Dr Shane Reti, MP for Whangārei and opposition health spokesperson.

As a doctor who knows a thing or two about Covid-19 and the coronavirus, Shane Reti has no doubt already caught your eye or ear in the media, whatever your political leanings. But, with the general election looming just six weeks away, he’s become even more relevant seeing that, understandably, he’s now established as the most informed medical commentator among the National politicians.

Newly elevated to National’s front bench is among several Māori and Pacific candidates we’ve interviewed. Here he is talking about his background and, indirectly, why he and the National team should be Aotearoa’s next government. Although, of course, he and Dale found other topics to touch on — like their mutual love of music.

 

Kia ora, Shane, and thanks for joining us on E-Tangata. Let’s start with you telling us about the Reti clan and your life as a youngster.

Kia ora, Dale. I was born and brought up in Hamilton. My family there are Ngāti Maniapoto — and my family up north are Ngāti Wai. Both of my parents left school in the fourth form. Dad, Ray Reti, was needed on the farm back in Kawhia and Mum, Robyn, went to work at State Advances.

When they were a young married couple, Dad worked at the freezing works at Horotiu. And after that, he worked two jobs — as a carpenter on building sites during the day and as a commercial cleaner in the evening. On the weekends, he’d clean windows for extra money.

I was born into a state house in Hamilton. I’m the eldest of us five kids. My siblings are Mark, Leanne, Michelle and Kylie. I went to Hamilton Boys’ High where I had a taste of the limited opportunities you can have if you don’t make the top stream. I’d been in that stream in the third and fourth form, but then I was kicked down to the general stream for the fifth form. That made me sit up. I had to show them, which I did, shocking everyone by winning the fifth form English prize. So they put me back into the top stream for the sixth form. 

I played plenty of sport, too, but it was in badminton that I did best. I was a Waikato junior rep and competed in the national championships.

Ray and Robyn Reti, Shane’s parents.

But then, still a schoolboy, you were off to the States.

That came about because of what I call a “sentinel moment”. We may get two or three of those in our life. It’s a moment that can shape your life. And part of the magic is recognising whether we should grasp those moments or not. 

Well, I had a sentinel moment in 1980 when I was 17. I was still at Boys’ High, and the Hamilton Rotary Club was casting around the local secondary schools and seeking students who might want to be considered as an exchange student to the States in the following year. 

I put my hand up, as did many others, and they selected me. And, to this day, Dale, I’m sort of wondering why I was chosen. I didn’t come from anything like a Rotary background. Rotary generally tends to be for the high-end business people — or it certainly was in those days. 

And that wasn’t us. I was working class. Furthermore, I was Māori. I didn’t fit the model for a Rotary exchange student at all. But, anyway, there I was heading off to spend a year at high school in a small town called Rupert, Idaho.  

No one in my family had even been on a plane until that point. But now I look back at the ripple effect through my wider family. And, when I came home from America, suddenly my brothers and sisters and Mum and Dad were all saying: “Gosh. Shane’s been on a plane! Maybe me too.” 

Now I look to where my whānau are today — for instance, a sister in Australia, a brother in Australia, another sister in Europe. And I can see that my sentinel moment in 1980 rippled through my family and created windows and opportunities that they then took.

Then your next step was becoming a doctor?

Yes. I was selected to do a year at Waikato University, and then I made it into the Auckland medical school where I did my training. 

My first placement was up at Whangārei where we had our young family: Justin and identical twin daughters, Angela and Melissa. So we had three children under 2. Crikey, that was busy, and here we were, dead broke. At the time, I was working in a rural GP practice at Te Kopuru out the back of Dargaville.

I then went offshore and did postgraduate dermatology studies in Wales and came back to Whangārei to practise as a GP with a special interest in dermatology. I was also delivering babies, of course, as GPs do, as well as focusing on dermatology. 

Then I was appointed to the district health board which I was on for three consecutive terms and, around that time, I was also publishing research papers and winning some national research awards. That sort of stuff. I got some accounting qualifications, too.

And, somewhere along the way, you were off to the US again. When was that?

That was in 2007, when I was awarded a Harkness Fellowship which allows mid-career leaders to spend a year offshore. That meant I was able to spend a year at Harvard — except that they asked me to stay on much longer. 

So I stayed and I had, in effect, a second career there. I became an assistant professor, looking after the operations of one Harvard division and also deploying health information technology through the Middle East. I was also helping broken health systems to adapt and improve what they were doing. 

About that time, New Zealand Trade and Enterprise realised that I had quite a reach into the Middle East and they asked if I’d be what’s called a “beachhead advisor” in Dubai. So every three months, I’d fly back to New Zealand, say hi to the kids, fill up their pantry — and then head on to the Middle East. 

Dubai was generally where I’d meet with the chief executives from New Zealand companies like Fisher & Paykel. They would’ve flown across, and it was my job to introduce them to the Arab audience that would best suit their product.

I did that for a number of years. And then it was time to come home into my third career. My MP predecessor in Whangārei was Phil Heatley, a good friend and colleague, and when he decided he wouldn’t stand again, I got a call to encourage me to leave Harvard and take Phil’s place. 

I was already being paid well at Harvard — and I was told they’d raise my salary to keep me there. But, for me, it wasn’t a salary issue. It was just that it was time to go home. 

And, back here, you were able to nail the Whangārei seat for National in the 2014 election.

Yes. And I was the first Māori to win that seat — and then to have the privilege of holding on to it in 2017. Which brings me to where I am now, working with the National opposition under the guidance of Judith Collins and Gerry Brownlee.   

Yours has been an amazing journey, Shane. But I imagine that, as well as being a smart kid, you’ve had a hand along the way.

Oh yes. And my parents were the driver. It was hard going for them as a young couple and they could see that education for the kids was the way for them to lift themselves and the whole family. So they took on extra jobs to give us more opportunities. And that’s what propelled me through the system. 

Then, of course, there must be some hard-wiring in my personality. I love a challenge. In any group or class, I quickly identify who the number one person is, and I set my sights on that person. I say: “How do I get to be as good as you?” And that keeps me moving forward. 

It wasn’t easy to get into the Auckland med school though, because, with spending that high school year in Idaho, I didn’t have any New Zealand seventh form results to help with my application. And, when I did my year at Waikato University, it was clear that I’d have to excel to qualify.

In fact, my results had to be in the top five percent in the country for me to make it into med school. That meant working harder than I ever had. But I made the cut, and I was on my way.

Shane, opening the Hundertwasser Te Kākano sculpture in Whangārei with waiata and electric guitar, October 2016. (Photo supplied)

Okay. Let’s take a break from the academic world. Let’s talk music.   

I’m a drummer by trade. And by nature. I just get it. I can sit behind any kit and, if you play a song, I’ll get it. For me, it’s instinctive. And I played in bands at med school and so on. 

But, you know, when you’re the drummer, because of all the kit, you’re the first one to arrive and the last one to leave. By contrast, the bass player turns up, puts his sunnies on, plugs in, and he looks great! And I think: “I need to do that — I’ve had more than enough of this “hour before, hour after” business. So, when I went to Boston, I started playing bass guitar, and I played in an indie band in Boston for about seven years. 

But, before going to Harvard, I’d always said it’d be really useful to also play rhythm guitar. And, through my army connections (because I spent some time in the territorials) I caught up with an old sergeant major called Jock Hooper.  

And on Wednesday afternoons, instead of playing golf, which some doctors were inclined to do, I was at Jock’s place learning how to play the guitar. And it was Jock who taught me how to play barre chords, the minors, the majors, the seventh, the sixth, the ninth. And he took me from playing a few chords to understanding what I was doing, and doing the variations on that. 

So here’s me thanking Jock Hooper for teaching me that skill and for teaching me what I call an international language. And, in return, I see it as an obligation for me to teach others as well. 

I’ve taught one of my daughters how to play guitar, and I’ve impressed on her that she needs to keep passing this gift onwards, just as it was given to me and I’ve given it to her. I have an expectation that she’ll pass it onwards to one of her children. That’s sort of how it rolls for me, Dale.

Good on you. And what sort of guitar have you got now? What’s your favourite?

I’ve got a Martin. It’s a very entry-level guitar. In fact, as I’m talking with you now, right from parliament, I may well be the only MP who has, in his office, an electric guitar, bass guitar, portable PA, feedback monitors, and a lighting rig. Here in my parliamentary office. 

Now how frequently do I get to play that? The reality is that, if we have a caucus waiata, I lead that off. Love singing with Jo Hayes. Oh boy, when you get two Māori together, who just get it, we hit the harmony line, instinctively. It’s a pleasure to sing with Jo — and with the rest of caucus. With some, you get straight on to the melody, and Jo is one of those people.

Turning now from your guitar to your stethoscope. As Māori men, we’re reminded that there’s still a long way to go to get parity in our society. And, certainly in the health sector, there are some glaring anomalies. That must’ve been a concern for you all through those years as a GP in Whangārei.

Oh yes. There were times in the course of those nearly 20 years, when I was the only Māori doctor in Northland. And, for a while, I had the longest-running, free, marae-based clinic in the upper North Island. 

This was in response to the difficulty of access to even get to a primary care professional. Particularly for our rural communities, there’s a challenge. And that’s an inequity in itself, right there. 

From then to now, I’ve kept seeing the problems. Like, for example, heart attacks. How is it that non-Māori spend more time in hospital than Māori? Why are Māori discharged earlier? Why is it that, if we look at some of the medicines you should have after you’ve had a heart attack (lipid-lowerers, for instance), how come Māori aren’t prescribed them as frequently as non-Māori? 

And this is still going on. Every year, I question every single DHB on a range of about 30 or 40 Māori health metrics. It must drive them crazy. “Oh, here comes Dr Reti and his Māori health questions again.” But it matters to me. 

Of course, there’ve been Māori health researchers before me who’ve been pointing this out. But with the tools I have as an MP, I can get even closer to that action. And I’ve been posing the questions when they come to select committee.

I ask the chief executives from the DHBs to explain how Māori are being discharged sooner for this or that condition. How do they account for less pharmaceutical money being spent on Māori compared to non-Māori? How do they explain that?

They say: “Look, we understand that there are inequities and we’re trying to address them.” And I accept that. But, every year, I keep seeing the same trends.

On the positive side, just a few weeks ago, there’s been a very good, bipartisan report from the Māori Affairs Select Committee following an inquiry into Māori health inequalities. And, within that, there are actions that I will be taking, if we’re privileged to be in government. So the formula is to identify the problem, look into it — and then do something about it.

Shane, you’ve been gaining a reputation for measured responses in the rough and tumble of daily politics in Wellington where it can get unpleasantly adversarial. But you’re familiar with the restrained style of our rangatira. And you also have a personal experience of earthy, unsavoury times in the army territorials, as well as combative times in sport. Does that background help you cope with the political scene?

What it does is that it anchors me in the real world. And I’m still a practising doctor. I still see patients over my summer recess and, very occasionally, if there’s a really complex case, I’ll get called by a medical colleague, particularly about dermatology.

The closer I get to the patient, the closer I get to the truth. I’ll be told about many wonderful programmes by well-meaning officials here in Wellington, but it’s actually when I’m at the bedside that I get to find out what really works. 

Those experiences you mention continue to anchor me, too. And, in Wellington, by way of example, I’ve deliberately taken the long path from my office to the debating chamber, particularly when I was in Bowen House in the last term. My colleagues often wonder why. But it’s because, every time I go to the debating chamber, I like to check. Why am I here? What is my purpose? Who am I serving? Am I doing a good job? How can I do better? 

And that extra walk helps me focus on those reasons, on my purposes. So, being here in parliament and in what can be a brutal place, I can check that I’ve still got our ship going in the best direction I possibly can. 

Shane’s children (from left) Angela, Justin and Melissa.

Do you take umbrage at the suggestion that you, and others who have Māori whakapapa, don’t display that front and centre? Winston is an example, I guess. He’s a proud Māori man but some say not Māori enough. And some have said that you aren’t either. How do you react to that sort of suggestion?

Several things. First of all, it’s intrinsic in me. And secondly, I’ll let my actions speak for me. I’ve always had the benefit of being able to walk with equal respect in the Māori and the non-Māori world. It’s really important to me that I can keep being a voice and a guide in both of those worlds. So I do my best to understand and do what I can in both. 

There are those who might say: “That’s not nearly enough.” And I would ask: “What does that mean?” I suggest that you judge me by my actions. Regardless of what camp you want to put me in, that’s where I’m trying to have a positive impact for you.

There may be some surprise that you, a state house kid from Kirikiriroa, opted for National. Was that the leaning of your family?

No. Generally, their background has been working class and not political. And my political “awakening” came during my later years in university and then in general practice. I could see that my principles were more closely aligned with those of the National Party. Accountability, self-responsibility, and equal sovereignty. Those issues.

That was very clear. And that was more formalised about 10 years later when Phil Heatley asked if I’d like to come to a meeting at the National Party headquarters in Greenlane. I told him: “Yeah, that’d be good. I’d like to do that.” And that reaffirmed the direction I was going. 

Then, as I was working in Whangārei, and certainly when I was offshore in Boston, those principles firmed up to a point that, when I came home, it was obvious that this was my party.

With the arrival of Covid, we’re living in unprecedented times. And it seems sensible to have cross-party oversight of our response to the pandemic. But, from your vantage point in opposition, how do you think the country has reacted?

I’ll stand by saying what I’ve said before — that this has been a good response. There are some things we’ve done well. For example, if we look at this second wave, we can see that we got the result on a Monday, made a national announcement on Tuesday, and on Wednesday, we implemented a national lockdown. In terms of timeliness, that was pretty darn good. Very good, in fact. 

There could be other discussions, though. Like whether we needed to put all of Auckland in lockdown. That’s a different discussion. And so is the question of where the Auckland border should’ve been. 

I’ve seen our role around coronavirus as being to critique and to come up with solutions and then collaborate in finding the best answer we can get, so that the collective bar lifts for everyone. 

That’s surely an opposition at its best. Critique. Find holes — for example, the workers at the border who weren’t being tested. Critique that. Identify it. Lobby it. And come up with the solution that they should be tested. And then our collective bar rises. 

Shane, the way you’re positioned in Judith’s line-up suggests that you have the potential for climbing even higher. Maybe all the way up to becoming the leader of the Nats and maybe even the PM. How would feel about being offered the reins?

This would need to be a call from key stakeholders. From my caucus. From the National Party. From the people of Whangārei. From the people of New Zealand. And it would need to be a call from Māoridom. If those stakeholders call, then I will listen. And be ready. But it needs all of those voices for that sort of decision. 

What else do you do, Shane? I know you’re a hotshot badminton player, a soldier, a politician, a doctor, a muso. Is there anything else?

Badminton was my first sport. But I’ve been a squash player, too, and it’s been interesting how that’s opened doors in a way that I was never expecting. When I went to Harvard, I’d heard that they were quite cliquey — and that the cliques were hard to break into. 

That’s because, to break into the Harvard groups, you’ve got to be an international expert in something. I’d published a number of papers here in the New Zealand Medical Journal, on diabetes and so forth. But unless you’re published in the US press, they’re not impressed. Or even interested. 

However, I arrived in Boston about three months before my family, and I thought: “Okay. The best way for me to meet people is to take my guitar and my squash racket.” And, after I’d been there for six weeks, someone, roaming over the Harvard website, spotted that I was number one on the Harvard Medical School squash ladder. 

Automatically, any introduction to me changed radically. It had been: “Can I introduce Dr Shane Reti, Harkness Fellow from New Zealand.” But now it was: “Can I introduce Dr Shane Reti, number one on the Harvard Med School squash ladder, Harkness Fellow from New Zealand.” 

And suddenly, because I was now seen to be an expert in something, I was allowed to be inside their group. Thanks to my squash racket.

And then, about six months later, I published an academic paper and that let me become even more of an insider. 

I wouldn’t be surprised if your music has opened doors for you as well.                             

That’s often happened both here and overseas. I can recall in Kuwait, where we were working, that there was a moment when a waiata was essential. I was able to lead that off with my very good friend, and now deceased, Mike Moore. When I was in Boston, he was New Zealand’s ambassador to the US. And I enjoyed his company and stayed with him many times. 

On a Friday night, once the New Zealand embassy staff had finished their work, they’d retire to an in-house bar in another building, to relax and enjoy one another’s company. 

Once when I was there with Mike, someone pulled down a guitar from off the wall, handed it to me and, before we knew it, we were into a singalong. Mike wanted me to play Blue Smoke, which I didn’t know then, but I learned it and that became Mike’s favourite song — and I saw it as his song.

Mike, who’d briefly been our PM 30 years ago, died this year in February. But last year, at his 70th birthday up north, at the request of his wife, Yvonne, I arrived with my guitar. He hadn’t been doing well, but we were able to sing Blue Smoke with him, and for him, one last time. Music allows you to help provide moments like that which you can savour.

 

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

© E-Tangata, 2020

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