Vui Mark Gosche (62) has been a union leader, a cabinet minister in Helen Clark’s government (with portfolios in corrections, housing, transport and Pacific Island Affairs), a caregiver for his wife, and a Pasifika voice for a number of organisations. Now he’s stepped into one of the hotspots in the health world, as the new chairman of the Counties-Manukau District Health Board. Here he tells Dale about his background.
Kia ora and talofa lava, Mark. It’s not unusual for Sāmoan families to carry the surname of a German grandfather or great-grandfather. And I guess that’s the case with you.
Yes. My dad’s father was Anton Ludwig Gosche, who, so we understand, came from Hamburg. But he’s been a bit of a mystery man for our family. What we do know, though, is that, when he was 57, in Sāmoa, he married my grandmother Ferila, who was 25.
And my dad, Kristian Johann Gosche, was one of their children. He once told me that he stowed away a couple of times to check out New Zealand — and then he came here around 1951-52 and married my mum, Berys, who’s Pālagi.
So we have a German, Sāmoan, and English ancestry. Through my younger years, few people would’ve seen me as Sāmoan because I don’t look it — and my name, Mark James Gosche, doesn’t identify me as Sāmoan either.
I imagine that your surname, over the years, has been mangled — with people pronouncing it as Goshay or Gosh-ee. Or just plain Gosh. What should we be saying?
We grew up being called all sorts of things. We say Gosh-ee, which may not be the correct German pronunciation, but it’s the one we stick with.
Back in the 1950s or ‘60s, it wasn’t common for Pālagi to marry Pacific Islanders. So I wouldn’t be surprised if there’d been some eyebrows raised when your mum took a shine to your old man.
Absolutely. When Dad came here more than 60 years ago, the census suggested that about 2,500 Pasifika people were living in New Zealand at that time. So it was pretty unusual for Pālagi to be mixing with Sāmoan or any other PI people. And then for Mum to marry one clearly was a major step.
I understand that her family was a bit taken aback. But they grew to love my dad, who was a charming, lovely, generous person, so he fitted into my mum’s family extraordinarily well.
Mum had an interesting background, too, because she was born in Otāhuhu and was brought up by her mother (Irene Brown). My grandfather left the marriage early in the piece.
So Mum and her sister, Avis, were brought up by my grandmother who worked in the Hellaby’s cannery in Otāhuhu. There was no Domestic Purposes Benefit in those days, so they had a really tough life. There was no government support for single parents, and the Anglican Church very kindly threw her out for being divorced, even though that wasn’t her fault.
Mum left school (Otāhuhu College) when she 14. All the schools were closed during the polio epidemic in 1948, and, by the time they reopened, she was already working at Turners and Growers. My dad had his challenges, too, because he couldn’t read and write. He grew up learning to be a baker back in Sāmoa.
Their attitude, when us kids came along, was typical of migrant people. They’d missed out on a good education so they were determined that education would be the pathway for their children — and a lot of pressure was put on us to go to university and become a doctor or a lawyer or an accountant. I disappointed them in that respect.
So my background, my family history, is one deeply rooted in South Auckland and in the working-class environment that we were born into.
You’ve been prominent in union work through the course of your career, Mark. But I suppose that’s not surprising seeing that there was hardship and struggle for both your parents to see that you kids had much better prospects.
Yes. They really wanted the best for us, to the point where Dad always worked at two jobs. He was a baker and he was also a bouncer at The Star Hotel in Otāhuhu or some similar job as well. The Star was one of the roughest pubs in South Auckland, but he could handle a job like that because he was a champion boxer.
In those days, when we were growing up, we did connect a lot with our Sāmoan family. It was just natural to visit and eat with our aunties, uncles, and cousins, so we grew up knowing we were Sāmoan. But I didn’t give much thought to it. I didn’t really know our culture or our language because Dad didn’t believe that learning Sāmoan was important. He just wanted us to succeed in the Pālagi world.
And he couldn’t see that happening if we were brought up in the Sāmoan culture. So he largely rejected fa’a-Sāmoa. Looking back now, I’m saddened by that, but I understand why he and his generation thought that way.
Can you flesh that out a little more?
Well, he had a really hard life in Sāmoa. His mum was very young when he was born — and his dad had already died two months before. So he was brought up by his sister and his brother, who were both quite a bit older than him. In fact, his sister Margarethe (Maggie) was married to a Danish baker (Jens Andersen). So Dad was working in the bakery at a very young age.
Can you imagine being a baker in a corrugated-iron bakery in Savai’i? The temperature can be hard enough, but then being in a bakery would’ve been twice as hard. So you can understand why he wanted to get away from Sāmoa — especially to a place where he could see a chance of succeeding in a Pālagi world.
I worked alongside my dad in the Otāhuhu bakery, through my younger years at school. I also worked in the Westfield freezing works where he’d worked, and I could see for myself that it was a hard lifestyle. Then there were the railway workshops and the breweries. There were lots of jobs in South Auckland where plenty of my schoolmates could make big money without needing an education. But I didn’t take that option.
Where did you go to school?
We shifted to Papatoetoe when I was four, and we did all our schooling there. I went to Papatoetoe High.
There were seven of us who grew up together in Papatoetoe. Dad had three children in Sāmoa before he came to New Zealand, and he brought my sister Salamasina with him. Then he married my mother and they had six children. I was the second of them.
Your parents would be very proud of you now, Mark. Are you lucky enough to still have them with you?
My mum, at 85, is still alive, but my dad passed away in 2002. They were always very proud of my work, although my dad never quite understood it. Mum really supported me no matter what, and of course, my dad did too, although he wasn’t thrilled by the union stuff.
He wasn’t enamoured with the way the unions had operated in his day. He thought that union officials were pretty useless and lazy — and he told me that when I got a union job.
Actually, in my first year out of school, I became a cadet journalist in Otāhuhu, at the South Auckland Courier. But that lasted only a year, partly because there weren’t great opportunities in journalism, but mostly because I didn’t like just reporting on life. I wanted to be part of it.
And, in my next job, in the freezers at Tip Top, I became a union delegate for the workforce there. I was still only 18 and that was the beginning of my union journey. I could see how poorly those workers were being treated and paid — and I could also see that, by coming together as a collective, you could actually do something about it.
That was a turning point in my life because I saw how collective action by working people could challenge the power of those employers who didn’t care too much about health and safety and weren’t keen on paying you the money you deserved — especially for jobs that were demanding and dangerous.
And it’s been important work, too. Mark, you mentioned that your dad was a champion boxer. What title did he hold?
He was the light heavyweight champion of Auckland. He did go to the New Zealand championships once, but Mum says he got homesick and came back home — before he’d had a single fight. But he wasn’t ever beaten. He trained at the Cammick’s gym in Otāhuhu.
He’d already earned respect and a reputation because, when he first came to the freezing works, he did some damage. He didn’t speak any English in those days. So apparently, if somebody laughed at him, he hit them. And later, when he was working as a bouncer at the Star Hotel, which was a notoriously tough pub, he obviously could look after himself because I never saw a mark on him.
At the Star Hotel, you had guys coming in from the steelworks, from the railway workshops, from the freezing works — and they used to have some good old ding dongs back in the day. You weren’t tempted to get into the ring yourself?
At the other end of our street, near Middlemore Hospital, was the Leulua’i family who’re well known in the rugby league world. We used to do a little bit of boxing in their garage and a few whacks from some of those boys was more than enough to turn me off that as a sport. Our sporting life was rugby league. I played for Papatoetoe.
Let’s turn to politics where you spent 15 fairly intense years. What prompted you to go in that direction?
I did 15 years in the union movement for (what became) the Service and Food Workers’ Union — although it has now morphed into E tū. It was a Labour-affiliated union, so I was always part of the Labour Party and that’s how I cut my teeth in the political world.
But, even before I became a union official, I was involved in the anti-apartheid and the anti-nuclear movements. When I was at Auckland University (studying English) and teachers’ college, I became president of the student association. We were up against Muldoon at the time and we even organised a strike of student teachers because Muldoon wouldn’t increase our student allowances.
So politics, for me, was part of the scene in those days. Opposing the nuclear ships coming here. Protesting against the South African softball team who were playing at Papakura at the world championships. And, of course, doing lots of stuff in 1981 during the Springbok tour.
My move into the union scene came through my sister Salamasina who was a cleaner at Greenlane Hospital. She’d been offered a job as the union organizer, but she told them to approach me instead. Which they did, and there I was representing the cleaners and orderlies, up against the political system that didn’t treat those workers at all well.
So I did 15 years as a union official, including being our union leader. But then, after years of hard grind there, it seemed like a logical move to go into parliament where you could effect change at a higher level and on a greater scale. So that’s what I did.
Has there been anyone in particular who’s been your guiding light through those union or political years?
We were big on going to church when we were kids, so that Christian ethos has been a fundamental part of who I am, even though I haven’t been to church since I was 15. Organised religion really let our family down, so I didn’t want a bar of it. But I’ve always considered myself to be a Christian in terms of my fundamental beliefs and values.
I’ve also worked with some amazing characters who were much older than me when I became the secretary of the Northern Hotel Hospital and Restaurant Workers’ Union, as it was then known. My colleagues and my peers were the leaders of the other unions — like Bill Andersen, Ken Douglas, Frank Barnard, and Mike Sweeney. I learned a lot from them, and from Pat Kelly, who had all the skills of a wily negotiator.
Then there were these wonderful women who were the rank and file workers in that union. Like Liz Lee-Lo and Fili Fiu, Cheryl McLean and Ida Tiria-Stewart, a Māori leader of our union. They encouraged me to use my skills as a talker and a negotiator.
They told me I could inspire others, but, really, it was those women who were my inspirations because they were true working-class heroes. They did the hard graft of cleaning hospitals and cooking, but also were leaders because they could gather workers around them to support the cause.
Yes, I did learn from some good old hard-headed trade unionists, but my real learning came from the workplace level — in particular from the Māori and Pasifika women who were amazingly strong and resilient and brave. But they were also great at nurturing me to accept my Sāmoanness and to take on the leadership roles when that was needed.
I’m pleased that you mentioned rank and file people. It’s true that inspiration comes in many forms — and hardworking people with strong morals and ethics can be an important source. So thanks for that.
When you had a crack at politics, you must’ve had some second thoughts because, if you want to be an MP, you can’t afford to carry on being humble and reserved. You’ve gotta put yourself on stage and, in effect, say: “I’m the man.” You have to put your billboards up all around town — and go full bore at self-promotion. How did you come to terms with all that?
Once you understand how the world of politics works, you have to do what’s required. I went in as a list MP in 1996, then did three terms representing the Maungakiekie electorate. But the initial motivation was David Lange retiring from parliament, leaving the Mangere electorate, and telling me: “You gotta do this.”
The other main motivator was my wife, Carol. Without this rock solid person, I would never have done anything near what I’ve done — and never been able to sustain myself as a person. We met when she was 16 and I was 18, and so we grew together both in a personal and a political sense.
She was the backroom brains while I was a sort of frontman, even though I’m a natural introvert. Having somebody like that walking alongside you, always being there and having your back, is what enables you to do much of that political stuff.
And you do that stuff, like putting your face and personality out there, not for the sake of doing that but for what the job then allows you to achieve.
For me, going into politics was always a matter of being able to do something, not just being someone. To make change and improve life and do things for the community where I grew up.
When you look back on your 12 years of parliamentary work, what’s given you the most satisfaction?
There were some big things, like, as the Minister of Housing, increasing Housing New Zealand’s stock — and bringing back income-related rents, which helped lift a lot of people out of poverty.
I remembered watching people, after a long day’s work, walking from Auckland Hospital to Symonds Street and then having to wait for ages to catch their bus all the way back out to South Auckland. We had a hopeless public transport system then. So, in my first year as Minister of Transport, being able to double the public transport subsidy was probably more important than some of the big road projects we did. There was real satisfaction in being able to make decisions that benefitted people at the bottom of the heap.
Also, I think back to my lack of Pacific language and the satisfaction then from working with Trevor Mallard to build early childhood centres that allowed young kids to learn their own language, like Sāmoan, Tongan, Cook Island Māori or whatever. It was doing something worthwhile for the next generation.
Another valuable thing was providing support for our Pacific radio stations so that, without having to spend a lot of money, our voices, our music, and our stories could be on air. Moves like that have had long-term benefits for our Pasifika community.
Not all was going smoothly for your family, though, in the course of your parliamentary work. You’ve had your fair share of personal tragedy, haven’t you?
More than a fair share I sometimes think. Occasionally, I look back and wonder, what’s this all about? Yes, in May 2002, Carol had a severe brain hemorrhage, which is usually fatal. Goodness knows how she survived. Mostly willpower and faith, I suppose. Six weeks before that, my father had died.
We got through those initial months. I was still in Cabinet and then I went through the election campaign, in July, and I stayed in Cabinet for another year. But it just got too difficult because Carol’s brain injury was so severe. It was touch and go for a long time whether she’d live.
So I stepped back and became a backbench MP, although I also chaired a select committee for five years. But the tragedies didn’t end, because my son Kristian then committed suicide in 2007. That really was the tipping point. Should I remain in politics? The answer was clearly “no”, because we had other children, and grandchildren coming along, too.
We sometimes wonder why this has happened to our family, but of course there’s no answer to that. You just have to try and cope — and get on with life. I can’t pretend that it hasn’t been a problem because it builds up over the years and you can end up being quite fragile yourself. I’ve been through tough times, in the past couple of years in particular, and I’ve got through, thanks to amazing support from the family, and from the people I work for and work with.
One advantage, though, has been that it’s made me much better equipped to do the health work that I do now because I understand, through my own experience, just how tough disabilities and mental health problems can be on families.
Aroha to you and your whānau, Mark. Now let’s focus for a moment on a quite different aspect of your whānau. That’s the occasion when you went to Lano, your nana’s village in Sāmoa, and you were bestowed with the matai title of Vui. Would you, fa’amolemole, tell us about that?
That was the most extraordinary day for me, going into a cultural setting where I felt totally ill-equipped through not speaking the language and not really being sure what was going on. Lano is the village of my grandmother and it’s where my dad was born. It’s where my German grandfather ran his little business, and we still have some family in the area.
For many years, my extended family here in New Zealand wanted me to accept a matai title, but I just didn’t feel that I was ready for it. Nor did I think that it was appropriate because I believed that matai titles belong in Sāmoa. But there comes a time when your uncles and your aunties are saying you’ve gotta do this and you can’t say no anymore. So you accept it.
And we had a wonderful journey with 30 or 40 of my immediate family, our children, my brothers and sisters and their children — some who’d never set foot in Sāmoa before. Some of them, from Australia. And we went through this wonderful experience, which we were fortunate to have captured by Tagata Pasifika, so there’s a lot of film footage of it.
The ceremony was a proud occasion for us, although I realised that it was to some degree a turning back from Dad’s position where he’d refused a matai title and said he didn’t want a bar of it. But, towards the end of his life, his love of Sāmoa returned and he became quite sentimental about the country and his people. And he spent much more time going back to Sāmoa, so I know he would’ve been extraordinarily proud that his son was being honoured in this way.
Our visit was also a return to our roots for the whole family. And we relived it a couple of years after that by going back just for a holiday with all these young ones in our family who hadn’t seen themselves as being Sāmoan, particularly the ones from Australia.
And I’ve now seen quite a few of my young nephews and nieces and my own children going back to Sāmoa more comfortably, to reconnect and build those relationships that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t taken this matai title.
Back here, in the 10 years since you left parliament, you’ve worked on a good many Pacific kaupapa. Vaka Tautua for instance. Fonua Ola as well. And I imagine that’s felt really rewarding.
It’s been enormously satisfying because, when you leave parliament, you’re never going to replicate the things that you can do there. Your work comes down in scale, even though it’s still important in the community. So I’ve relished the opportunity to be the Pacific rep in this, that or the other organisation.
I get asked a lot because there’s still a shortage of Pasifika people with management and governance experience at the top level. I’m not yet at the stage of saying: “No. Not me.”
But I’m definitely encouraging organisations to grab the young ones and put the next generation into those positions. And, fortunately, people are taking that on board and I’m seeing young Pasifika men and women taking their first steps in management and governance — and even sitting around the Cabinet table.
So my position is that now I can take a back seat and work behind the scenes to help other people do the kind of work I’ve done ever since I started in the union movement 40 years ago. I never stop getting a buzz from that.
Isn’t it amazing that a kid from Papatoetoe now runs the Counties Manukau DHB? Middlemore Hospital being just around the corner, it’s been a familiar landmark in our lives. I guess it doesn’t escape you, the irony of moving from the chain at the freezing works to running probably the country’s biggest district health board. What are some of your observations here, and priorities?
When I had my pōwhiri, I said: “Here’s a riddle. Who was the first employee of the Ōtara Spinal Unit?” And they all looked at me quizzically, and I said: “It was me.” I was the first employee there. I was a groundsman — I got employed as one of a team of three to do the gardens and lawns and get everything ready before they shifted in.
Now I’m chairing the board that oversees the running of that place, and it reminds me that you’ve gotta remain humble because the whole system falls apart if somebody isn’t cleaning the hospital, if somebody’s not sweeping the grounds and mowing the lawns and making the infrastructure tick over.
We’ve got a health system stretched to capacity trying to cope with a growing demand that’s driven by population growth and by deeply rooted poverty.
So what I want to achieve as one cog in the wheel at Counties Manukau DHB is to ensure that people there have access to the same level of health service and quality as the rest of the country, because at the moment the system is so stretched that they don’t have outcomes that are equal to the rest of the population.
My goal is to see that health inequality disappears out of Counties Manukau DHB, so that we’re as healthy as anybody else, and our life expectancy is the same as anybody else.
And they’re long-term goals obviously, but if you don’t have those targets, then you’re going to always fall short. And the health system can’t do that on its own, so it’s gotta connect really well with housing. It’s gotta connect with social services. More importantly, it’s gotta connect with the people in the community who know what they’re doing and can make a difference.
There are people out there tackling obesity who get our community out exercising and eating properly and doing all the things they know they have to do to tackle that terrible problem that leads to diabetes and heart disease.
And those people are quite often doing it for nothing. They’re doing it from the goodness of their heart or with very skinny resources. So that’s gotta be a focus.
I’m not downplaying the hospitals and the doctors and the nurses, but what’s missing to me still is that early intervention-prevention stuff at the community level, which can be delivered by all sorts of people if they’re encouraged and given the resources and are brought together to work collectively.
So that whole thing about collective action that I learned back in my days in the freezers at Tip Top is still something that drives me and guides me in the work that I’m going to do at the DHB.
This interview has been condensed and edited.