because, one, you don’t know them, two, they’re not visiting you and, three, if they do know you exist, they don’t seem to care. Because no one visits, no one sends birthday cards or Christmas presents, and you’re totally dependent upon your foster family who’s taken you in.
And then there are things that happen when you’re in care. Sometimes you get into trouble. Sometimes you cause trouble. Sometimes the parents believe their child or children rather than you.
You learn how to survive in that environment, and you learn never to become too attached, because unless you’re adopted, there’s every possibility that you’re going to be moved on again.
Sometimes it’s your choice. Sometimes it’s the foster parents’ choice because they simply can’t keep you any longer. Like Valerie Seymour, who became ill and couldn’t care for us, so we had to move to another family.
It teaches you not to become too connected to anybody, because of the pain of separation, and it affects your behaviour. It affects how you interact with other people.
If I look back at my childhood, I resented everybody for a long time. But later, you develop a strong sense of affection for your foster families. As an adult, I have nothing but aroha for my foster parents, through all the good times and the bad times.
One thing that stands out to me is that when I reconnected with my birth family, at my request, it was a visit that ended up in a very bizarre situation. I quickly learned that I was better off where I was. Had the Department of Social Welfare left me with my own family, the outcome would not have been positive at all. It just wouldn’t have been.
All along, I felt affection for my father (Apiti Maaka) because the memories I had of him were warm and compassionate. And I missed him. I was sorry that he couldn’t be with me, and I couldn’t be with him.
My mother, on the other hand, didn’t provide warm memories, but when I was in my late 30s and she passed away, I realised that I’d missed the opportunity to understand what made her the person she was and what made her behave the way she did. But I denied myself that opportunity because I wouldn’t forgive her.
Forgiveness is a powerful thing. I remember walking out on to the lawn at the back of my home after she’d gone. I hadn’t been to her funeral, and time had passed, and I realised that I didn’t have the ability to pass on to my children or my grandchildren any knowledge of her or my Ngāti Porou line.
And that was my fault because I couldn’t find it within my heart to forgive. So, I just said it out loud and did my own karakia, in my own way, and asked for her forgiveness.
It took a huge weight off my shoulders, a weight I’d carried around as a boy, as a young man, and as an angry young man, for close to 40 years.
Let’s turn now to the military, because it has played a big part in your life. When you look back at your military career, what stands out most for you?
People, Dale. People. In the early stages, I wasn’t a model soldier. I was okay when it came to training — I put everything into what I did in my training. But I also put everything into my social life, and it caused me trouble.
There are people in the military who are experienced and worldly wise. They’ve done a lot of things that most human beings only ever read about in books. And they’re people who, once they believe that you have potential, will do their best to beat out the bad and lift up the good. They turned me into a good soldier.
Some did it by demonstration and role modelling and making me realise how I needed to harden up. Others did it with reasoning. And others did it by charging me and outing me in front of the commanding officer and dishing out punishment.
But whatever the means or mechanism, the military gave me a whole bunch of skills and talents and understandings and experiences that have stood me in good stead and helped me understand and work with people in a way that a lot of men my age who haven’t been in the military wouldn’t understand.
People make the difference. It’s just the same as being a foster child growing up. If it hadn’t been for those good human beings . . . and you know, all my foster families were Pākehā families, and I have no idea why they wanted to take this little Māori boy into their homes and turn their homes upside down.
But they had a space in their heart and a space in the house, and they gave that space to me. I probably didn’t appreciate it at the time. I could be a dickhead when I was growing up, and I wish I could turn that back. But learning from it is probably all they wanted me to do. And the military is the same. It’s people.
To go on a military exercise attached to an infantry battalion, and to come out of that exercise among the five nations and be recommended by the CO of the battalion for commissioning as an officer meant so much to me. Because, at the end of the day, I was just a foster kid. I was just a little Māori boy. I was a corporal and I was a foster kid.
As a child, you carry that label, and you’re reminded of that by all the other kids. I sometimes wonder which planet some people live on when they talk about wonderful children, that children are sweetness and innocence.
Children can be frickin’ nasty, Dale. Children can be vicious bullies, and I have the names of some children firmly embedded in my memory who are the same age as me today.
Their parents might think butter wouldn’t melt in their mouth. But children can be vicious and nasty, make no bones about it. They can scar their schoolmates, and leave them carrying those scars for the rest of their lives.
And they don’t own it, and their parents don’t own it. Where does this nastiness come from? Probably from the very homes that they go back to every night.
Whether it’s racial prejudice, whether it’s because you’re too skinny or someone else is too fat, or one girl in particular comes to school wearing old clothes that are dirty and not especially fashionable, children have an ability to be downright mean.
And the one thing you learn as a victim of that behaviour is to never, ever be like that, and to make sure your children are never like that. I’m proud to say that my kids are nothing like that, and my grandchildren are nothing like that.
I guess sometimes you’ve gotta walk those hard roads and get blistered feet to understand what a hard road feels like. Some people never do that, never experience it. The right upbringing, the right little homes, the right environments, the right schools, and they want for nothing and they don’t learn what it’s like to be a kid on the other side of the street.
You’ve done some great things in your life, Ron, despite the hardships of the early years. You went on to a political career with a couple of stints in parliament, and the mayoralty of the town that you call home. Eventually the Minister of Defence was a good fit for a guy who understood the military better than most. What stands out for you in your role as minister? What do you think your best work was when you had that pōtae on?
Minister of Defence and Minister for Veterans. I had the two portfolios I always wanted, and I have to thank Winston for that. No matter how I look at it — I can talk about the major capital procurements, or about running a $50 billion project portfolio, or about $4.5 billion dollars of new money being invested, or about 70-odd cabinet papers that went through. But, at the end of the day, it still comes down to people.
I’m a soldier and I’m also an officer. I went up through the ranks and ended up commanding a unit and a special force in operations. I served in Oman and in the Sinai and was elevated from second lieutenant to major in three months flat.
When you are in the role of Minister of Defence, it’s a case of delivering to your men and your women who are serving your country whatever is required — be it trying to improve their conditions of service, improve the equipment that they have, improve their training by giving them more opportunities to train with other countries, and enhance strategic relationships with other countries. All of this strengthens the capabilities of our people on the ground.
Same with my role serving veterans. I wanted to deliver to veterans the types of things that you believe they’re entitled to and should be receiving as a matter of course. We did that, by getting all 64 of Professor Ron Paterson’s review of the Veterans Act passed in one fell sweep through legislation. That was my thrill, knowing that I could walk away having left them in a far better condition than they were before I took up the job.
That’s my buzz. It’s not the C-130, it’s not the Bushmasters, it’s not the new weapons, the frigate systems upgrade, or the Manawanui Aotearoa — you know, all those ships, all those planes. Collectively, what matters to me most is that I rebuilt the Defence Force, and those who benefit are the women and the men in uniform and the veterans in our communities.
Are you disappointed that, looking back, although there’s a respect, even a reverence for the 28th Māori Battalion in World War Two, the vets from Viet Nam have been overlooked? Is that a fair observation?
It’s not just the Viet Nam vets being overlooked. It goes back further than that. To World War One in 1914–18 and the Pioneer Battalion. The first Māori battalion wasn’t the Two-Eight. It was the Pioneer Battalion which was put together at a time when there were people saying that it was inappropriate for natives to be killing white people, no matter who those white people were, even if they were our enemy.
And the battle that our tūpuna of the times fought to get the government of the day to deploy Māori to Gallipoli, along with the First Division, was not an insignificant fight. It was a big battle. Politically and socially.
The Pioneers were deployed supposedly in a non-combative role, but ended up in combat, as naturally happens when you make someone an assault pioneer engineer and require him to go and dig the trenches that the fighting soldiers are going to fight in. It should’ve been obvious to most people that they’d end up in the frontlines. Which they did.
As Māori we do bask in the honour and glory that the Two-Eight Battalion brought to us as a people and that enhanced our reputation as Māori and as fighting soldiers. It just saddens me that sometimes we overlook and potentially demean the memory of the Pioneer Battalion.
I’d love to see the Pioneer Battalion’s colours flying beside the Māori Battalion banner at every Anzac Day gathering, because it was the Pioneer Battalion who were part of the original Anzacs. What more reason should we have to commemorate and honour them?
The military changed because of them, and Māori became fully integrated across all tranches of each service. And that’s been a great thing, because of the contribution of each of those people who’ve served, with the NZSAS or with our First Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment or with the artillery or the logistics cause, whether it was in Viet Nam or whether it was in Afghanistan.
Our people are so integrated now. It’s normal in the military for Māori to be high achievers alongside their non-Māori brothers and sisters. The military has blended perfectly. We have a defence force that looks like, walks like, talks like, smells like Aotearoa, and that’s something that no other country’s military has achieved or is likely to achieve within the next 40 years.
We should never underestimate the brotherhood, the sisterhood, that exists within the military. Our Māori and Pākehā soldiers will never separate. Once they are in Ngāti Tumatauenga, they are brothers and sisters for life.
How serious is this conflict in the Ukraine?
It sounds a bit trite, but it’s going to be one of the most defining conflicts in history. We have an authoritarian communist state that is corrupt and autocratic trying to wipe out an entire people.
From my perspective, it surprises me that there’s not a higher degree of understanding and concern by Māori, because, you know, what does Putin want to do? He wants to eliminate the Ukrainian language. Well, Māori know all about that. He wants to eliminate Ukrainian history. Hmmm, I think we know about that, too. He wants to take their land, and he wants to make them all Russian citizens. I think we know about all of this.
If we were to stop looking at Ukrainians as just another race of Pākehā people and look at them as the indigenous people of Ukraine, we might begin to realise more acutely how serious this conflict is.
The fact is that people are being bussed out of areas, taken back into Russia and concentrated in camps where they’re going to be re-educated. That should concern anybody who’s read anything about Hitler and the Second World War.
This is an appalling state of affairs, and I think that NATO have realised that it won’t stop there. We’re dealing with a leader of a nation who can’t be trusted, who’s a liar, and who’s turned his country into a pariah state — and he has to be defeated.
And, if the west isn’t in a position to engage directly themselves, then the next best thing they can and must do is reinforce Ukraine to help them defend themselves.
It’s pleasing for me to see that there are nations who are doing that. I guess the challenge will be when this all stops, and Ukraine has defeated Russia’s original aims, there will be people asking: “Where were you as a nation?”
I just hope that New Zealand is able to stand up proudly and say: “We were there for you. We were there to help you.”
If we’re going to talk about civil liberties, human rights, democracy, if we’re going to talk about fledgling nations that are trying to become totally democratic and emulate the other European nations around them, then I don’t understand how we can stand by and watch them being slaughtered.
I read reports of 16-year-old girls being tortured, gang-raped and then shot in the head. Elderly ladies who live together — one shot dead on her doorstep, the other shot dead in her armchair in her lounge.
I don’t know how you can ignore those things and how your heart doesn’t break. And I’ve got to say it will be terrible for the mothers of all those Russian service personnel who are dying in their thousands. And all of that at Putin’s will.
The mothers of those Russian boys and girls are paying a huge price for Putin’s adventures, and it would be an appalling state of affairs for the west to stand by and do nothing. I’m just pleased that the bulk of the world has started leaning in, in ways that I wouldn’t have imagined two months ago.
Thanks, Ron. As we angle towards the conclusion of our kōrero, I want to present a different side of you. Most people probably don’t know about your musical genes. You’ve made a CD, not to make money for yourself but to help a charity. You’re a terrific singer and guitarist. If we had time, we could talk about all sorts of musical moments. But let’s at least hear what your go-to karaoke song is.
My go-to song in karaoke is what I sing it to my sweetheart, Christine. It’s “The Wonder of You”, by Elvis, because I’m still a massive fan of Elvis. Either that or the Righteous Brothers with “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’”. But that’s more for when the boys and girls are having a few beers and getting raucous.
I love music, as you know, Dale. It’s a great release and it’s relaxing. I consider myself an ordinary boy, and the opportunity to cut the CD and get that off my bucket list was something that I never thought I’d do.
Every copy sold within weeks, and I keep telling myself we’ll do another run of a thousand. I have an offer to put it on Spotify, and I could do that, but I’ve just never got around to it.
The charity you mentioned was Caring Families Aotearoa, formerly known as Fostering Kids. It was a way of giving back to foster parents who gave so much to me, and hopefully providing some inspiration to foster children or kids in care as they are today. It was just a way of saying: “Hey, you can do anything you want to do.”
I don’t want kids to put themselves down, or think less of themselves because they don’t have a mum or a dad or nana or any family that cares about them. Never, ever put yourself down. Never give up on your dreams. Set a high goal and go for it.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
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