It’s not people but kaupapa, Russell McVeagh

My already-low expectations of the Bazley review hit the floor when I got to the first page to see that they have done that classic politically correct Pākehā thing of appropriating probably the best-known whakataukī in the nation to open the report.

Our most senior Māori lawyer, Justice Joe Williams gave a fantastic kōrero on this particular whakataukī at our Hunga Rōia Māori (the National Māori Lawyers Association) Hui ā Tau (annual conference) at AUT last November. He pointed out the common misuse of the proverb, and reminded us of its true meaning and value - having regard to the context within which the words were uttered, by Te Aupouri wāhine rangatira (female chief) Meri Ngaroto in the early 19th century.

Ngaroto was making a plea for the lives of a group of manuhiri to her marae at Ohaki - upon hearing of the plans of her relatives to massacre these visitors. Using metaphor in a manner that is typical of Māori language, she uses her own mana and authority to beg for a reconsideration of the decision, imploring:

“Hutia te rito o te harakeke
Kei whea to kōmako e kō?
Ki mai ki ahau
He aha te mea nui o te Ao?
Maku e kī atu,
he tāngata, he tāngata, he tāngata..."

If the heart of the harakeke was removed,
where would the bellbird sing?
If I was asked what was the most important thing in the world
I would be compelled to reply,
it is people, it is people, it is people

Ngaroto is alluding to the common metaphor of the pa harakeke, the flax bush, as a representation of a healthy and functional family - where the plant is well-rooted, and the central shoots (the rito), representing the children, are protected from the elements and adverse forces by the older surrounding shoots - the matua, or parents. Justice Williams reminded us, that what she is claiming therefore is the most important thing, through a Māori lens, is not people in the sense of those individuals you see before you, alive and breathing now, but those to whom they are connected - their tūpuna, or ancestors, but also their as yet unseen/unborn descendants.

In other words, Ngaroto is referring to WHAKAPAPA as the most important thing - the people to whom we are connected - and the idea that we are people through other people, and all that they represent in terms of knowledge and experience. In begging for their lives, she is therefore asking her relatives to consider everyone connected to those they plan to eliminate - ie if you wipe these guys out, you are wiping out all of these others not physically here today.

How does that kōrero relate to the Russell McVeagh saga? Well first it illustrates the importance of considering knowledge within the world view in which it was created and imparted. This report plonks that whakataukī at the beginning of Bazley’s findings – and never refers to it again. Are we to assume some unarticulated view that Russell McVeagh really really cares about people? Really? Which people? Certainly not the ones who were victimised by the predatory staff.

Arguably the firm also did not care about the interests of the wrongdoers themselves, who were to use Bazley’s term “exited”, a word reminiscent of one of those assisted dying groups run by a doctor with an Eastern European name. Perhaps they are referring to their dear friends in the rainbow community, who get several mentions throughout – including in the Appendix Two timeline entitled “Actions Taken by Russell McVeagh Over the Past Few Years”, possibly more properly called “The Hilariously Transparent Charm Offensive to Build Up Some Goodwill Before We’re Sprung.”

Despite several mentions, the Somewhat Elusive Other Diversity Groups, which also get a mention several times, are never given any sunlight – a two page section on “The Place of Women and Diversity” describes gender issues at some length, without going on to tell us what the “and Diversity” part was referring to. Perhaps the three visibly non-Pākehā partners of the firm’s 35 could enlighten us. So I remain somewhat confused as to who exactly the important people are in the firm’s estimation.

Now let’s return to the proper interpretation of the proverb – the consideration of whakapapa. The parameters of the report clearly limit the whakapapa of Russell McVeagh, in restricting the review to a consideration of events coalescing around the terrible incidents of 2015/6. This seems disingenuous considering the repeated references to the “Work Hard Play Hard” firm culture.

Where did that culture come from? We know the firm had knowledge of other incidents dating back over 15 years, which while awful in and of themselves, are particularly significant as evidence of a long-term culture. By dismissing the relevance of such incidents as “historical”, the review fails to join the dots, whilst minimising the firm’s culpability by constructing wrongdoers as rogue operators on the one hand, whilst condemning the failure of leadership and framework of policies, standards and systems.

I don’t think on either interpretation of the proverb – the narrow view considering current employees, or the broader whakapapa view including previous employees, behaviours and the genesis of a harmful culture that a case is made for Russell McVeagh genuinely prioritising the interests of people. In contrast, there is a logical conclusion to be drawn that the firm placed the interests of people a very distant second place to the interests of the firm itself – its reputation, and bottom line, its ability to attract and retain high fee-paying clients.

What then would Meri Ngaroto make of the pa harakeke – the flax bush that is Russell McVeagh? I assume she would say that any number of those for whom the management and partners of the firm had responsibility were let down by them. In other words, the rito or vulnerable “baby stems” were not protected by the awhi rito – those outer leaves or senior members of the family. Perhaps the review could have taken the harakeke metaphor further in taking lessons from the tikanga or rituals associated with flax.

As any weaver will tell you, when harvesting flax it is crucial for the sustainable life of the plant that only the outer leaves are taken – the ultimate parental sacrifice, to ensure the health and wellbeing of the larger entity. The findings and recommendations of the report may ultimately be propping up a plant that requires more fundamental than a little watering and a trim.

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