An officer and a gentleman

Public office: Inspecting a defence force guard of honour. Below, new Governor-General Jerry Mateparae with Prime Minister John Key.
Photos: Andrew Gorrie, Robert Kitchin
Public office: Inspecting a defence force guard of honour. Below, new Governor-General Jerry Mateparae with Prime Minister John Key.

Our next governor-general has risen from humble beginnings to the highest post in the land. Does he have what it takes to go from military man, to man of the people? 

JERRY MATEPARAE is the son of two preacher men. His birth father and his whangai or foster father were both "apostles" or ministers in the Ratana church. His real name, Jeremiah, is biblical, taken from the Old Testament prophet. You won't learn this from his official biographical notes. The spymaster, head of the top-secret Government Communications Security Bureau, is profoundly private and discreet.

As chief of the Defence Force, Lieutenant General Mateparae was "a public servant kind of army officer", says Waikato University defence expert Ron Smith. This meant he was a team player and a safe pair of hands. He was not the kind of general who wanted to force his political bosses to change their policy. Everyone who knows Mateparae uses the same words to describe him: "Modest, quiet, a gentleman."

.
.

In the Pakeha world, his origins were humble. He lived in one of the poorer suburbs of Whanganui. His birth father, Sam Andrews, worked in the freezing works. His foster father, Rangiwhaiuru Mateparae, drove heavy machinery in a Whanganui earthmoving business.

"Jerry was really quiet and unassuming, and just slotted in with everyone else," says Whanganui district councillor Ray Stevens, who went to Castlecliff Primary School with him. "To me, he was not a leader, not at all. We never had anyone in that era who stood out."

But Mateparae had leadership qualities which his quiet manner tended to hide. Sam Andrews was "a very eminent man in the Ratana church and also in the Whanganui community," says Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia. "I don't think it is surprising that [Jerry] is a leader. I think it was in his genes."

Andrews could mix easily in both Maori and Pakeha communities, she says. Jerry was to be the same. Rangi Mateparae was also active, the kind of man who might be called from work to visit someone in hospital.

"Both his fathers were gentlemen," says Turia. "They were very different people, but very respectful people who served their communities really well."

Mateparae is a child of the 1950s and 60s who grew up playing cricket in the street with the other kids and married his sweetheart before they were out of their teens. He and Raewyn McGhie, the daughter of a butcher, used to cycle to high school together. "He was really cute," remembers a girl from the neighbourhood, "and she was very pretty." Raewyn was a gifted marching girl who won lots of medals, says her brother Shane.

Mateparae's first wife is not mentioned in the official biographical notes issued last week. Raewyn died of cancer in 1990, leaving her husband with their two daughters and a son. The grief-stricken soldier found it hard to cope with her loss. It is evidently still a painful and private matter for him.

Mateparae served for 38 years in the military, an organisation governed by hierarchy, formality, rules and rituals. Personally, the general is not a stiff or formal fellow. He mixed easily with all ranks and was happy to have a beer with his soldiers. He can be seen at the farmers' market in Paraparaumu – he and his second wife, Janine, live on the Kapiti coast – wearing jandals and a T-shirt.

He also has a sense of humour. "He liked to laugh, and he had a very loud laugh," says Stevens.

Colleen Singleton, president of the Wellington Rotary Club, says club member Mateparae has a dry wit and gives amusing "though not jokey" speeches.

Not everyone loves the military, and some don't like the idea of a former military man as governor general. Will Mateparae, who must now represent all the people, be able to reach out to them?

"Well, I think it's not a matter for me to reach out to them in respect of the defence force, because the defence force is doing that well enough itself, particularly in Christchurch," he told the Sunday Star-Times in a brief interview last week. "I think the defence force is also showing it's got a compassionate side to itself, not only there but in the Pacific."

As for the idea that a former general can't relate to all the people: "I disagree. In terms of reaching out and mixing with New Zealanders, I've done that as a general and right now I'm not a general. I'm Mr Jerry Mateparae."

He "doesn't speak te reo but I can understand parts of it, but I'm not a fluent speaker.

"As the Fleetwood Mac song said, `I am what I am', and there is no changing what I am and what I look like."

Asked about his Ratana roots, he says, "I'm the son of a preacher man", and suggests it could help with the "reaching out and touching". This is a riff on the 1965 Dusty Springfield song: "The only one who could ever reach me / Was the son of a preacher man."

"There's a whole lot of things in terms of music and also my background [that] I guess over the next six months people will come to know."

He says he "hasn't been to the Ratana Church for a long, long time, [but] I'm a Christian, absolutely". He and Janine were married in the Anglican Church.

MATEPARAE BECAME head of the army at a time of political trouble. In the early 1990s some of the brass bitterly opposed the new Labour-led government's plans to reform the military. There was intense rivalry between the services, with unashamed barrow-pushing and jostling for position.

The government changed the rules for picking military chiefs, putting it in the hands of the State Services Commission, the body that appoints top bureaucrats, and making the military compete for the jobs. Mateparae was chosen because he was seen to be non-partisan. He was a team player who wouldn't play politics or rock the boat.

The Helen Clark government appointed him head of the army in 1992 and then gave him the top job, chief of defence force, in 2006. "Jerry Mateparae was a loyal and competent military leader," Clark told the Star-Times in an email, "and I believe that he will command wide respect as governor-general."

He was a mildly reformist leader, making the military a little more open about what it did. He backed the publication, for example, of a book on the history of the SAS, the secretive squad of elite commandos in which Mateparae once served. But this lifted the veil only slightly.

The book was censored and gave detailed facts only about the earlier decades of the service. It revealed little of real note about the SAS's role in Afghanistan.

There were also controversies during his reign at the top. The force was intensely embarrassed when it was revealed that Stephen Wilce, the former director of the Defence Technology Agency, had made up some of his CV.

There was also a furore over design faults in the new multi-role navy ship Canterbury following the drowning of a sailor.

There has been trouble over the role the SAS has played in the treatment of prisoners in Afghanistan. The Star-Times revealed last year that the SAS was helping catch insurgents who were transferred to the Afghan Secret Police – an organisation notorious for torture.

Mateparae gave inconsistent answers about the role the SAS played. In February last year, he said SAS troopers had "assisted" Afghanistan's Crisis Response Unit in detaining alleged insurgents. In March he told the Star-Times that SAS members "have not assisted in detaining" them.

The point is important because, if the SAS had captured prisoners who were transferred to the notorious National Directorate of Security in Kabul (NDS), the defence force could face legal action, as the military did in Britain, when two British judges banned it from handing prisoners to the NDS.

There is in this case the whiff of the general as bureaucrat, anxious to defend the government from attack, but not quite getting his story clear.

Nobody in the military will openly attack Mateparae over his record, although a few are privately critical. Mateparae, some say, was too loyal to his political bosses and not ready to challenge them when it was needed.

Governors-general are traditionally creatures of the prime minister and must be loyal to the government. But they are traditionally expected "to be consulted, to advise and warn" the cabinet. In other words, they seem to have the power to tell the government if they're not happy about something. Governors-general don't do this publicly, so the public never learns if they have done so.

What will Mateparae do?

THE BIO FILE

Born November 14, 1954, with tribal affiliations to Ngati Tuwharetoa and Ngati Kahungunu. The family has military connections, with his grandfather Rawiri fighting in World War I, and his father and uncle also serving in the army.

Educated at Whanganui High School, where he does well, but does not go to university. Instead, joins Maori Affairs as a cadet accountant.

Becomes an accidental soldier in 1972 when he accompanies a friend to the recruiting office in Whanganui. The friend changed his mind but "it was Jerry who left the office with the enlisting papers in his hand", according to an article by Derek Fox in Mana magazine in 2006.

Is turned down for officer school but, three years later, is accepted and begins his rapid rise through the ranks. Tops his class at Portsea Cadet School in Australia and later serves in Bougainville, southern Lebanon, and East Timor.

Marries high-school sweetheart Raewyn McGhie in early 1970s in the Ratana Temple. She dies in 1990. Mateparae's son from that marriage, Jeremy, joins the army and is now serving in Afghanistan.

Studies at senior officer schools in Britain and Australia and takes Master of Arts in international relations with first-class honours from Waikato University. He was "a very agreeable fellow and a very good student," says Waikato defence expert Ron Smith. "Academically brilliant? Perhaps not."

Now married to Janine, whom he met in the 1990s while battalion commander at Linton Camp. They have two teenage sons; the younger one boards at Palmerston North Boys' High School. Mateparae is on the board of trustees.

Sunday Star Times