Anatomy of a Scandal – Te Kohanga Reo National Trust

In October 2013 I wrote commentary on an unfolding story about alleged financial mismanagement and corruption in Te Kohanga Reo National Trust (TKRNT) and its business subsidiary Te Pataka Ohanga Ltd (TPO Ltd). The accusers had attempted to link alleged irregularities in credit card use in TPO Ltd to alleged impropriety and misuse of public funds by TKRNT itself. I proposed that we wait for due process to find out the truth of the matter sensationally presented by the Native Affairs programme of the Maori Television Service. Subsequently two investigations were commissioned.

In March this year Minister of Education Hekia Parata released an Ernst & Young report into the financial governance and management of public funds by TKRNT. The report exonerated the Trust from allegations of financial impropriety. It did not convince those who had mounted the initial crusade against TKRNT or those who joined the crusade after the story broke in the media.

The report did not examine the activities of its business subsidiary TPO LTD because as Hekia rightly pointed out she did not have the executive power or responsibility to inquire into a privately owned entity. Nevertheless as a result of an outcry amongst those who were calling for drastic action against both entities and accusations of a cover up Hekia then asked the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) to investigate TPO Ltd. This week the Serious Fraud Office announced that it found no evidence of criminality in the activities of TPO Ltd.

The Department of Internal Affairs simultaneously announced that there were some irregularities in TPO Ltd’s compliance with some requirements of its charitable status and that TPO Ltd would be required to attend to those matters to prevent having its charitable status removed. That was seen by some as some vindication of their crusade against TKRNT and TPO Ltd. However based on my own involvement in charitable trusts for over 45 years I would say that is a minor matter easily remedied. A great many other charitable trusts and other charitable entities would also be in breach of the regulations one way or another. In my time as a voluntary trustee I have come across few trustees in community trusts, whether Maori or Pakeha, who actually understand trust law and few trusts that are fully compliant. They must first come to the attention of Internal Affairs before they are investigated and most but not all non-compliance is quite minor.

The reports on TKRNT and TPO Ltd, and the quite mild admonishment by Internal Affairs have still not of course quelled the unrest.

While all of that investigation was in progress TKRNT initiated and held a national hui at Ngaruawahia in April to chart the future of the Trust and the Movement. It came to a number of resolutions and set up a working group to report back later in the year. It was an exercise in damage limitation and damage control as well as, I’m sure, genuine intent to address many of the issues raised by disaffected whanau about the governance and direction of TKRNT and the TKR Movement, and to address concerns raised by the Minister.

In my previous article I wrote in part about the back story which was to my mind the real story behind the story, and still is. The media has in the main ignored the real story in favour of the sensational allegations and expose on Maori TV. In Maori terms the machinations, collusion and intrigue that constitutes the back story was, and ought to be still, by far the more interesting aspect of the whole saga.

The subsequent actions by TKR National Trust and Minister of Education Hekia Parata are also part of the back story and represent a master class in damage limitation and damage control through which the crusaders against the Trust were outflanked and neutralised, but not before they had inflicted considerable damage, at least in public perception. Having said that I’m sure that the crusade has not yet run out of steam and that there will continue to be an ongoing campaign against TKRNT.

This back story is about how a few disaffected kohanga whanau supported by some TKRNT staff and a few in the media pursued a narrow political objective in a way that almost brought down the whole of the autonomous kohanga reo movement and handed it over in pieces to Ministry of Education.

The Crusade

From time to time there have been disaffected whanau in the TKR Movement for as long as the movement has been in existence although in the beginning in 1982 the cohesion was much greater than it is at present. Much of the disaffection has been about the centralisation of power and authority in TKRNT, its sometimes autocratic decision making, and a belief that it wrongly consumes resources meant for kohanga reo. Some of it is fuelled by those who are involved with corporate iwi who want those neo-tribal entities to take over the functions of TKRNT. As the TKR Movement was founded first and foremost as a whanau empowerment and development programme (at the same time as most other development policy focused on “iwi”) that has been fiercely resisted by TKRNT (see The Origins of Corporate Iwi).

I suppose disaffection is to be expected as part of the evolution of any movement, and a natural outcome of the aging of the early leaders. After all there have been about three generations of mokopuna and their whanau involved in the movement and as always in the affairs of the generations the oldest generation is always seen to be past its use-by date and needing to be replaced. In most Maori organisations established during the “Maori Renaissance” there have been gradual retirements of the founding generation; not always willingly retired.

The present outbreak of disaffection started with the dismissal of the then CEO of TKRNT Titoki Black for reasons that are now in the public domain. There may have been underlying rumblings before that but her dismissal sparked a public outcry from her whanau and supporters in Mataatua and Tauranga-Moana. That went on for some months and developed into an orchestrated private and public campaign to have Titoki restored as CEO and to have the trustees of TKRNT removed. One Maori news organisation with links to the Mataatua Tauranga-Moana Collective openly sided with the campaign, or seemed to do so.

There was no legal way that could have the trustees removed except by proving to the High Court that they were in breach of trust, and absolutely no way to force them to reinstate Titoki except through the Employment Court. Neither was a viable course of action. Whether they knew it or not the only alternative was to have Government (i.e. Hekia Parata) defund TKRNT and provide TKR funding through another channel. Probably the only alternative channel acceptable to the government would be Ministry of Education, through its existing early childhood education programme, and that would defeat the original kaupapa of the 32 year old movement that has been fiercely defended by TKRNT especially by Dame Iritana Tawhiwhirangi for the whole of those 32 years. I’m sure the anti-TKRNT crusaders didn’t think that far forward into political reality; a takeover by the Ministry.

I’m sure the Trust itself is fully aware of that possibility and has been fighting on two fronts; firstly to stave off the allegations of corruption and misuse of public funding made through Native Affairs and secondly to prevent the TKR Movement falling into the lap of Ministry of Education.

Would government hand the TKR Movement over to corporate iwi instead? I very much doubt it because the regulatory structure governing kohanga reo is much the same as that governing early childhood providers. It provides for the care, health and safety of mokopuna. It is a very very strict regulatory regime and is tightly monitored. It would be almost impossible to enforce if a plethora of corporate iwi became the providers. At least with TKRNT it has just the one provider to oversee.

The crusade against TKRNT then ramped up with the leaking of financial information about credit card spending at TPO Ltd to Native Affairs. There ensued a legal battle between Maori TV and TKRNT, eventually won by Maori TV and the allegations were aired by Native Affairs and reported in most media outlets. The collective at Mataatua Tauranga-Moana were clearly involved in leaking information to Native Affairs as they were later quoted by Maori TV:

“However the collective of Kōhanga Reo from Mataatua Tauranga-Moana stand by their decision to go public and say that if Māori protocol was followed in the case of dismissing its former CEO Titoki Black, the issues thereafter would never have been made public”.

That was of course long before both TKRNT and TPO Ltd were cleared by two investigations.

The disaffected collective of Kohanga Reo has achieved neither of its aims but has seriously damaged the public perception of TKRNT, for the time being at least. Whether or not they have caused the TKR Movement to be handed over to Ministry of Education remains to be seen but I doubt that will be the case. They will have provided some impetus for TKRNT to re-evaluate itself and its continuing relevance to the kaupapa and to the movement and that is perhaps the one positive to emerge from the whole rather taudry public affair in which a collective of kohanga reo attempted to subvert the governance of TKRNT because they were aggrieved by a legitimate staffing decision.

The expose alleging financial impropriety was a means to a political end and not the main story at all.

Was there some irregularity in credit card use at TPO Ltd? Probably but not serious enough to warrant prosecution by the SFO, and certainly not indicative of financial impropriety in TKRNT itself.

The second part of the back story concerns the involvement of the Native Affairs team at Maori Television.

I followed the unfolding of the expose by watching Native Affairs broadcasts, by following most of the reportage and commentary in other media, but most importantly by following it in the Twitterverse. There were hundreds of tweets about the issue over a period of many weeks but the most interesting and revealing were those from three Twitter accounts associated with Native Affairs itself; one from the Native Affairs account and two from the personal accounts of two of the Native Affairs team. There was some commentary from the Maori TV corporate account. I also followed commentary in Facebook.

Whilst the public broadcasting face of Native Affairs was presented as that of an objective investigative team the fairly intense activity in Twitter revealed a subjective and personal face; the two faces of Native Affairs.

It became obvious in the Twitterverse that the Native Affairs team had taken personally the legitimate legal attempt by TKRNT to shut down the broadcast and it seemed that Native Affairs then joined the crusade against TKRNT as participants rather than objective observers. That personal involvement became more and more obvious after the allegations were broadcast and as TKRNT attempted to minimise the damage through the media. In the aftermath there was some public antagonism towards the Native Affairs team and they complained that they had wrongly become the story. That was disingenous because the twittering and tweeting couple on the Native Affairs team had already made themselves part of the story.

The tone of the Native Affairs response on Twitter was self righteous and triumphalist. It clearly showed that the Native Affairs team had gone beyond the bounds of objective investigative journalism and had joined the crusade. The Native Affairs team was conducting its own crusade through Twitter. It was a display of immaturity and a lack of professionalism. It wasn’t very smart either.

I have to admit that Te Putatara cannot abide righteousness and triumphalism whether in priest, politician or pundit.

The other thing that Native Affairs did not do was to tell the complete story in its total context, although it was well aware of the context. It withheld important information from its viewers in order to present just a single aspect of the dispute. That was unprofessional. Julian Wilcox and Jim Mather did the right thing in publicly and loyally defending their Native Affairs staff. In private one would hope they delivered a swift kick to the collective arse but perhaps they were not watching the antics on Twitter.

TKRNT itself could have taken a different course and participated in the Native Affairs report to present its own perspective although there was always the risk that its perspective would end up on the editing room floor.

The third part of the back story concerns the damage limitation and damage control measures taken by TKRNT and by Minister Hekia Parata.

The actions taken to limit and control the damage were bog standard and completely predictable. Although I didn’t write it at the time it happened exactly as I thought it would. Referring these matters to independent investigators is exactly the right thing to do especially if you know the outcome in advance and that the allegations will not be proven. If you know you’re guilty then you need to do something else. It also takes time and time will often take the heat out of any dispute or scandal.

The finding of the Ernst & Young report also gave Hekia Parata an opportuntiy to warn TKRNT to smarten its act lest it be defunded, probably intending that TKRNT smarten its act and keep its funding, although I couldn’t possibly claim to know the mind of the Honourable Minister of Education from Ngati Porou.

TKRNT itself embarked upon the obvious course by calling a national hui. It has been calling national hui to chart the progress of the movement (and dampen disaffection) for all the years of its existence. This one was perhaps the most crucial but it was just another one in a long succession. The hui in the domain of TKR patron Kingi Tuheitia was in exactly the right location to ensure a minimum of disruption and dispute and to rally support for the Trust. Standard Maori political stuff.

The appointment of a working party (Sir Toby Curtis, Ruka Boughton, Dr Tania Simpson, Dr Kathie Irwin, Dr Kathie Dewes, Dr Rawinia Higgins and Ropata Hepi) to progress the resolutions of the hui brought undisputed mana and expertise to the kaupapa and added valuable time to the process, especially to allow time for the SFO investigation to be completed.

I would confidently predict that after the report of the working group TKRNT will continue its role with perhaps some structural and procedural modification.

The amusing sideline to the hui was that Native Affairs was excluded, complained about it long and loud, and received support from other media. They should not have been at all surprised as they had openly joined the crusade against TKRNT and were no longer objective observers and reporters.

And although TKRNT through its media advisor Derek Fox has called for apologies perhaps it will be enough for two talented but momentarily misguided young women to call on Dame Iritana. I’m sure she will be her usual forgiving self. She’s forgiven Te Putatara often enough.

The whanau from Mataatua and Tauranga-Moana will have to be satisfied with the outcome of the working party and subsequent decisions by the Minister. Here is  their press release issued after the national hui at Turangawaewae.

Next Post

After the Kohanga Reo Scandal – Some Observations on Trust Law, Tikanga and Democracy


Maori TVs Native Affairs team has won two international awards from the World Indigenous Television Broadcasters Network for their investigative journalism, one of them for the programme “Feathering the Nest” about Te Kohanga Reo National Trust and Te Pataka Ohanga Ltd.