Working for better health care in New Zealand

The Association of Salaried Medical Specialists (ASMS) is the professional association and union uniting doctors and dentists in New Zealand.

  • News – Other News

The reluctant leader: He kaihautū, he whakatōngā

16 September 2019 Alan Perrott - New Zealand Doctor

Curtis Walker talks to Alan Perrott about leadership, identifying as Māori and why flagpoles sometimes must come down

Kei te korero a Curtis Walker ki a Alan Perrott mō te kaihautūtanga, mō te tuakiri Māori, ā, mō tika ki tōna wā o te tope o te pouhaki

Subtle and gentle

“Subtle and gentle, but in an immovable kind of way.”

The Medical Council of New Zealand chair is describing his deceased yet ever-present koro, Ranginui Walker.

Like his grandfather – an activist, university professor, Waitangi Tribunal member and distinguished companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit – Curtis Walker has a gentle immovability. It’s born of living in two worlds, Māori and Pākehā, while holding the ladder for those who follow.

Speaking from his home in Palmerston North, Dr Walker says: “I can just turn to my right and see Mata Toa: The Life and Times of Ranginui Walker and all his books, so yeah, I’m standing on the shoulders of giants.

“I feel very privileged to be where I am, but it’s also about making sure you’re helping others up that ladder too.

“You should always be putting every rope and ladder down there that you possibly can, to help those who are in other places – the worst thing you can do is, once you’re up, pull the ladder up after you.”

This is “ka mua, ka muri”, walking backwards into the future, in practice.

“Our grandparents, Ranginui and Deidre, remain a huge influence for all of us, not only [in us] going off and getting our education, but in our sense of justice, our history with respect to colonialism and how that affects Māori.”

To illustrate their impact: Dr Walker’s aunt is a paediatrician, his uncle, a professor of biology and his father, Stuart Walker, an anaesthetist. Curtis has five siblings – an obstetrician, a GP (and member of the NZMA’s GP Council), the deputy principal at Diocesan School for Girls, an architect, and a media and business professional.

“He rauangi, he ngāwari ēngari he tūmomo mārō.”

Kei te korero te tiamana o te Kaunihera Hauora o Aotearoa mō tana koroua, mō Ranginui Walker, tinana hā-mate, wairua hā-ora tonu.

He ōrite ki tana tupuna – kaiwhakatūtū, ahorangi o te Whare Wānanga, mema o Te Rōpū Whakamana i te Tiriti, mea whakawhiwhi ki te Tohu Tāpui – kei a Curtis Walker taua ngāwari mārō. He tukunga iho i te tupunga ake ki ngā ao e rua, Māori me te Pākehā, he puranga hoki i te arawhata hei pikinga mā ngā uri whakatupu.

Kei te korero mai i tana kāinga i Te Papaiōea, ko tā Dr Walker, “Kia tahuri au whakatekatau ka kitea ai ko te Mata Toa: The Life and Times of Ranginui Walker me āna pukapuka katoa, nō reira, āe, kei runga au i ngā pakihiwi o te hautupua.”

“Nōku te whiwhi kei tēnei taumata au ināianei, engari he whiwhinga anō mai i te āwhina i ētehi atu ki te piki hoki i taua arawhata.

“He mea nui anō te para i te taura me te arawhata e taea ai e ētehi anō te piki mai – kia kaua rawa rā e huhuti i te arawhata kia kore ai e taea e ētehi anō te piki i muri i a koe.”

Koia pū tēnei te “ka mua ka muri”, he hīkoi whakamuri ki āpōpō.

“Ko ō mātou tūpuna a Ranginui rāua ko Deidre te tino tauira mō mātou katoa, taihoa pea mō te whai i te mātauranga noa iho, erangi rawa ia mō te whai i te tika, mō tō tātou hitori, mō ngā whāinga mai i te aupēhinga i te ao Māori.”

Hei tauira whai i tā rāua whakakīkī: ko te whaea kēkē o Dr Walker he mātanga arotamariki, ko tana matua kēkē, he ahorangi, he mātanga mātauranga koiora, ā, ko tana pāpā, a Stuart Walker, he mātanga rongoā whakamoe.

Ka rima ana tēina tuāhine –he matai whare tangata tētahi, he rata GP tētahi (mema hoki o te Kaunihera GP o NZMA), he tumuaki tautoko ki Te Kura o Diocesan mō te hunga kōhine tētahi, he kaihoahoa tētahi, he ngaio anō tētahi ki ngā take pāpāho, pākihi hoki.

Family established in Auckland

The family was established in Auckland in the 1950s after Ranginui Walker (Whakatōhea) left his parents’ Ōpōtiki farm to train as a teacher.

He would eventually marry English immigrant Deidre Dodson (whose sister, Anne, married future Medical Council board member, obstetrician and Waikato Hospital Board head Bob Gudex).

Their son, Stuart, married Sylvia Roberts, who would become full-time mum to Curtis and his six siblings. (She was the daughter of the wonderfully named Augustus Lancelot [Lance] Roberts, who lived in an abandoned freezing works in Hicks Bay.)

Stuart was only aged 17 or 18 when Curtis was born. “He was just starting at medical school, and my earliest memories are of him heading off at some early hour to work at a second job and then going off to hospital at all hours to be a doctor.”

Curtis Walker says he, himself, was a slacker, drifting through school until 1987, during a spell in Seattle, Washington – where his father was completing his advanced training – when he was sent home to attend Auckland Grammar.

And to endure the tender mercies of his grandparents.

Noho ai te whanau ki Tāmaki-makaurau i te tekautau 1950 nō muri o te wehenga o Ranginui Walker (Whakatōhea) i te pāmu o ana mātua i Ōpōtiki ki te tereina hei kuramāhita.

Nāwai rā, ā, ka moea tētahi kainoho mai Ingarangi, Deidre Dodson (ko tana tuakana i moe i a Bob Gudex, ki tōna wā he mema o te Kaunihera Hauora, he ūpoko o te Poari Hōhipere o Waikato).

Ka moe tā rāua tama a Stuart i a Sylvia Roberts, nāna te noho ki te kāinga hei whaea mō Curtis me ana teina tūāhine. (Ko ia te tamāhine a Augustus Lancelot [Lance] Roberts – ingoa mīharo hoki – ko tō rātou whare noho te whakarērenga o te whakatere patu mīti i Hicks Bay.)

Ka 17 noa iho, 18 rānei ngā tau o Stuart i te whānautanga mai o Curtis. “Kātahi anō ia ka tīmata ki te kura hauora, ā, ko aku maumahara mōna, i te atatū he haere moata ki tāna mahi tuarua, ka mutu ka haere ki te hōhipere ki tāna mahi rata he aha koa pēhea te hāora.”

Ko tā Curtis Walker mōna ake nei, he kaha nō tana māngere, he haere noa ki te kura tae noa ki te tau 1987, kātahi ko te whakapau wā ki Seattle, Washington – i reira tana pāpa e whakaea ana i te whakangungu whakaharahara – tahi ka whakahokia ki te kāinga kia kuraina ki Auckland Grammar. I raro hoki i ngā parirau o ana tūpuna.

Kick-ass time

Two years was all it took. “If you didn’t measure up or your report was bad, he was always: ‘Come here, kick-ass time.’ I soon developed more of a focus.”

The young Curtis became much more diligent, but his grandfather did not forget an infamous mistake on the computer.

“It was the days of the old PCs, and I was having a kai tutū, messing about. He’d almost finished [his first book] but hadn’t backed it up, and I wiped it…

“Much later though, he managed to lose another book on his computer, and I found it. So I reckon that balanced the ledger.”

The five young Walkers holidayed at their mother’s parents’ farm, Huiarua Station, inland from Tokomaru Bay on the East Coast, the family’s Ngāti Porou side.

His days spent slogging away as a farmhand led him to complete a botany degree at the University of Auckland, before love of rural life then got him thinking veterinary science might be more practical.

At some point, his brother mentioned to one of his medical school classmates that she should meet Curtis. “So, I met Megan and one thing led to another, and we’re married.”

The couple have two children, Marie (10) and Tuki (8). With the recent arrival of a drum kit, the two tama and their dad on guitar are now a jamming trio.

A further tangent popped up when, as an advanced vet student, he took a summer studentship with John Waldon, from Massey University’s Māori studies department, examining the health risks of eating meat from stranded whales.

He concluded that, if the meat is fresh, harvested cleanly and cooked properly, the risk is minimal. The traditional Māori practice is still banned by the Department of Conservation.

The argument about how DoC gets to set health policy without scientific support is one thing, says Dr Walker; how the ban targets Māori is something else again.

He accepts New Zealand has long-standing whale conservation principles but says there’s an underlying racism and hypocrisy in the ban. Iwi can still collect taonga such as jaw bones and teeth for carving.

“That got me even more interested in human health, Māori health and Māori rights, which all sort of bubbled away,” Dr Walker says.

He started working for the SPCA before heading back to Massey. “Becoming a small vet-practice owner is just not in my DNA,” he says.

An epiphany struck him while conducting a gastroscopy: “This was a $1500 procedure to fish a piece of plastic pipe out of this dog’s throat…I loved being a vet, great job, but it didn’t feel like much of a contribution, certainly not one that would do much to improve Māori health.”

So, at age 30, he changed course again. It was time for yet another degree, which came as a surprise to sister Marcia.

Six years younger and a year ahead at medical school, she felt the pressure to pass to avoid sitting in class with her big brother. “Not to mention grandpa Rangi’s ‘kick-ass’ disappointment that would have followed [failure].”

But Dr Walker got a surprise of his own when, for the first time, he found he had Māori classmates.

This was all well and good until politician Don Brash decided that meant preferential treatment. Dr Walker was in his fourth year and planning to follow his father’s specialty.

It was peak time for accusations that Māori benefited from “race-based” policy, and The New Zealand Herald got in touch for an interview. Asked how he handled critics, he replied: “We’ve had discussions with some people who have different viewpoints.”

So, early on, he was fronting on a big issue and doing so with dignity.

Looking back, he says the results of supporting Māori to study medicine speak for themselves.

Ka pau kau ngā tau e rua. “Ki te kore koe e eke ki te taumata, ki te kore tō rīpoata i te tau, ko tāna: ‘Haere mai nei! Kia whanaia tō tou.’ Kua kore e roa te huri hāngai ki te kaupapa.”

Ka kaha ake te hāngai haere o te taitama nei engari. Kihai i warewaretia e tana tipuna tētahi hē nui whakaharahara ki tana rorohiko. “Ko aua wā o te PC kaumātua, he mea tutu e ahau, he mea raweke noa iho. Kua tata mutu [tana pukapuka tuatahi], kāore kau i purutia, nāku i hūkuia ai …

“Heoi anō nō muri iho nei ka ngaro noa i a ia tonu tētahi pukapuka anō ki tana rorohiko, nāku i kite. Ki a au, he utu mō taku hara.”

Hararei ai ngā taiohi Walker e rima ki te pāmu o tō tō rātou whaea whānau i Huiatahi Station, ki uta o Tokomaru Bay i Te Tairāwhiti, ki te taha Ngāti Porou o tō rātou whaea.

Mai i aua rā whakapau ai ia i ōna kaha hei kaimahi pāmu ka tahuri ia ki te whakaoti i tētahi tohu paetahi mātauranga huaota ki te Whare Wānanga o Tāmaki-makaurau, ā, mai i tana aroha ki te oranga o tuawhenua ka huri te whakaaro ki te mahi rata kararehe.

Nō tētahi rā ka kī mai tana teina me tūtaki pea a Curtis ki tētahi o ana hoa o te Kura Hauora. “Ka tūtaki au i a Megan, nāwai rā, ā, ka mārena māua.”

Ka rua ā rāua tamariki, Marie (10) rāua ko Tuki (8). Nō te hokonga o tētahi tōpūnga taramu, ko ngā tamariki e rua me tō rāua pāpā ki te kūtā, he takitoru whakawhiti pūoro kei te haere.

I a ia e kukune ake ana i ana akoranga tiaki kararehe ka riro i a ia tētahi tūranga ihupuku me John Waldron ki Te Kunenga ki Pūrehiroa, he tirotiro i ngā mōrearea hauora o te kai i te kikokiko o te ika moana ka pae ki uta.

Ko tāna kitenga ki te mata tonu te mīti, ki te tika te tīpako me te tunu ka kore noa te mōrearea. Kei te aukati tonuhia e te Papa Atawhai te tikanga Māori. Tērā tērā te tohe ki te here kaupapa mai i te kore noa o te taunakitanga pūtaiao, ko tāna, ēngari anō mō te takahia o te tikanga Māori.

He mārama, he pono ki a ia te tūroa o ngā mātāpono o te manaaki taiao engari he whakatoihara, he arero rua, kei tēnei aukatinga. Ka taea tonu e te iwi te kohi i ngā kauwae me ngā niho mō te whakairo.

“Nā reira au i whai whakaaro ai ki te hauora o te ira tangata, o te Māori, me ngā mōtika o te Māori, te āhua nei i reira rā e pupū noa ana,” i mea mai a Dr Walker.

Nō mua noa o te hokinga ki Te Papaioea ka tīmata ia te mahi ki SPCA. “Heoi anō kāore he pānga o te pākihi rata tiaki kararehe ki taku whakapapa,” ko tāna. He whakaihinga i pā mai i a ia e poka ana i tētahi kurī. “He pokanga $1500 te utu, te hī i tētahi paipa pukupuku mai i te korokoro o te kurī … he kaingākaunui nōku ki te mahi rata kararehe engari kāore i te nui te tākoha ki te hauora Māori.”

Ka mutu ka 30 ōna tau ka huri anō tōna ao. Kua tae te wā ki te whai tohu anō, he mea ohorere ki tana tuahine ki a Marcia.

Ka ono tau te teina, ka tahi tau kē atu ki te kura hauora, ka rongongia te toimaha kei noho ngātahi me tana tungāne ki te karaehe kotahi.

“Haunga anō ko tā koro Rangi ’whana i te nono’ ka whai mai ki te kore o te pāhi.”

Ēngari nō Dr Walker te ohorere mai i te kitenga he hoa akonga Māori ōna.

He pai noa kātahi ka tae ki te wā o tā Don Brash whakapae tōrangapū ki te mariu i te Māori. I tana tau tuawhā a Dr Walker me te whakaaro ki te whai i ngā tapuwae o tana pāpā.

He tino wā mō te whakapae i ngā kaupapahere e kiia nei “he mariu ā-matāwaka”, ā, ka waeatia ia e te New Zealand Herald. Ki te uia mai ka pēhea ia ki te reo kakawa ko tāna whakautu, ‘Kua whakawhitiwhiti whakaaro me ngā iwi whai tirohanga kē.”

Nō reira, mai anō, he whakapāpaku, he whakautu rangatira i ngā take hirahira.

No tana tirohanga whakamuri, ko tāna ko te whakautu kei ngā hua mai i te tautoko i te hunga Māori e whai ana i te hauora.

Part of wider cohort of Māori and Pasifika doctors

Because of people like obstetrician and gynaecologist Colin Mantell, the Vision 2020 and other programmes, he is now part of a wider cohort of Māori and Pasifika doctors.

He felt the support of other Māori doctors from day one as a student.

“I knew I had a good group around me and people to look up to like Paratene Ngata, Mason Durie, Rawiri Jansen, Peter Jansen and Papaarangi Reid; I won’t go on in case I miss someone.

“So that was a very different environment to what Māori doctors in the 1960s and 1970s would have faced.”

Did this assistance, coupled with the mana of his family name and 14 years of tertiary life, create extra pressure to succeed after graduating in 2007?

“Not really,” Dr Walker says.

“I would say the greatest pressure comes from that which you put on yourself. Although we’re always very aware as Māori doctors, as Māori practitioners, or Māori anything really, wanting to make a better place in the world, that you have the hopes and wishes and needs of your people behind you.

“Then if you happen to be the first Māori to do something, like chair of the Medical Council, you just try to make sure you’re not the last.”

And how is it that, at still only age 45, he continues to find himself in leadership roles? As well as serving on the Medical Council, Dr Walker has also been president of the Resident Doctors’ Association and is on the board of the Te Ohu Rata o Aotearoa – Māori Medical Practitioners Association (Te ORA).

“I’m not sure,” he says. “I completely agree with the idea that those who seek leadership should be almost ruled out from getting it, and I’m always very reluctant when faced with such requests. But then I look around, and think people whose opinions I respect have asked me to step forward and help out, so I do.”

His election in February to chair of the council strengthens the organisation in its embrace of cultural inclusion, a process Dr Walker sees as reflective of a growing national maturity.

“New Zealand is increasingly comfortable in its skin, and I see that wherever I go, and tikanga Māori is just part and parcel of how things work,” he says.

“We’ve come a long way since the day Naida Glavish picked up the phone and got in trouble for saying ‘kia ora’.

“At the same time, those who might shrug at a pōwhiri look increasingly odd and out of touch.

“I’m an optimist and, like Mason Durie, who said ‘never have the aspirations and dreams and realisation of Māori potential been so close’, I believe that, once we get over our cultural cringe, and I don’t mean that as the typical Kiwi cultural cringe, once we get over our historical cultural cringe, it will mean so much for realising our country’s potential.”

Mai i te hunga pērā i a Colin Mantell, he rata manaaki i te hunga wāhine e kōpū ana me ō rātou whare tangata, me ngā hōtaka pērā me te Whakakitenga 2020, ko ia tētahi o taua hunga rata, inā ko taua unga he Māori, he Pasifika hoki.

Mai i tana rā tuatahi hei ākonga i rongo ia i te manaaki a te hunga rata Māori.

“Kei hapa ko tētahi, ēngari i tauawhitia au e te hunga pērā i a Paratene Ngata, Mason Drurie, Rāwiri Jansen, Peter Jansen, me Pāpārangi Reid.

“He ao tino rerekē te ao o ngā tekautau 1960, 1970 hoki.”

He pēhitanga pea kia puta tika te ihu mai i taua tauawhi, taea noatia te mana o te whānau, me ngā tau tekau mā whā ki te whare wānanga nō muri mai o te whakapōtaetanga i te tau 2007?

“Kāore kau,” ko tā Dr Walker.

“Ki a au ko te pēhitanga nui rawa mai i a koe anō. E mārama ana mātou te hunga rata Māori, iwi Māori rā anō, ki te whai i te ao pai ake, i te ao-mārama, ā kei runga i a koe ngā wawata o tō iwi.

“Mēnā ko koe te Māori tuatahi ki te mahi i tētahi mahi, pēnei me te tiamana o te Kaunihera Hauora, kia kaua rā ko koe te whakamutunga!”

Ka mutu, ka 45 noa ngā tau, kei runga tonu i a ia aua tūranga kaihautū? Kei runga ia o te Kaunihera Hauora, ko ia hoki i tōna wā te pe­rehitēneti o te Rōpu Rata Takinoho, ā, kei run­ga rā anō o Te Ohu Rata o Aoteroa (Te ORA).

“Kāore pea au mō te whakaae i te whakaaro kia kaua e riro i ērā e whai ana i te kaihautūtanga taua mana, ā, ko au tētahi e whakatōngā ana ki aua tūmomo tono. Engari ki tāku titiro, ki te tonongia au e te hunga mana nui ki a au, me mahi e au te mahi.”

Ko tōna pōtitanga i te Pēpuere hei tiamana o te kaunihera he tauawhi nā te rōpū nei i te haere ngātahi o ōna ahurea, he tauira. ki tā Dr Walker titiro, o te pakari haere o Aotearoa.

“E tau haere ana a Aotearoa ki tōna tuakiri, mea kite e au ki te ōwī, ki te ōwā. Ko te tikanga Māori kei aua takiwā he tikanga aunoa,” ko tāna.

“He putanga noa atu i te wā i raruraru a Naida Glavish mō tāna whakautu, ‘Kia ora,’ ki te waea.

“Waihoki te hunga e titiro korotaha ana ki te tikanga o te pōwhiri, e kitea wānuitia ana tōna nanakia.

“He ngākau rorotu nōku, pērā i a Mason Drurie me tāna, ‘hei aha koa ngā tūāhua o mua atu nei, kua tata pai ki te wā o te whakatinanatanga o te pito mata Māori’, e whakapono ana au kia ekea e tātou taua whakamaoko ā-ahurea, kātahi ka āta kitea paitia te pito mata o tēnei whenua.”

Ihumātao and Bastion Point

The Crown response so far to the south Auckland protest at Ihumātao contrasts starkly with the eviction of Māori occupiers of Bastion Point in the 1970s.

“Now we’re not through this yet, so let’s hold our horses,” he says, “but I think it shows that we’re growing up.”

Dr Walker recalls Ranginui Walker’s death in February 2016 being overshadowed by the death of cricketer Martin Crowe.

It’s not, he says, about who gets the most coverage. “Martin was a public figure, I get that.

“But then I think about the changes my grandfather wrought – he helped change the fabric of our society in subtle, yet inexorable and inevitable ways – and those achievements, while not necessarily obvious, are all the more enduring and almost taken for granted now.”

As for his role in continuing change: “I think we all have different roles at different times. Harking back to the Treaty, you needed people inside the tent signing the Treaty so we can all get along, but you also needed people outside cutting down flagpoles and saying ‘actually, that’s not good enough. That’s not right and we need to do better.’”

“Like equity, it’s easy for people to say it’s the fault of those dealing with disadvantage and inequity, like they’re turning up with kidney stones because they smoke, they’re drunk, they’re poor. Then you don’t have to look at the system we tolerate. Saying it’s their fault, that’s easy, but it’s the wrong answer.”

Ko tā te Karauna ki ngā whakapae i Ihumātao he rerekē rawa atu i tāna ki te panatanga o te hunga Māori i noho ki Takaparawhā i te tekautau 1970.

“Kāore ano tātou kia puta atu i tērā nō reirá taihoa koa,” ko tāna, “engari kei te kitea tā tātou pakari haere.”

Ka hoki ōna mahara ki te matenga o Ranginui Walker i te Pēpuere o 2016, me te nui atu o te aro ki tō Martin Crowe.

Kaua ko te nui ake o te whāinga atu e ngā pāpāhonga. “He tangata rongonui a Martin, e mōhio ana au. Engari ka huri te whakaaro ki ngā whakarerekētanga mai i te mahi a taku tupuna – nāna te aho o tō tātou pāpori i rerekē ai, nā tōna rauangi, nā tōna māia, ki tōna heipūnga – ā, ko aua mahi āna, he aha koa kāore ētahi i āta kitea, he mauroa, anō nei i ēnei rā he aunoa.”

Mōna ake me tāna ki tōna ao hurihuri: “He rere kē te wā, he rere kē te tangata, he mahi rere kē. Kia hoki ake ki te Tiriti, me noho ētahi ki roto o te tēneti ki te haina i te Tiriti me te ngākau māhaki, ēngari me tū ētahi ki waho ki te tope i te pouhaki me te kī, ‘ināhoki, he huarahi pai ake hei whai mā tātou.’”

“Pērā me te wairua tōkeke. He ngāwai noa te tohe ā rātou e titiro ana ki te whakaparahako me te takahi mōtika, arā nā te kaipaipa, nā te haurangi, nā te pōhara rātou i pāngia ai ki te mate tākihi. Nā, kāore he titiro ki te pūnaha me tā tātou noho mārire ki a ia. Heoi anō ki te kiia nā rātou te hē he whakautu ngāwari, ēngari, kāore i te tika.”

Stop blaming the most vulnerable

Dr Walker’s philosophy is to stop blaming the people who are the most vulnerable for their plight.

“So these evolutionary, revolutionary, progressive kind of tensions are always ongoing and can be very creative. I guess I’m part of that.

“I bring my own te ao Māori perspectives to the work of the council, and the council and institutional perspectives to my work as a Māori (renal specialist at Palmerston North Hospital) and with Te ORA.

“So again, I hark back to my grandparents walking in two worlds and the Māori who are doing that today, bringing worlds together and building understanding of each other.

“It’s a beautiful thing.”

Ko tā Dr Walker whakaaro me mutu te whakatuaki i te hunga e pāngia nui ana ki te whakaraerae.

“E whai wāhi ana au ki ēnei tūāhua, he takahuri, he pāhoro, he auaha, haere ake nei.

“Ko tāku he kawe i āku ake tirohanga o tōku ao Māori ki te mahi a te kaunihera, waihoki, ko ngā tirohanga ā-kaunihera, ā-manatū ki āku mahi Māori (hei mātanga mātai tākihi ki te Hōhipere o Papaiōea), me Te ORA hoki.

“Nō reira ka hoki ake nei ki ōku tīpuna me tā rāua hikoi ki ngā ao e rua, me te hunga Māori e pērā ana ki tēnei rā, he kukume i ngā ao e rua kia haere ngātahi, he whakapakari hoki i ngā māramatanga ki waenga i a tātou.

“Mea ātaahua rawa atu.”