Phil Gifford: I've known Peter Leitch for 40 years and never heard him say a racist word

Sir Peter Leitch with Kiwis coach David Kidwell in England last October.
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Sir Peter Leitch with Kiwis coach David Kidwell in England last October.

There are rarely any winners when we argue over race in New Zealand.

We've seen it this week in the social media frenzy that erupted over what Sir Peter Leitch said to a Maori woman, Lara Bridger, at a vineyard on Waiheke Island.

I don't know Lara Bridger, but she says she took down Facebook postings because she was receiving threats on line. We can therefore deduce that she's having a very tough time at the moment.

Peter Leitch and I have been friends for 40 years, and, spending a day with him on Wednesday, I saw at first hand how devastated he is by the uproar, questioning himself in a way I've never seen before.

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Defending Peter if, like me, you've lived your life as a Pakeha, is to run the risk of stoking racial fires on both sides of the debate, possibly upsetting non-Pakeha, or encouraging anti-Maori feeling.

But it'd be cowardly of me not to say, because it's true, that in four decades of friendship with Peter, socialising in each other's homes, speaking together at almost 100 functions, travelling  and holidaying together with our wives, and sending hours and hours with him while writing his biography in 2007, I've never seen or heard him behave in a racist manner.

So yes, I'm offended when people make, on social media, an all out assault on him as a person, some judging and even condemning a man's whole life on the basis of one comment, which he knows was wrong, and has apologised for.

It just doesn't seem logical that a racist person would be described by Monty Betham as being "like a father to me", or that Peter Fatialofa's widow, Anne, would write to me, "No way, to the moon and back, is Peter Leitch racist."  Or that way back in his Mangere East club days in the 1970s one of the all time Kiwi greats Olsen Filipaina would give his first test jersey to Peter because, "he was like a second father to me."

But let's be more specific.

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Did the same people who bagged Peter this week consider him a racist in 1999 when, with The Mad Butcher Suburban  Newspapers Community Trust,  enough money was raised to pay for 120 South Auckland children, the vast majority Pasifika and Maori kids, to have glue ear operations in one weekend at Middlemore hospital, wiping out a five year waiting list in two days?

Bizarrely he was actually accused of racism at the time. On the set of TVNZ's Good Morning show presenter Alison Leonard was dumbfounded when a print journalist accused Peter of only doing charity work "for brown people." She remembers Peter's reply, "You make me spew mate! I'm trying to do something for the community and you say I'm racist. I'm bloody not."

Did anyone in the cash strapped Hawkes Bay Maori league sides of the 1980s think he was a racist when he supplied enough free meat to feed the team at Auckland tournaments for up to three days? Hawkes Bay official and social worker Denis O'Reilly told me in 2007: "The boys got such a buzz from meeting Peter, and from the aroha of the man. One time in Auckland we had so much kai we had to invite the wahine team over."

One of my reasons for liking Peter is that when I first knew him he wasn't very rich, and not that famous, but even then he was generous, and he was especially generous with his help for ordinary people.

That's how he got involved with the Mangere East league club, an organisation that's blue collar to the core. He was asked for sponsorship money in the late 1960s, but, short of cash, offered them meat for raffles instead.

He'd never played the game, but soon found the club members were, like himself, "working class people. Like me, the guys aren't from silver spoon families." That love affair with the people of league continues to this day with the Warriors.

With his success Peter could offer more, but his donations haven't been designed to put his name on buildings. He knows how hard it is for everyday men and women to get by, and those are the people he's always reached out to.

He's a compulsive chatter to other people. Does he always get it right when he meets strangers?

Of course not.  Peter's natural state is over the top. He sometimes swears when he shouldn't have. He makes outrageous jokes, which risk causing offence. "Mate," I've heard him say on many occasions from the stage to a man in the front row at a sports' club, "who's this lovely woman with you?" "My wife." "That's funny, it wasn't who I saw you with in K Road last night."

But hand on heart, I can say he's never malicious.

And for me a key issue of racism is that malice is involved. Peter has apologised for offending Lara Bridger on Waiheke. He says he should have chosen his words more carefully.

But take it to the bank, whatever he said didn't come from a hateful place.

 - Sunday Star Times

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