Sir Tipene O'Regan: Man of mana

23:52, Feb 07 2014
NGAI TAHU BATTLER: Sir Tipene O'Regan.

A cloud called Hanover Finance hangs over Sir Tipene O'Regan. But in Waitangi week, how is the legacy of Ngai Tahu's battler really going to be remembered? JOHN McCRONE reports.

To put the record straight would take a book, not an article. And after five hours of talking about the subject of his life, Sir Tipene O'Regan, the 74-year-old architect of modern corporate Maoridom, is plainly just getting warmed up.

We are only starting to deal with the false reports of his owning a holiday chateau in France and other financial scuttlebutt, the question of whether he was pushed or jumped at the end of the Ngai Tahu treaty settlement claims, the precise origin of his feud with Labour Maori MP Whetu Tirikatene- Sullivan.

A lot of ancient history to sort out.

And then the whole question of is New Zealand on the right path now? O'Regan has just finished co- chairing the constitutional review that the Maori Party extracted as a coalition concession at the last election. So is the country's greater bicultural project going well?

On top of that, there is the issue of O'Regan's own more immediate future. Having worked as a professional director since stepping back from the leadership of Ngai Tahu in 2000, O'Regan finds himself deeply embroiled in the 2009 collapse of Hanover Finance.


Last year, the Serious Fraud Office dropped a criminal investigation against Hanover's six directors - including Auckland rich-listers Mark Hotchin and Eric Watson - however the Financial Markets Authority is still pursuing a civil action to recover investor money.

O'Regan admits the legal bill to fight the action alone could wipe him out financially. "We're talking hundreds of thousands of dollars." There may be a negotiated solution, but the threat and the humiliation of a lawsuit hangs as a heavy cloud over the coming year.

So where to start? The very public O'Regan of the 1980s and 1990s, the hard man of tribal politics, is a familiar figure.

"Intimidating, bombastic, a boardroom brawler, a grandstander, frighteningly intelligent, and totally committed to securing the return of some of his people's land," as The Press recorded in his heyday.

But how did it all begin and what will become his legacy?


O'Regan's home by the sand- dunes and beach in New Brighton is somewhat unexpected. A bright white plastered Merivale mansion that sticks out bravely against the salty sea breeze among the surrounding low brick and weatherboard.

It looks rather too modern and indeed Pakeha.

Among plump sofas, O'Regan sits wearing a large pale tiki at his throat and leans heavily on his tokotoko, the carved walking stick that symbolises his tribal authority. There is a table reserved for the family photos of his five children and many more grandchildren. But there seems little effort to dress up the house in any way that would self- consciously assert "Maori".

His Pakeha wife Sandra - they met 50 years ago at Victoria University and clearly still dote on each other - explains they only fairly recently moved in.

Sandra says they had lived all their lives in Wellington which suited because O'Regan, as Ngai Tahu's largely unpaid chief negotiator, and also with his paying jobs such as chair of the Treaty of Waitangi Fisheries Commission, needed to be mostly where the politicians were.

But six years ago, they downsized and moved to Christchurch largely because they fell in love with a house right on the estuary-facing tip of Southshore - a site also of some cultural significance as it over- looked the ocean entrance to prime Ngai Tahu kai collecting waters.

Sandra smiles wryly. That turned out to be a story. Not just a leaky building but all sorts of stuff that should never have got past council inspection. Like ventilation grilles pasted onto the foundations with no actual hole behind them.

Anyway, they fixed that and then the earthquakes came along, largely sparing the house but red- zoning the section. "On February 22, I had a good view out of my window of Redcliffs falling down."

Now with the insurance payout they have bought this new place further along the shore. And hopefully she says, depending on how Hanover goes, they are here to stay.

Settling down to talk to O'Regan about his beginnings, the pieces start to fall into place fast. His family history explains a lot.

His father's side were poor West Coast Catholic Irish immigrants made good. Grandfather, PJ O'Regan, became a celebrated politician and Supreme Court judge despite not going to school until 12. His father, Dr Rolland O'Regan, was a Wellington surgeon.

There was a strong family tradition of Irish independence there - no reason to love the injustices of empire. And O'Regan, born Stephen, the Maori transliteration of Tipene, remembers dinner- times where his father insisted there be stern political debate.

"Meals were a full bore seminar." Verbally, he was made to stand his ground at an early age.

Then his mother was a Southland Maori, Rena Ruhia Bradshaw of Ngai Tahu's Awarua runanga in Bluff. The memories there are of the gathering of aunties in Wellington whenever the mutton birds and oysters were sent up.

"When my cousins came, they all slept on the floor and our neighbours thought that was rather exotic and strange."

There was indeed a certain amount of prejudice - especially around a good Pakeha doctor being "wasted" on a Maori woman. But prejudice was general. His father could remember the job vacant ads openly stipulating "Catholics and Irish need not apply".

At school, due to his darker complexion, O'Regan got tagged "the Jew boy". Although after hooking up with a gang of Italian fishermen sons, he graduated to being a "dago" instead.

O'Regan says his father saw the parallels between the Irish and Maori, both in terms of colonial experience and family clans. He became prominent in the "No Maoris No Tour" campaign against the All Blacks' 1960 trip to South Africa.

Taken under the wing of O'Regan's grandmother in Bluff, his father also became passionate about Ngai Tahu's Te Kereme, its seven generation claim following the breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi.

"My father knew more about my mother's whakapapa and general Maori history than my mother did," O'Regan laughs. And the injustice seemed straightforward to him.

"The grievance that was brought was very clear right from the start. The sales contracts which had been entered into had been fraudulently betrayed by the State. They put the deposit down, drove the car out of the yard, never to be seen again.

"That failure to deliver the schools and the hospitals, the reserves of land - it didn't happen. And the mahinga kai [right to harvest traditional food] - Ngai Tahu was deprived of that by the way the State took over natural resources."

So the influences that formed Tipene O'Regan are obvious. He grew up at the intersection of two worlds, two cultures.

Or more correctly, as puts it, he had a deep knowledge of what it means to be a New Zealander - a bicultural identity that was the truth of the country's past and now again, post-settlement, is being reforged as the nation's future.


In fact, O'Regan's life could have taken a sharp left turn early on. After starting university with law in mind, he met Sandra, had a baby and suddenly needed to earn, taking a job in Petone's Todd Motors car factory.

In 1963, the grand idea became to head to Tasmania where there was some boat renovation work going and O'Regan could build his own boat so they could both sail the world.

Sandra rolls her eyes at how harebrained this now sounds. "He had the plans for this boat because he was a fanatical sailor. We'd sold up everything and were living in a flat beneath his parents. We had a new baby but we were still going to go."

They had booked their passage when news came that the trip would be delayed. The ship they were meant to travel on was being recommissioned. O'Regan's father got into a conversation in a lift with the head of Wellington's teacher training college and the next morning they both found themselves starting a career in education.

After a few years in the field as a teacher and then earning an honours degree in history and politics, O'Regan was back at the college as its youngest lecturer, eventually to become its head of social studies and Maori.

He says the Maori question had become interesting. It was the time of the Hunn Report and the debate over the urbanisation and integration of Maori into Pakeha society.

O'Regan says there was the belief that the move to the cities would erode old tribal identities. There would be a convenient blanding away of race - everyone becoming Holyoake's "sun-tanned Anzacs". But in fact the opposite happened as Maori moved from living on the margins to mixing in greater concentrations.

"I don't think you would have had the rejuvenation of Te Reo Maori, for example, if it hadn't been for that urbanisation. It drove a whole lot of social and political change in the Maori world," says O'Regan.

It was the same with the rise in mixed marriages. Instead of contributing to cultural assimilation, it had the contrary effect of producing a much larger number of people wanting to connect with that part which was their Maori heritage.

This was O'Regan's own story of course. And through his job he was making a more intense study of Maori history and travelling the country to meet its Maori leaders.

So it seems a historic inevitability that in 1976 he was eventually singled out to become the North Island representative of the post-war Ngai Tahu Maori Trust Board - its man on the spot in Wellington.

"There were a bunch of elders who fingered me. I had to go through a number of interesting transitions while I was under their observance. I had to prove myself. But once I had, they stood in behind me like a scrum. The one thing I was never short of was a mandate."

O'Regan became the "man who travels in the night", spending years on the road in the South Island, to mobilise Ngai Tahu and ready its claim.

As historians like Canterbury University associate professor Dr Te Maire Tau note, it was by no means obvious even into the 1990s how Treaty claims were going to be handled.

Tau says the corporate iwi model is now so familiar that people forget the confused forces at work at the time. For example, the fact that public assets were even on the table for discussion was as much due to Rogernomics and the 1980s financial crisis as any sense of natural justice.

If the cash-strapped Crown was going to turn utilities like power stations into revenue-generating state owned enterprises, or create a fish quota system, it had to clear up any nagging issues of ownership in a hurry.

Tau says the Government had in mind a quick cash settlement with whomever could claim to represent Maoridom - throw some tax-payers dollars at the problem while conceeding as little actual power or authority as possible.

"So with Ngai Tahu, you had the Maori authorities, but also the gangs, sports clubs, churches, all competing to represent the tribe's assets."

O'Regan says this was a direct legacy of the way the tribal political structure of Maori had been undermined by the 1863 New Zealand Settlements Act - a deliberate move to "break and kill the collective strength of the iwi groups."

He says in effect what the Government did was enter into the Treaty of Waitangi, recognising tribes like Ngai Tahu as the legal entities involved, then turned around to pass laws to remove that legal status.

So says O'Regan, the Ngai Tahu negotiation team's greatest single achievement was rallying the scattered runanga and forcing the Crown to recognise the tribe as a legal person in the same way any company or corporation can be a legal personality, owning assets and having official standing.

That put Ngai Tahu in a strong position to break the Government's fiscal envelope, the restrictions it tried to place on the cash settlement. And then much more importantly, to be able to take on capital and cultural assets.

A base was secured that was never going to fully redress the historical wrongs, but - which is the real point says O'Regan - has given South Island Maori the platform to play an active part in the making of 21st Century New Zealand.


O'Regan was on the Ngai Tahu Trust Board for 22 years and its chair for the last 13 of them. He chaired the Treaty of Waitangi Fisheries Commission from 1989 to 2000 - eventually getting bounced, he says, when some of his enemies in Maoridom became MPs in Parliament.

And he chaired the Ngai Tahu Holding Corporation from its inception in 1991 until resigning from that in 2000 too.

The story at the time was the tribe saw O'Regan as its gruff Churchill - the right leader for the war, but the wrong one to lead the peace. The more politically amenable Mark Solomon was promoted to become Ngai Tahu's kaiwhakahaere, chair of the newly formed governing council, Te Runanga o Ngai Tahu (Tront).

However O'Regan says his stepping away from a leadership role was voluntary. Partly he was just exhausted by the decades of campaigning. But he also believed the tribe had made a critical mistake in rejecting an opportunity to buy Landcorp, the Crown's farming enterprise, as its primary settlement asset.

Ngai Tahu has been praised for its financial astuteness in turning its $170 million settlement into approaching $1 billion in investments. "But if Ngai Tahu had taken my recommendations on Landcorp, it'd be worth three times what it is today."

As to tribal politics now, O'Regan says the well-documented tensions have not gone away, just reached a stalemate. In 2006, with O'Regan supporting his fellow Southerner, Dunedin Otakou runanga's Tahu Potiki, there was a move to unseat Kaikoura's Solomon which came down to a split vote.

When that failed, it was followed by a shake-up of the iwi's governing structure that O'Regan says leaves Potiki's group in control of internal tribe policy and Solomon's responsible for the tribe's external relations. The situation robs Ngai Tahu of some of its creativity, he admits, yet so far it has proved stable.

However isn't this what the media is always looking for, O'Regan then thunders - evidence of Maori failure? Ngai Tahu is just like any political institution in being prone to succession issues and people jockeying for position. So what about focusing on the positives for a change.

O'Regan says the primary benefit of the Treaty settlements is that they are funding the recovery of a Maori identity that can then feed into the making of a distinctive New Zealand identity.

Fresh from a year considering constitutional reforms, he cites Victoria University political scientist Dr Fiona Barker on the view that the settlements should not be taken as finally closing a door on colonial history, but rather - in lieu of a constitution - the Treaty ought to now become a living document.

Barker argues that as a modern multicultural nation, expected to be 16 per cent Asian by 2026, as well as 16 per cent Maori and 10 per cent Pasifika, New Zealand could exploit its unique notion of nationhood as a partnership.

In other countries, immigration sets up a tension between the new and established minorities. Incomers feel they have to wait their turn to have a say in the identity of their adopted home. But in the Treaty, New Zealand already has a convenient formula for maintaining a dynamically open conversation.

It is a rather sophisticated view. However O'Regan says from his own life, with its blend of Irish head and Maori heart, he sees no problem in bringing together separate histories in ways that produce integration without assimilation.

"My identity is not a subtraction sum. It's a multiplication sum. Being of two streams of descent enriches me. Increasingly for a large number of New Zealanders, having some Maori descent is seen positively - and having Pakeha descent is seen positively by Maori too."

O'Regan says this is why for the past decade, his focus at Ngai Tahu has been on the development of its young leaders and the promotion of the tribe's various archival projects. Ngai Tahu is developing a search engine which will be linked to knowledge about the tribe's culture and history anywhere in the world.

"I want us to have access to the best records available whether it's in the Auckland Library, the Hocken Library, the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, the British Museum Library, the Mitchell Library in Sydney.

"Future generations should be able to dial into the documents, the photographs, the sound tapes, anywhere they exist."


It is early evening. We have had Sandra's coffee and fruitcake, O'Regan thinks it is about time to break out the wine. They are shaking their heads over some of the stories, the suspicions that O'Regan got mega rich from his Maori leadership roles.

O'Regan was once interviewed in a nice Mona Vale house, a base lent to him by millionaire Japanese friends who only used it in the ski season.

Of course it was reported as being his pad, full of lavish Italian furniture and deep shag pile carpets.

The holiday home abroad was another silly one.

"There was a standard assumption we were rolling in money," says O'Regan. "We're not poor, but we've no cash flow, no trust fund."

Well, not poor quite yet, adds Sandra sharply.

The Hanover case does hang heavy. O'Regan says though he might like to, he can't talk about the details as he risks any public comment being "shoved up his nostrils" by a QC. But it will be sorted one way or the other at some point.

So what of his legacy? Tau says what can't be taken away is O'Regan was the man with the vision to understand the Maori issue is much more about identity than money and sticking to that right through the long negotiation battles.

"He was the right person at the right time."So, says Tau, O'Regan will be remembered not just as the architect of the modern corporate iwi model but also an architect of how the country as a whole is already now fast evolving.

The Press