Rob McLeod might easily have been a Gisborne electrician rather than a mover and shaker at the head offices and boardrooms of many of New Zealand's most powerful organisations — mainstream and Māori. But his aspirations changed, thanks to a nurturing whānau, including a strong-willed Ngāti Porou mum and sibling achievers. And he's encouraging other Māori to lift their sights and find the support they might need to achieve the goals within their reach.
Kia ora, Rob — and thanks for joining us on e-Tangata. You’ve had a very interesting life, and I understand it started in a little place on the East Coast.
That’s right. I was born in the maternity annex at Waipiro Bay, where so many Ngāti Porou babies of the 1950s and earlier were born. And I was the youngest of five kids. At the time, my father, George Tamahori, was manager of Te Araroa Farmers, also known as Waiapu Farmers, one of the cooperatives that Apirana Ngata set up.
My mum and dad were living in Te Araroa. Dad had come back from the war and studied accounting and had worked his way into a commercial life there. But, shortly after I was born, my parents decided to move from Te Araroa to Manutuke, on the outskirts of Gisborne, deep in Rongowhakaata country. They had high schools for their children in mind.
Dad bought a shop there. At that time, small grocery corner stores were very popular. It was the pre-supermarket age. One of the influences in my life, commercially, was working in that shop. Serving customers, counting money, that kind of thing.
I was fortunate to have a very nurturing family. And I was also lucky to have talented siblings around me — Tuhaka Joseph, Keita Te Ngaro, John Thornton, and Reta Mary. They were very good on the sports field. And very good academically.
My father’s dad, Pine Tamahori, was the minister at the Anglican church on the East Coast, and was a close friend of Apirana Ngata. They’d both gone to Te Aute College.
As a priest, he was able to send all of his children to Te Aute. So, my father was well educated — although that came to an abrupt end in his seventh form year, as we would call it today, because of the Napier earthquake in 1931.
Because my dad and his father had had that opportunity to be educated, they were very strong on that point with their own whānau. It led to four of us five kids going to university and getting university qualifications.
I think that was quite a rare feat for Māori at that time, when money and resources weren’t plentiful, and people typically had other priorities. They went into the workforce rather than going to university.
Can you tell us a little about the Tamahori family?
Definitely. They’re a very proud family on the East Coast. My grandfather, Pine Tamahori, died at the age of 51 in 1933, so I never met him. But I’ve read extensively about him. In fact, one of the letters that Apirana Ngata wrote to Peter Buck describes my grandfather as the Coast expert in haka and whakapapa. I think that’s undisputed, because my grandfather authored the first comprehensive whakapapa book of Ngāti Porou as an iwi.
He was able to produce that whakapapa because, when he was on circuit as the Anglican priest from Pōtaka all the way down to Tolaga Bay, he’d stay overnight with kaumātua and kuia in their homes, up and down the Coast, and he’d spend most of his time with them in kōrero on whakapapa.
That reflects the strong cultural outlook Pine Tamahori had. But I think there’s a paradox in that generation. Even though Apirana Ngata was born in the middle of the 19th century, in his time he was regarded as a radical by many of his elders. The radicalism was that generation taking the view that they had to embrace the new technologies and the new methods of the Pākehā.
And they had an attitude about education and opportunity which was very forward thinking. It was one of embracing and investing in those opportunities. You find in Ngata’s writing a huge emphasis on education and capturing opportunity. His worldview is encapsulated in E Tipu E Rea, which most Ngāti Porou can recite by heart.
And I have found, in the modern world, and in my life, that this whakataukī really says it all.
The context of the whakataukī is interesting. It was a spontaneous creation by Ngata when he was opening a new primary school at Pōtaka. He saw a girl sitting on a step and he sat down beside her and took her new book and wrote this whakataukī in the flap of her book.
Essentially, the whakataukī says this:
Oh grow, little shoot, for the days of your years. Embrace the tools of the Pākehā for the nourishment of your body. Wear your culture and custom as a crown on your head and give your soul to God, the author of all things.
Today, I suppose we might regard the reference to God as eccentric, but I view it as reflecting Ngata’s strong Anglicanism and a metaphor for ethics as part of the way that Māori would best cope with the world and support each other.
He gave lectures to school children, at Te Aute, for example, on the importance of ethical conduct to ensure a moral life, which he believed was a prerequisite to a successful and fulfilled life, whether that was on the job, with whānau, or wherever.
If you go back to the whakataukī, the reference to “tools of the Pākehā” is a metaphor for education, for investing in your own skills. By the way, I don’t regard that educational investment as just university. It also refers to trades, music, and sport — any human endeavour where you can cultivate a skill.
That’s a key message for today. And then there’s the juxtaposition that Ngata makes of culture as the crown on your head. Don’t forget who you are, your Māori culture and ancestry. Your taha Māori shapes your worldview.
He put Māori culture alongside Pākehā opportunity in a modern world. He didn’t see those concepts as conflicting, which I think today is more of a controversial issue. Some Māori leaders who’ve come after Ngata question whether his philosophy was possibly a little too subservient to the Pākehā.
I myself have often wondered, looking at the stones thrown his way by Pākehā institutions, whether he was a little too tolerant. He was certainly not a protester or a strident opponent in the mode of Ranginui Walker, for example. Ngata appears to have had a very humble style and tone.
I’m a huge admirer of Ranginui Walker, for the assaults that he capably led. But Ngata didn’t seem to do that. He operated more as a conventional statesman (although I think Walker had a dignity about him, too).
Your dad, George, was in the 28th Māori Battalion and, on his return, maintained a strong connection with the Battalion. Sadly, after the war, he struggled to find work, as many did. And he was advised to change his name, which he duly did. It makes me wonder whether you think you would’ve been as successful if you were Rob Tamahori.
I’ve asked myself that question, Dale. When Dad came back from the war, he was actually invalided home early. Initially, he suffered from shellshock in Casino. He survived that episode but he then got meningitis and the doctors said he had to come home.
He was a second lieutenant in the Battalion and apparently was next in line for a commission to major. He’d been acting captain, which he said was a ruse in the military to get people to do higher work without getting higher pay. He seemed inured to the pragmatism of these situations. But he was very unhappy about having to leave the war effort when he did.
Regarding the name change, it was actually my mother’s whāngai brother, Tuhaka Ngapo, who was responsible for that. He was a major in the Battalion, and he and my father had become close friends. He said to my father: “Since you’re going to Gisborne, I’d like you to see my sister and give her this gift.”
Dad had never met my mother — Helen (Erana) Margaret Ngapo — before that time as she’d been raised in Harataunga, Coromandel. So, when he got back to Gisborne, he met my mother, gave her the gift, and they fell in love. They got married, and a little later ended up staying with my uncle Tuhaka Ngapo in Paeroa.
At that point, Dad was trying to get a job in and around that area. He’d been taught carpentry by his uncle, Wiki Goldsmith, and he was a very capable carpenter. But he wasn’t getting responses to any of his job applications, which, in those days, was all by mail.
My uncle said: “I think you need to put a Pākehā name on your applications.” So Dad used the name McLeod. He chose that name because his own father, Pine Tamahori, was the son of a Pākehā man by the name of McLeod who lived with but hadn’t married his mother. Dad quickly got a job under that name.
For a while, he was Tamahori at home and McLeod at work. Things got a little awkward with that kind of duality, so he changed his name by deed poll.
I’m certain Dad never wanted to disown his Tamahori name. But he never complained or whinged about having to change. He once said to my mother: “What’s in a name? If it puts food on the table, I’m happy to change it.”
That was the paradox of that generation. When I think back on it, it does reflect capitulation — a submissive mindset towards these kinds of slings and arrows, and it links to the comment I made about Ta Apirana. Today, we’d be more hostile towards these things.
I take language as another example. Dad was a native Ngāti Porou speaker. He was brought up by his grandparents until he was six. He grew up listening and speaking to Ngāti Porou grandparents who were born in the middle of the 19th century, shortly after the Treaty of Waitangi.
So his te reo was pure. He was quite impatient when listening to Māori words being mispronounced in later times. But, at the same time, he didn’t seem to put an emphasis on us kids needing to speak Māori. And, indeed, I’m not a speaker of Māori, although I understand it.
I had the opportunity of being a fluent speaker because, when I was born, my parents recruited a nanny for me. She was Tūhoe and she became a supplementary mother to me. I spent every school holiday with her in Waimana and up the Matahi valley, listening to her very fluent Tūhoe Māori and broken English.
So all my life te reo has been in and around my ears, and I think I could re-learn it quickly. But my dad didn’t put much emphasis on it. He took the view that te reo in a practical sense was abating.
This conflicts with the Ngata whakataukī that culture and custom is the crown on our head, given that language is the central part of culture.
I think one of the traps that Ngata and my father fell into was that they took their Māoritanga for granted because they knew it so well. They were doyens. They knew it so comfortably that they never imagined a world where we didn’t know it and would want to try and get it back.
So their starting point was different from ours today. I remember saying to my father in later life: “Hey, Dad, have you ever wondered why everybody comes to you to listen to your reo? And you’re very proud to share it, but you denied that opportunity for us because you didn’t think it was important. And the reality is it wasn’t as important to you because you grew up absorbing it day by day, whereas we didn’t.”
I don’t criticise my father one bit for it. He was a nurturing, respectful and excellent father to his children. His eyes only looked forward and never backwards sufficiently long enough to be romantic about his culture.
Rob, you mentioned your Tūhoe nanny. Can you tell us a bit more about her?
Her name was Rawhakarite Riini. We called her Nanny Ra. Her father was Pani Eretini Riini from the Matahi valley and her mother was Te Maara Rahia Te Rewa from Te Rewarewa marae — Tame Iti’s marae up the Ruātoki valley.
There’s a photo of Nanny Ra’s mother and Ra’s older sister, Ngapera Riini, in that marae. Ngapera was the eighth wife of Rua the prophet and had two sons to that union. Ra was Ringatū and, from when I was one month old, she took me all around Tūhoe, regularly attending 12ths, tangi, and other rich ceremonial experiences.
Until Nanny Ra died in 1982, I spent a lot of my life in that part of the country, and the Tūhoe people of that generation knew me as a Tūhoe. In fact, I’m actually on the rolls of Tūhoe as a whāngai child of Ra. I’m proud of that, and I think it’s quite appropriate because, as far as Ra was concerned, I was her child.
That’s a beautiful kōrero, and it speaks volumes of our love of tamariki. At university, you studied accounting. But what did that lead on to?
I went to Otago, as did my other three siblings that went to university. My older sister was the first to go there. Sadly, she’s not with us anymore. She passed away through complications from breast cancer, which is a gene that runs in my father’s whānau. I’ve lost a few of my cousins to that. She studied home science, microbiology, zoology, and did very well. I mention her in particular because she led the way to university study for our whānau.
I had other siblings that did well, too. They were achievers on the sports fields, school, and at university. And that was fortunate for me, because they were role models to me as the youngest looking up at them.
When I was in high school I had a job working for an electrician in Gisborne, after school and in the weekends. He offered me an apprenticeship, which I was quite keen to take up. But my mum wouldn’t allow it. There was a bit of a battle in my later high school years about my career. And my mum said: “You’re off to university because the teachers say you can do it. And I know you can.” I said: “Who’s to say that’s the superior track?” But she prevailed. My mother was a strong-willed Ngāti Porou woman with red hair, and well known for not taking no for an answer.
I did a commerce degree but, halfway through that, the accounting professor said I was doing well in my law papers and should do law as a conjoint degree. That was kind of unheard of. Not many in my generation were doing combined degrees.
But the professor opened a few doors and he arranged to get me enrolled in law. So I ended up pursuing a joint qualification which added a bit of extra time to the degree.
After I qualified in accounting and law, I decided that I should focus on activity that used both, such as insolvency or taxation.
I decided I’d go the tax way. So I joined a firm that was the predecessor to the current KPMG firm, known as Gilfillan Morris & Co. I made partner in that firm when I was 27.
A couple of years later, I left and set up a specialist tax practice firm called McLeod Lojkine Associates with Susan Lojkine, who later became chair of the Commerce Commission.
Then, in 1987, the sharemarket crash came along, and Arthur Andersen, which at that time was one of the “Big Five” international audit firms, asked us to be their representative firm in New Zealand. So we took up that opportunity.
Unfortunately, the American Arthur Andersen firm subsequently got into strife in 2002. And as a result, Arthur Andersen firms around the world left that network and merged with other firms. The New Zealand and Australia Arthur Andersen firms joined Ernst & Young, and in 2002, I became Chairman of Ernst & Young NZ.
In 2004, I went out on my own to become a tax barrister and professional director of a number of public companies such as Telecom, the ANZ Bank, Sky City Entertainment Group, and Gulliver Travel.
At that time, I was having a lot to do with various Māori initiatives. Earlier, I’d been on the establishment unit of Te Puni Kōkiri in the early ’90s. I’d also been a member of Pita Sharples’ Māori Economic Development taskforce. And I’d joined the Waitangi Fisheries Commission under the leadership of Shane Jones, so I had a hand in getting fisheries sorted for Māori.
As a result of that, I was invited to become chairman of Aotearoa Fisheries Ltd. Then chairman of Sealord, which is 50 percent owned by Aotearoa Fisheries Ltd. And after that, I was asked to lead the negotiation of the Treaty settlement for Ngāti Porou by Uncle Api Mahuika, from 2008 to 2010. I also joined the board of Tainui Group Holdings.
So, fortunately, as I became more entrenched in commerce, I found my way back to a number of Māori opportunities and ventures.
Can we focus now on the Māori economy where, of course, there are successes but where many of our people aren’t faring well at all?
One of the roles I had was chair of the New Zealand Business Roundtable. A lot of Māori would think of the NZBR as a key institution in Pākehā-dom — although, Roger Kerr, who was the executive director, was an extremely humane individual with a huge admiration of and concern for Māori. He worked hard to try and shape public policies in New Zealand that gave Māori the best opportunities.
Sometimes people end up arguing a great deal about the means. We can usually agree on the ends, although racism is a fact of life. But some racism is a bit tricky, isn’t it? For instance, Māori might want to marry Māori rather than non-Māori, and that tendency of humans to select into their cultural group is a form of racism. It’s a delicate concept to get right.
But the reality, as I’ve pointed out in writing and in many speeches I’ve made, is that Māori do not do as well.
Another slippery term is “success”. How do you define doing well? I used to think that the more Māori going to university, the better. But there’s a part of me now that thinks that university doesn’t define success.
I think that success is for the individual Māori to have the freedom to choose, and the ability to go down the path that they define as successful. I believe it’s for the whānau and for the Māori person to define it, and the key thing we should focus on is how we facilitate that choice.
I’ve tried to get away from academic theory and into a pragmatic way of thinking about this issue. And I’ve come back to a belief that the Māori individual will do well, or do better, if he or she has a stable, nurturing whānau.
It’s no different from Pākehā. What’s important is what’s going on in the whānau — and what role modelling is there.
There’s a randomness in life as to whether you’re lucky enough to be born into a whānau that’s stable, solid and nurturing, which I was. I’d say that the majority of whānau are stable. But there’s a minority that aren’t.
If people don’t get stability and nurture at home, that’s a big impediment. Only whanaunga and public policies can help in that situation.
There’s the question, too, about our aspirations. I can speak with life experience when I say that when I wanted to become an electrician, I had some doubts about whether I’d succeed at university. I wasn’t full of confidence.
And frankly, even though I had successful siblings around me, the fact of the matter was that they were better than me in the classroom and on the sports field. In a way, I grew up in their shadow. So that adds another dimension to our aspirations.
There’s the positive influence of successful role models, but there’s also a point where you might feel that these people are so bloody phenomenal that you, an ordinary person, can’t possibly achieve what they have.
But what I think is quite amazing is the aspiration that the parents, the siblings, and the individual have together in the whānau. That’s crucial. And, in my view, Māori have not had high enough aspirations and confidence in their own ability.
Is that because of the absence of role models? Perhaps it’s the move from rural to urban? You had Māori families populating the labouring jobs, so they’re higher in the statistics of unemployment. These sorts of things don’t give the necessary boost to self-confidence.
I’ve come to the view that it’s a self-confidence issue, and that aspiration is crucial. And the parents play a major role in this, in the sense that they’ve got to affirm their children. They’ve got to encourage them. They’ve got to give them the right messages, as Ngata did, about the importance of investing in themselves.
I don’t care whether it’s university. These days, I prefer Māori to build skills in jobs and to be wary of treating university as a holy grail. For example, if I’m in the middle of a family and I don’t think university is a practical option, I’m going to say trades: you can be a plumber, a carpenter. The key thing is to learn a skill-set that takes you off the minimum wage or low wage. Because these trades can pay very well and give an income that liberates the household.
My advice to our rangatahi is to keep an eye out for sponsors. They’re there. Perhaps it’s a teacher or sports coach or a work colleague who will take their interests to heart and help propel them. We all need that kind of support. Rangatahi must seek these people out. There are many good people in the world who are prepared to do good things.
This interview has been edited and condensed.