I will step up

by Diana Wichtel / 28 May, 2005
Merepeka Raukawa-Tait on her new hospice job, politics, Graham Capill, Maori leadership, and suits.

As high-profile female CEOs go, Merepeka Raukawa-Tait is a sort of photo negative of the usual model. The anti-Gattung. Where the Telecom chief is blonde, solid, commercial to the core and rides horses, Raukawa-Tait is brown, mouthy, the queen of the non-profit sector and has just bought a camper van. One thing they have in common: only John Campbell is more difficult to pry out of a suit. Theresa Gattung legendarily insisted on wearing hers to university. On the day the Listener visits, Raukawa-Tait's elegant op-shop jacket makes an electric blue splash in the autumnal gardens behind the West Auckland Hospice headquarters in Henderson she now heads.

More suits, exuding a whiff of retro chic (and possibly mothballs) hang on the door in her office. "Look at this," says Raukawa-Tait, brandishing a fetching red number. "Six dollars." Nice. Where did she get it? "One of our wonderful West Auckland Hospice shops!"

Even talking clothes, Raukawa-Tait is on the job. When we meet, Hospice New Zealand's first ever national appeal week is looming. She's overseeing the completion of a purpose-built, 10-bed facility. You just get her going on the highs and feverishly reported lows of the past five years and she executes a hairpin non sequitur to bring the conversation back to business.

Raukawa-Tait attacks her new passion with her full armoury: old-fashioned common sense and (a legacy, she says, of a strong Maori mother) an immovable self-belief. A breezy "I don't think there's too much wrong with me, actually" is about as introspective as it gets. Forget false modesty. One of the things that attracted her to the job was those magic letters: CEO. "To be truthful, I wouldn't be looking at anything less. If I'm going to work for an organisation, then I want to be leading the organisation."

Her father was of Irish stock, which may account for the biz-speak blarney that's also part of the repertoire. Sample sound bites: "We have to fund hospice in this country to be successful in meeting what will be a greater demand on services in the next 20 years" and "What caught my eye is that hospice was poised for growth and preparing for change".

All very proper and professional coming from a woman who, as head of Women's Refuge, was sprung thoroughly enjoying a night out in a strip club. "At the time it probably was a dopey thing to do," she admits cheerfully. "That's something I have learnt. When you represent an organisation, you've got to walk the talk. Maybe I would do a few things differently these days."

Like, for instance, living in Auckland. After a visit with husband Theo Tait a couple of years ago, she was hooked. "Auckland has a buzz about it. We went back to the Wairarapa, packed up and came back." It was time for a change. "People here," notes Raukawa-Tait darkly, "don't give a continental about politicians."

You can see why she'd be well over politics. There was a failed attempt at the Wellington mayoralty and her tempestuous association with the Christian Heritage Party (CHP). "Within three weeks I knew it was the wrong thing to do. Everywhere I turned, people were saying, 'No thank you, Merepeka. We'd vote for you but not for that lot.'"

There was, she found, a total aversion to a Christian party. "Why would we be so bloody superior to think we're the be-all and end-all in terms of family and Christian values? It was quite wrong and New Zealanders obviously saw that and thought, no, we don't want a bar of it."

Christian Heritage Party leader Graham Capill, with whom she spectacularly fell out as she went for his job, was also an obstacle. "People don't want to be constantly told what they're doing wrong. I must admit I found Graham very personable," she muses. "However, we've heard some things recently, haven't we?"

We have. The news that Capill pleaded guilty to a child sex abuse charge came as "a bloody shock". Raukawa-Tait heard about it when she was called by a radio station for comment. She declined. "Why put the boot in? They'll be suffering enough." But there's a lesson in it all. "People tend to think anybody who interferes with children comes from the lower socio-economic end and of course it's quite the opposite. Many of them are pillars of our society."

After she quit CHP, it was off to Masterton for the local body elections, where she polled badly after another falling out - with her campaign manager, Adam Owens. Normally keen to call a spade a bloody shovel, Raukawa-Tait refers to Owens tautly as "that person". As for the election, "The people of Wairarapa had an opportunity. They knew of me. My view is it's their loss, so I'm off and away."

If that sounds just a little bitter, she maintains that she wasn't disheartened. "I just think, look, another door is going to open. And if it doesn't open willingly, I'll probably boot it down!"

So now she's happily settled in New Lynn and pouring her formidable energies into caring for the dying. In other words, Raukawa-Tait is a born-again Westie on a mission. From God? She's no longer a practising Catholic. "But I can't think there ever was a time in my life when I didn't personally know the Lord," she says. As is usually the case with Merepeka, it's been a bumpy relationship. "There's been so much slippage over the years." She laughs. "I suspect the good Lord would say, 'Oh, not her again.'"

Not, happily, a feeling shared by Hospice New Zealand president Dalton Kelly. He has met with Raukawa-Tait a couple of times. "I've been very impressed. She has her heart in the right place and she has an affinity with the Maori community as well, all of which is highly desirable in making sure that the services that hospices offer get to all New Zealanders."

As for Raukawa-Tait, the grass-roots ethos of a not-for-profit organisation fits her like a stylish op-shop suit. You get so much more done than in the public sector. "I'm not interested in covering some minister's backside."

And she does love a challenge. The District Health Board provides only 50 percent of the hospice's running costs. Even with the government earmarking an additional $6m for palliative care this year, an ageing population and increased community acceptance of hospice's concept of caring well for the dying means fundraising remains urgent core business. Raukawa-Tait is primed and ready to fire. "If I've got skills and know-ledge in lobbying and fund-raising that I can put to the use of the national office, and perhaps to profile the work of hospice around the country, I won't hesitate to do that," she declares, in full battle mode. "I will step up to the mark!"

And remain on best behaviour? She has kicked back a little. The self-professed four-star-hotel girl now spends her weekends tootling around in the aforementioned camper van. Her friends are horrified. "There has been a bit of a change in Merepeka," she says, the thought of it driving her into an astonished third person.

Then again, perhaps not. Mention unfulfilled ambitions and she's off, explaining how she'd like to extend the leadership coaching she's done with Maori women to Maori men. "I've gone on record as saying Maori leadership has been gutless. There's still a lot of that there. Why do we continue having Maori women beaten up by Maori men? Why isn't Maori leadership doing anything about it?"

This is the sort of thing that leads to those "Chief told to pull head in" headlines during her Women's Refuge reign. She really is irrepressible. Or, as she puts it (current and future employers take note), "At my age, no way will I even entertain toning it down."

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