Govt advisor in firing line for 'potential conflict of interest' as Rātana speaker

Posted 31 January 2024 by Moana Ellis
Nika Rua at Rātana 2024.

Nika Rua addresses government representatives at Rātana Pā. Photo: Angus Dreaver / RNZ

A speaker accused of insulting New Zealand First’s Winston Peters and Shane Jones during the annual political pilgrimage to Rātana is being investigated by the government department he works for.

Statistics New Zealand has confirmed it is looking into “a potential conflict [of interest] of a Stats NZ employee who spoke at Rātana Pā”.

Nika Rua stood as the first of a line-up of speakers at Rātana to challenge Prime Minister Christopher Luxon, Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters and ministers about government plans for Māori, including the Treaty Principles Bill.

In his address last Wednesday, Rua condemned deputy Peters and cabinet minister Jones as taurekareka (slaves) for the Crown and said Jones had turned his back on Māori.

Jones later said he had been insulted and that Rua had spoken in a “grossly inappropriate way”.

Rua (Tamakaimoana, Tūhoe) has been employed as Stats NZ’s partnerships and engagement lead advisor Māori for nearly 18 months. He is understood to be taking two weeks’ extended leave following a phone call from a senior Stats NZ manager on Thursday morning.

Winston Peters, Christopher Luxon and Shane Jones at Rātana Pā, January 2024.

The government contingent, led by Prime Minister Christopher Luxon, Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters and cabinet minister Shane Jones, arrives at Rātana Pā. Photo: Angus Dreaver / RNZ

Stats NZ chief executive and government statistician Mark Sowden said Rua had not been stood down.

He said no complaint had been received but the department had been “made aware of the potential conflict that may have occurred” at Rātana Pā.

“The Public Service serves the government of the day and does so in a politically neutral manner and that remains a bottom line.

“I am taking the potential conflict of interest seriously. We are establishing the facts as a matter of urgency.”

Te Pāti Māori co-leader Debbie Ngārewa-Packer and Labour list MP Adrian Rurawhe at Rātana

Te Pāti Māori co-leader Debbie Ngārewa-Packer and Labour list MP Adrian Rurawhe at Rātana . Photo: LDR / supplied

Te Pāti Māori co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer said she had been approached as the local MP by whānau of a Statistics New Zealand employee.

“We have requested all correspondence between the family and Statistics New Zealand be made available under the Official Information Act and will be supporting the whānau and the employee should they require it.

“Te Pāti Māori will always call out behaviour that attempts to silence our tikanga and mana as Māori.

“It is not acceptable that employees of government agencies are silenced and punished for asserting their responsibilities as tangata whenua on the paepae.

“These agencies do not have mana over whakapapa and should be cautious the way that they carry themselves. It is clear there is pressure by the new government to silence any form of questioning and challenge laid out to them.”

A statement from the office of Statistics Minister Andrew Bayly said the minister had received a copy of a Stats NZ statement on the matter, under the ‘no surprises’ principle.

“The statement confirmed that one of their employees was at Rātana Pā in a Stats NZ capacity. That employee has not been stood down.

“It would be inappropriate for the minister to provide comment on an individual employment matter, as chief executives are responsible for matters relating to the employment of individuals within their agency.”

Rua, the great great grandson of Tūhoe prophet and land rights activist Rua Kenana, said he received a phone call at Rātana on Thursday morning from a Stats NZ senior manager and was “effectively stood down” pending discussions with the department’s executive leadership team.

But the action was revoked in the afternoon and he was placed on extended leave for two weeks, Rua said.

“The initial feeling was probably shock and anger. They haven’t given me a reason.”

Rua was asked at the last minute to speak by senior figures at Rātana.

“I was acting upon the advice I was given to voice the concerns of te ao Māori, those who were there. That was a task delegated to me by the tumuaki (Rātana leader) and the king. It was a privilege that was bestowed on me, and I would not say no to the tumuaki or the king.

“I said what I said. What comes, comes. I’m going to carry on with what I need to do.”

Sowden said many Stats NZ employees and public servants hold multiple roles in their communities.

“We recognise that and support them to balance the responsibilities of those roles and their obligations as a public servant. When these roles conflict, I take it very seriously.”

Asked what guidance is given to public servants about rights, freedom and responsibilities outside of their work, Sowden said all Stats NZ employees were bound by the Stats NZ code of conduct, the Public Service code of conduct and any other relevant specific guidance published by Te Kawa Mataaho Public Service Commission.

“All staff are required to complete an annual re-accreditation on the content of this guidance as it applies to their work.

“In addition, specific discussions are had with individual staff members prior to situations which may involve a higher profile.”

Sowden said he would not comment further as it was an employment matter.

LDR is local body journalism co-funded by RNZ and NZ On Air.