16 November 2022

Today, Public Service Commissioner Peter Hughes gave a eulogy for Sir Wira Gardiner at a memorial service in Wellington. 

E ngā mana, e ngā iwi, e rau rangatira mā,

Tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou katoa.

It was my privilege to know Wira as a friend and to work with him as a colleague when he took on the role of Secretary for Children and Chief Executive of Oranga Tamariki.

In my very first meeting with him in that role he described himself as “a soldier and a public servant”. The order is significant. I will come back to that.

He told me that he had agreed to take on the role for the sake of his mokopuna. We talked about them. He talked about his love for them. About how he (his words) "spoiled them rotten". About how he ignored every plea from the whanau not to do that. About how they deserved no less. And about how they were our future.

The love he showed to his mokopuna he showed to all of the children dependent on Oranga Tamariki for their safety and care. And perhaps his greatest act of love for them was in his agreeing to take on one of the toughest leadership roles in the country at the age of 77. 

 A Soldier and a public servant:  As you’ve heard Sir Wira was a very distinguished solider. And he was no less distinguished as a public servant.

In his 38-year career as a public servant, Wira was integral to some of the most important historical changes in the relationship between Māori and the Crown, including his role in the historic treaty settlements of the 1990s. His pragmatism, strategic brain and empathy were instrumental throughout and as inaugural director of the Waitangi Tribunal he oversaw radical changes which resulted in the establishment of Te Puni Kōkiri in 1992 and Wira’s appointment as the foundation Chief Executive.

This was the first of a number of senior public service roles he held including, National Director of Civil Defence; Chair of Te Māngai Pāho; Deputy Chair of Te Ohu Kaimoana; Council member of Te Wānanga o Aotearoa; Deputy Chair of Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi; Chief Executive of Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi; Chair of the Tertiary Education Commission and Chair of the Board of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.

It's an impressive list of achievements, only made possible through Wira’s unique combination of being a safe pair of hands and also a leader willing to innovate to achieve the best results for the organisations and communities he served. His incredible motivation to serve, a quality which underpinned his entire career as a soldier and civilian, was the sole reason he stepped up to lead Oranga Tamariki in their hour of need. He didn’t need the money, he didn’t need the status, he certainly didn’t need the work. He was 77 years of age, but he was still driven by an overwhelming desire to serve the people of Aotearoa New Zealand to the best of his abilities.

Our new Public Service Act says "the fundamental characteristic of the Public Service is acting with a spirit of service to the community "

And that is about three things:  It’s about being totally focused on the needs of others.  It’s about bringing the right attitude to that and approaching our work with humility.  And it’s about having a higher purpose. It’s about being motivated by something bigger than ourselves

Sir Wira in his life and through his public service epitomised and exemplified that spirit. And in recognition of that last year I was very privileged to be able to confer on him a Spirit of Service Awards Lifetime Achievement Award.

This Award honours an individual who has made an exceptional contribution to New Zealand or their community and who exemplifies a spirit of service.

The Citation to the Award (amongst other things) says:

“Tā Wira Gardiner embodies the spirit of service.  In his many years of public service, Tā Wira always left a mark.  [He] is motivated by a higher calling to serve his community. [He] has influenced generations of public servants through his authenticity and steadfast commitment to serving the people of New Zealand. His spirit of service is an inspiration to all.”

A soldier and a public servant: To a battle-weary Public Service Commissioner this is a very attractive combination.  And, as I say, order is significant.

When Wira started as Chief Executive of Oranga Tamariki we agreed to meet regularly. Given the mana of the man I arranged to go to him for these meetings. That never happened. On each occasion the arrangement was politely but firmly reversed. Wira came to me. Every time.

And he came early. Never ever late. I clued up to this and started arriving early too. Earlier and earlier. But there he would be sitting in Reception waiting for me. Every. Single. Time.

I allowed a full hour for these meetings. We must have met a dozen or so times over the course of his time at Oranga Tamariki. None of these meetings lasted longer than fifteen minutes. Not one.

They were conducted with military efficiency. One pleasantry was allowed at the beginning then it was straight to business. No beating around the bush. No circling of issues. And then he was outta there. Stuff to do. Things to make happen.

I figured out that in Wira's world view it was all very simple. I was the Commanding Officer and he was there to check his orders. Then he was in full execution mode. Over and out.

And in many ways that was the mark of the man.  Totally focussed on the mission, on making a difference.  And that was always about others.  Never about himself.  Purpose, achievement, selflessness, humility, and absolute integrity.

A soldier and a public servant:  But Sir Wira’s contributions go above and beyond these roles.  He was a hugely respected and influential Māori leader, a skilled educator, an accomplished scholar, a highly regarded historian and a published and acclaimed author.

A soldier and a public servant:  But also a cherished husband and life partner, a beloved father, doting koro, a favourite whanaunga, a loyal friend to many and a hugely respected colleague to many more.

Through the course of his life Wira changed the lives of many others for the better and he lives on in all of them and in all of us who had the privilege of knowing him.

Moe mai e te rangatira

Moe mai ra i roto i te atua

Haere ra

No reira tēna koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā tātou katoa

Ngā mihi nui ki a koutou katoa.